I was 6 years old, playing with Tonka trucks in the living room. What’s cooler than being a construction worker at that age? Operating the huge machines. Wearing the hard hat. But on this particular day, when my father, a 6-3 and 260-pound hulk of a man, brought up my career aspirations, my answer changed. I’d been spending more time with my dad and his co-workers, and they’d become the coolest in my eyes. “I wanna be a correction officer,” I shouted. My father looked me in the eyes and said, “OVER MY DEAD BODY.”
This was 1993, and my father was an active correction officer. He had the respect of the inmates and maintained order at the the Brooklyn House of Detention, in downtown Brooklyn. It was a dangerous job back then and still is.
As a child, law enforcement ran through my family tree. My mother’s brother, Uncle Richie was a New York City police officer on patrol. He was a stout man, broad shoulders and charisma—plus he could drink you under a table. I emulated Uncle Richie and my father.
My friends from the projects felt mistreated, targeted, unnecessarily hassled—all things I had yet to experience.
When I got older and my feelings towards cops changed, I went back to the officers I originally trusted to try and make sense of my newfound resentment and figure out how to survive in a reality where some cops considered my well-being an afterthought—at best.
I’m black, from Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, and I grew up on a mostly Jewish block. My complex had its own security team. The nearby Division and Roberto Clemente projects were desolate and uninviting—my mom forbade my sister and I from visiting, but the allure of basketball courts, corner stores, and better hiding places during games of Manhunt proved to be too much. Devalle and Alvin, two teens from the projects who were just as popular as they were feared, taught me when to be tough, when to let things slide, how to earn respect. Games of basketball closed the socioeconomic gap. Where you’re from or what you have doesn’t matter, as long as you can make that jumper.
The prohibited trips taught me about disdain for cops. My friends from the projects felt mistreated, targeted, unnecessarily hassled—all things I had yet to experience. They didn’t know about my dad’s occupation, but I would have told them if it came up—being teased for it wouldn’t have occurred to me. I was the innocent son of a C.O. on my block; everyone knew my father. Security kept an eye on me. In the projects, I tried being invisible. I couldn’t afford to get into needless fights or other kinds of trouble—I already wasn’t supposed to be there.
Three years later, I learned my lesson.
I’m sitting in my dorm room, near the end of my first semester on a chilly night in 2006 at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va. Around 10:30 p.m. I order a pizza and return to listening to music alone on my computer. Thirty minutes later, a knock at the door surprises me. Usually someone would call you from the front desk and you’d come downstairs to collect your order. The pizza delivery guy comes to my door that night. I’m confused, but I pay him, take the food, return to my desk. It takes maybe 10 minutes before the banging at my door begins.
“OPEN UP, IT'S THE POLICE.”
I’m overwhelmed but of course I do what I’m told. I haven’t done anything, after all.
I open the door to three cops, with guns drawn. They’re so close to me, I recognize the make—Glock 9s. Like the one my dad let me hold, years ago, when I wasn’t facing my own death. Because I’m terrified, I throw the door back closed. The campus police officer in the front kicks my door hard enough that the knob punches a hole clean in the wall. Hearing the commotion, my RA comes to the door; a cop points a gun at her. With guns still drawn and aimed at me, they back me into my own room and cuff me on the thinly carpeted floor. My floormates walking down the hallway can see me being treated like a mass murderer.
Days later, I learned that my neighbors, two European exchange students, had fired BB guns out of the picture window in the hallway. The pizza guy saw them and, thinking they were real guns, reported the incident to the front desk. In the transmission from front desk to campus security, somehow this turned into “pizza guy was ROBBED on the third floor.” The campus police asked which room the delivery came from, and he said mine: 313.
Again, I learned that days later.
Then I hear one of the officers learn via radio that he has the wrong guy, that everything is wrong.
For the moment, I’m still in my room in cuffs and they’re asking me if I have any contraband. I’m a very quiet, shy, scrawny black kid. I hadn’t even had a drink at college yet; I’m not cool enough for contraband. Then I hear one of the officers learn via radio that he has the wrong guy, that everything is wrong.
