Voices From Inside the System

‘I Was Told: Just Keep Your Mouth Shut’

This detective was pushed out of his department in a large metropolitan city for reporting police brutality

Photo illustration, source: Juanmonino/Getty Images

Voices from Inside the System is a GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience with industries that have a history of systemic racism and inequity. We asked them to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, or if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

This 37-year-old police officer served nearly six years in a large metropolitan police force before he was pushed out for reporting police brutality. According to a recent ProPublica investigation, the NYPD has near-impunity in deciding how it cooperates with investigations into police conduct. Many complaints languish without results. In 2018 alone, New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board reported receiving 2,919 complaints of officers using physical force, which involved punching, shoving, kicking, or pushing. The officer spoke with journalist Haley Cohen Gilliland about his experience.

I’m half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican. My mom’s from Puerto Rico, my dad was from New Jersey. Both my parents were New York City cops. My dad got hurt when I was really young. He walked into a bodega that was getting robbed and got his skull bashed in with a baseball bat. He ended up getting a mandatory retirement because of it.

As a kid, I used to get into trouble here and there for fights and cutting school and stuff like that. I had a reputation for being a prankster. But all my life I knew I wanted to be a cop.

To this day it sounds juvenile, but I always liked the idea of helping people. Knowing the work I did somewhat made a difference. I took the test to become a cop on September 11, 2008, and I got hired in November. It was insanely fast.

At the time I joined, everybody and their mother watched The Wire. When I was doing my processing, I met this guy Juan. And Juan’s like: “How many of y’all motherfuckers have seen The Wire? All right. For all you motherfuckers that seen that shit, it’s just like that in real life.”

So I remember watching it while I’m in the academy being like bro, there’s no fucking way [this is realistic]. And then I remember my first week, I had two foot chases. There was a car chase and stuff like that.

As time went on, you could see the differences of things. You could make an arrest and lock up a guy who was selling drugs on a certain street where you didn’t see any kids playing on the sidewalk. And then the next thing you know, if you ride through the same block two hours later, you’ll see kids on bikes. In the grand scheme of things, did I do something to really combat crime? Maybe not. But at the same time, I made it easier for that kid that day.

There were times I had doubts. There was one guy I pulled over for speeding. He was driving with his nephew. I asked him, “Yo man, you got anything in the car you ain’t supposed to have?” And the dude took a really deep breath. And I was like, “Dude, is it a gun?” He was like, “No, hell no.” And I was like, “All right, dude, if it’s not a gun, all that other shit we can work out.”

He had some weed in the car that he owned up to. I had a sergeant with me in the car and he wanted me to lock up the nephew, too. And I told him, “Dude, I’m not going to take this kid to jail. His uncle’s admitting it’s his. Why am I going to fuck this kid’s record up? I’m not doing it.”

But what really shook me was another incident. I was on a patrol with the worst fucking cop. He’s still there. He had drug use out the ass in his background.

We pull up, and there’s a crowd of people surrounding this one guy. And you see this guy literally holding the clear plastic bag that had the pills in it. He takes the bag, throws it over the fence, and then just takes off running.

Then a 911 call comes out. A lady called the police because the guy had kicked in the back door of her home and ran in her basement. The cops go in, they arrest him. No big deal.

Then another guy comes. Unbeknownst to me, he’s an off-duty cop who patrols the west side of the city. Later, it surfaces that he was having an affair with this chick and she called him when the guy broke down her door. The off-duty cop has one of those warm-up jackets; he takes it off and then the officers push the guy they just arrested back in the house.

I heard a brief tussle. And then when the guy came out, his shirt was ripped, and he was limping. I found out the next morning that they had to take him to the hospital because he had a broken ankle. I was told: “Look, you’re going to get questioned eventually. Just keep your mouth shut.”

So I waited a couple of days, but it wasn’t sitting well. There was a state attorney I was close with and I set up a time to go see her and I tell her what happened.

I thought that there would be pushback, I just didn’t expect it to be what it was. There were two times that I called for backup from another unit and I never got it. One guy called me a rat. I got put on stupid jobs, like burglary details for areas where they didn’t have burglary problems, where we would basically watch alleys for eight hours a day. Then they opened an investigation into me. They called my best friend, who was a supervisor, in to internal affairs and questioned him for three and a half hours. After, he came to my house. He looked at me and said: “I love you like a brother. It’s killing me to tell you this, but you need to get the fuck outta here.” I was like having trouble looking at him because I was getting choked up and I knew what he was saying was true.

Eventually, it came to the point where I was like, “Okay, fuck it. I’m just going to resign.”

Looking back, it cost me even more than I thought. They came after me to try to make it so I couldn’t get a job. Ultimately I did but it was far away. I was really close with my mom. Mom ended up dying, and I missed those last five years. I could probably count on two hands all the times I saw her. So I went from being a 2.5-hour drive away to being like a fucking four-hour plane ride and barely getting to see her.

All because I wanted to be a cop so bad, this was the only place I could be a cop, and so I went and did it.

In my opinion, you get one of three people that become cops. You get guys like me who want to help people. You get other people that it’s just a job to them. They do their time, they get a good pension, they have good benefits, and that’s what it is. And then you get the other guys who got picked on as kids in school and they think a gun and a badge is going to make people respect them, and they have little man complex.

The George Floyd incident was just fucked up. From what I saw in the video of his arrest, the cop was an arrogant dude on a power trip. Because everybody was telling him to let Floyd up, it seemed like he was trying to prove a point. He didn’t let up. And Floyd lost his life because of it.

I’ve had to shoot somebody before. I try not to second-guess people, but in that situation, I’d ask myself: Would I have reacted that way, or would I definitely not have done that? In the Floyd situation, I can say 1,000% I wouldn’t have done that.

People ask me, “Do you think cops are racist? Or do you think cops just need more education?” I tell them all the time, I would rather have a guy with a fucking GED that’s from the city or was in the military or something like that, with some sort of real-life experience than a guy that just went to college for a bunch of years who’s never been in a fight before. Those are the guys that tend to overreact. Next thing you know, you’re in a fight with somebody, you have a gun, you don’t know what else to do, so you’re always going to go to the great equalizer that you see — the gun.

Every test that I’ve taken for every other agency is pretty much the same. You take a bullshit, random test. You do a stupid-ass interview, pushups, situps, and a run. There’s no test that we do to test a person’s heart.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Writer. Words in @nytimes , @natgeo , @Outsidemagazine @VanityFair. Previously covered the American West + Argentina @TheEconomist . www.hcgilliland.com

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