Up and Out: Ambition in Blue


New York police stand outside 41st precinct. Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in New York. John Michillo/AP. Courtesy of Insider

In the month or so that has passed since George Floyd’s death we’ve had the chance to reflect on a fairly broad array of societal issues, including but not limited to: racial bias in current policing, possible criminality in some police behavior, staggering tone deafness in a huge number of municipalities, blatant hypocrisy in service to reflexive virtue signaling and too many other ugly realities of contemporary American life to fully list in the time that I might reasonably expect to remain amongst the living. Big enough to knock the pandemic off the front pages for a while, the event and all it’s sequelae have been flogged to death in the press. We are now, as a culture, so accustomed to the bludgeoning quality of the endless news cycle that the poor man’s horrifying, and in my estimation, unjustifiable, demise has gone from a source of crucial reflection to an almost second tier element in the rolling account of the fragmenting of the nation. What began as an earnest, righteous demand for law enforcement agencies to take a hard look at the way they operate and find ways to improve, has morphed all too quickly into a manifesto for the deconstruction of the country in it’s entirety. Which is, for me, both tiresome in the broad strokes and frustrating on a particular and personal note. Although not a front-of- my-mind subject, there is one potential area of police reform that has been a source of unsatisfied curiosity for me for years.

Without dwelling on it too greatly, I have on occasion wondered why it is that the NYPD does not have a supervisory position for experienced personnel to take, if they want to maintain their role as uniformed patrol officers. I’m aware that the force offers the opportunity to become a sergeant, lieutenant, captain, or higher and that those ranks do not automatically default to a career in plain clothes. They do however, virtually guarantee that should a uniformed cop have the ambition and discipline to apply and qualify for advancement he or she will then be removed from the milieu of patrol work and repurposed into one of three alternative tracks (administration, investigation, specialty work). It’s not to say that any or all of those three modes of service aren’t valid ways in which to function as a police officer, but the fact that there is no way to be promoted without being removed from day-to-day community policing, serves as a constant drain of the job related intellectual capital that could be expected to accrue to people who spend years performing a job well enough to be considered for advancement.

It is true that a uniformed sergeant frequently remains in the field, but he or she will fill a role with supervisory demands that require them to remain on the move throughout the tour they are working on, so that they can be available to any officers they are responsible for. This necessary dilution of their attention serves them well in the discharge of the duties that befall them in what essentially becomes a hybrid position, but it eliminates the value added they could bring to a one-to-one relationship with a newer officer. It’s hard to really mentor more than a few people at a time in almost any task, and genuine learning experience requires a more than sporadic presence by the teacher. I suppose I’m thinking of more of a “lead patrol” ranking. The department does provide training officers for cops that are new to a precinct, but that’s a temporary accommodation, and so is of limited value. An experienced, trained figure who’s willing to trade enhanced accountability for an accompanying increase in base pay and decision making authority would provide a constant source of education. Whether on foot or in a radio car, the “lead” would provide a formalized chain of command at all times, and could set an active example for the less professionally mature officer, instead of being a second hand source of correction. It’s possible that there is a perfectly good reason that this sort of arrangement hasn’t been tried, but if so it’s one I am unaware of.

Working just off the top of my head here, but I don’t think there are that many other professions that operate this way. Hospital physicians can, and frequently do, make entire careers as chiefs of any number of specialties without ever entertaining the notion of an exclusively administrative role. Members of the armed forces have so long a requirement of service time before they are promoted out of field leadership positions (as much as sixteen years) that the possibility of the sort of situation described above coming into play for them is a non-starter. Friends that work as teachers and in the postal system inform me that there are “lead” positions available in those careers, allowing for impromptu lessons in how to do things, and what things one ought not to do. Watching something unfold in real time gives the person in the student roll the opportunity to observe subtle interactions that influence crucial decisions. It is, in short, the chance to obtain a guided experience; to go to school on someone else’s schooling.

There is an additional benefit that might be gained from the above proposed idea. By offering an opportunity for a different kind of advancement, the force would be placing some indirect, but real pressure on officers who’ve chosen law enforcement for the wrong reasons. It’s unfair to paint an entire group with one brush, but I don’t think I’m working in uncharted territory to say that some portion of the NYPD took the job because it was nothing more than a way to earn a living. Not that there’s anything wrong in thinking of your wallet when picking out a career, but considering the particular demands and risks of police work it would seem that being of service to the community should hold at least an equal place in a prospective officers motivations. Having a “lead” position to aspire to would allow a person to improve their quality of living by asking them to shoulder more responsibility without forcing them into an entirely different role. A chance to move up without having to move out. As much of a benefit as it would be to the right kind of officer, it would also serve as a passive and subtle rebuke to those on the job whose ambition is more likely to manifest in the form of overtime abuse. I’m not claiming that the mindset I just mentioned is a dominant one, but it would be obtuse to the point of blindness to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Having a way to make more money that also improves the performance of the force and upgrades it’s relationship with the population it protects is a win-win circumstance.

In closing, I thought I’d share a remembrance that is now more than twenty-five years old, but has stayed with me nonetheless. When I was a kid in my late teens and early twenties, I swam competitively. I was not particularly good, but I did stick with it through college. I swam for a number of teams, and so had a fair number of teammates. Without question, the one guy I think of as the most frustrating was Tim C______. Tim was a kid who had an easygoing nature. He never looked to hurt anyone, as far as I know, and never let the gap in talent between himself and the rest of us affect our relationships. And the gap was immense. Which leads me to the rest of the story. Tim was also an irritating pain in the ass. He made coaches insane and drove everybody around him to distraction. He goofed off at practice on a regular basis and still managed to be the fastest kid in the pool. His gifts and work ethic were so polarized that there isn’t any way to estimate how much he didn’t accomplish. As time passed we went our separate ways. At some point in my early thirties we ran into each other at a local bar and we spent a few minutes catching up. When we spoke about work he told me he’d become a cop. It was, all things considered, a bit of a surprise. None of that is relevant to this article, but what he said to me next, is. When I told him I couldn’t believe he’d ended up on the police force, he just grinned and said ”  ….. you know, white man’s welfare.” If you knew him you’d know he didn’t have any malice in his heart when he said it, but I can’t help but think that in jest he was being frank about his extended view of the next twenty or so years of his life. Do the expected minimum, work the system in his favor and call it a day. I don’t recall seeing him since, and so I can’t comment on what direction his career went in. I can say that as much as I wished him well, I was sorry to think that he’d chosen police work. Thinking of him now, I’d love to see the force adopt any change that might give someone like that a way to grow a little to everyone’s benefit, or give  second thought to the career in the first place.*


*My thanks to retired NYPD officer Neil Kessler for his help in writing this.

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