They uncuff me. No apologies. I get a “We were just doing our job.” Except no—this isn’t “their job.” They completely misread the situation and turned my night into an episode of Cops. It’s not lost on me that they couldn’t shake the idea of “the black kid has a gun and robbed someone.”
Now I understood why my black friends in Brooklyn felt uncomfortable around cops. When they rushed me with guns, I expected to die and I wasn’t afraid—I was swept up in the moment. My mind focused on their instructions. The campus cops became my tormentors, authority that I could not afford to trust. The paperwork from that night lacked any mention of the guns drawn and aimed at me. The truth was manipulated before my very eyes.
I called home that night, after a lot of hand-wringing over worrying my parents. My mother picked up, her voice going from groggy to confusion to fear as we spoke. My father told me he’d be driving down to Norfolk immediately. Five hours and 15 minutes later, just before 7 a.m., he arrived in his Jeep, still visibly angry, with his close friend and fellow C.O., Fred, in tow. He told me he’d be suing my school’s police department; I was still just happy to not have been killed. Forcing my school to be held accountable didn’t strike me as that important. Dazed from the night before and bothered by the idea of transferring, I rode around with my dad and Uncle Fred. We visited the hospital for trauma evaluation, then had dinner. It was good to be with them, to feel safe. When they returned to Brooklyn that weekend, my father cried. I had finals to take, I couldn’t go now. He had to leave me behind.
From the night of the incident until the last day of the semester, two weeks later, I considered what leaving ODU would mean. I spent the last 30 minutes of my first semester in tears on a bench, telling my first college crush I was leaving her. My freshman year had been snatched from me, and inside I felt caught in a personal battle with the feeling of not letting it end like this. My biggest fear was my parents overriding my decision to stay. When my father came to bring me home, I told him I had to return to ODU—I knew it was the place for me. He looked me in the eye, paused for a beat, then gave his approval. Later, with the help of my mother, I convinced my father to postpone the lawsuit—I wanted to remain just a student, someone who wasn’t a target because of legal action against his school.
I grew up in a New York where cops killing unarmed black people was becoming part of the public consciousness. I remember, at 9 years old, hearing news reports about Abner Louima getting sodomized by cops on August 9, 1997. Ten days before my 11th birthday, Amadou Diallo was unlawfully killed by cops, on February 4, 1999. When I was 18, Sean Bell was shot and killed by law enforcement roughly 15 minutes from where I live. It was barely a week before I nearly became yet another dead, unarmed black man at ODU.
My father, Bobby Seabrook, spent 24 years as a correction officer/union leader. When I asked him about relations between police officers and young black people, he told me this story.
When I was about 14, in 1968, I had an issue with a white police officer. I was sitting on a chain that surrounded a public lawn in Astoria Projects, and the officer walked up to me and told me to get down. I asked, "What am I doing? I'm not doing anything wrong sitting on the chain." He said, "Just get off the chain!" I got off the chain, he walked away, and being a little set back by him ordering me to get off the chain, I sat back on it. He turned around and walked back. "I told you, NIGGER, to get off that chain. I'm arresting you for sitting on the chain." Even at 14, I knew there was no such charge. "I'm gonna cuff you," he said. I responded, "No, you’re not."
He walked me over to the housing precinct, and when I got inside there were black officers around who knew me. In Astoria Houses, most of us knew the cops by first and last name—they were very active in the community. One black cop was standing there, punching his fist into his open hand, looking at me, saying, "LET’S TAKE HIM IN THE BACK!" He was just trying to scare me, and he did a good job. Then he said, "Tell us what happened." When I told him, everybody turned to the white cop. They went off on him, right there in front of me. Then the black cops walked me home to the waiting arms of my father.
If they’ll speak to a black mayor like that, what would they say to a black officer? was my dad’s thinking.
Run-ins between cops and innocent black kids are nothing new. That happened to my father in the late ‘60s. The cops pulled guns on me over 30 years later. The difference is what happened after.
My dad was chosen by both the Department of Corrections and the NYPD, and opted for Correction because he felt the built-in racism of the NYPD would lead to a career-ending altercation (and there were more minority correction officers). He told me about a police protest in 1992, where racial slurs were hurled at Mayor David Dinkins and other council members. If they’ll speak to a black mayor like that, what would they say to a black officer? was my dad’s thinking.
My uncle Richie, a 25 year (and counting) veteran of the NYPD, agrees. According to him, relations between the black community and the police were in dire straits in his era, and still are today; however, in 1990, newly elected Mayor Dinkins put an emphasis on “community policing.” Community policing is just as named—a community is regularly patrolled by the same cops, building familiarity with the people living there. Mayor Dinkins’ term ended in 1993; he managed to lower the murder rate by 12% and major crime by 14% in that span. My uncle had this to say.
In the early ’90s, when Mayor Dinkins was in office, his police commissioner Ray Kelly followed a strategy with community policing. You had cops assigned to certain areas on foot, or on bicycles, and they would interact with the same people every day. Everybody knew their cop. If he was a decent guy, it came through; you couldn't put on a different face for that long a period of time. And if the cop was decent, people were calling him directly: "Hey officer." They're not calling 911. I remember being in a situation where I was in the middle of a group of school age kids, and even though I didn't need help, it must’ve looked like I did. So someone in the neighborhood called for assistance for me.
And then, as crime started to creep up a little bit and the number of police officers started to decline due to retirement, the NYPD moved away from community policing. When Mayor Giuliani came in, he wasn't interested in community policing—he was interested in driving down stats. The agenda of the police department changed. The high crime numbers came mainly from the poorer minority areas. Police went into these areas now to stomp out crime. The department came up with different strategies, like "Stop and Frisk," and they flooded areas with plainclothes police officers. You had guys jumping out of cars and just snatching people. After a while, that started to take a toll.
My uncle paints a picture of overreaction to an uptick in citywide crime by Mayor Giuliani, which led to a hyper aggressive police force. Removing compassion from policing in pursuit of lower stats doomed the relationship between black communities and law enforcement. “Stop and Frisk,” we know now, was highly ineffective and overtly racist. Constantly getting shaken down because of how you “look,” or the neighborhood you were in at the time, will never make for good police work. It does not build a climate of trust. But maybe that isn’t a concern of our police department.
This is an ideology issue. If you see people of color as lawless animals—as less than—your actions will be motivated by fear. God forbid you become an officer with these types of poisonous ideas in your head. Or say you become an officer as a person of color—you will experience pushback and may lose your life at the hands of your peers. Or while simply trying to protect your belongings, as Omar Edwards did.
Can things get better? According to my loved ones, yes. My father feels that the psychiatric evaluations that are part of becoming an officer should account for racial bias. Anti-bias training is beginning to spread across U.S. police departments, but the Justice Department only started supporting it in mid-2015. I don’t see why these changes can’t be implemented in my city and across the country. If I have family and friends who are also compassionate officers, I know other like-minded law enforcement professionals exist. Still, I don’t like walking past cops and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
Departmental audits of the NYPD conducted last year revealed that my city's police officers don't document compelling reasons to stop citizens. As the New York Times reported earlier this month, "More striking is that sergeants given the task of reviewing stop-report forms in many cases failed to note the officers’ deficiencies, or take steps to correct them, the report said." In the '60s, black cops stepped in to correct the behavior of the white cop who harassed my father. Our future lies in officers being held accountable, but it doesn't look like we're headed in the right direction. We've lost the thread of progress.
The black community’s issues with law enforcement is systemic and generations deep. This isn't just about one particular police department. Still, I remain hopeful that things will change in my lifetime, and if not, in the next. I believe that one day we’ll be treated fairly, as our voices have never been louder.