'Training Is Not The Problem' In Strained Community-Police Relations

Dec 4, 2014
Originally published on December 4, 2014 6:47 pm

Noel Leader worked for the New York Police Department for more than 20 years, witnessing firsthand the racial tensions between the community and the police, and within the department itself. He left and founded "100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care." He speaks with Audie Cornish about ways to improve community-police relations following an outpouring of anger at the shootings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Garner's death, the death of Michael Brown IN Ferguson and the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland have pushed the question of how police do their jobs to the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement.

BLOCK: That's President Obama speaking yesterday.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next guest has given a lot of thought to what police are doing right and wrong and what they can do better. He's retired New York Police Department sergeant Noel Leader. He served in the NYPD for more than 20 years, and he's the founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. I asked Mr. Leader if he had the president's ear this week, what he would say to him or to Attorney General Holder that would help gain trust and accountability.

NOEL LEADER: Well, I would encourage them to not only give wordplay to this problem which has been systemic during both of their tenures, but to be honest and sincere about making local police departments accountable to their citizens. And he has the power - the presidency - he has the highest prosecutor in the country. So he can put some pressure to make sure that he forces police departments throughout the country to actually make certain that they're protecting their citizens according to the law.

CORNISH: Now, you do have an insider's view of the relationship between the district attorney and the police, and you've been critical of it. And, you know, can you talk a little bit more about that relationship and how it can be problematic when it comes to investigating questionable police actions?

LEADER: Well, because of the incestuous relationship between the district attorney's office and the police - you know, they work hand-in-hand every day on every - practically every criminal case. Police officers are evolved - involved, and they work hand-in-hand with the district attorney. Therefore, our organization, which is comprised of police officers, states that in these controversial police shootings, the district attorney should be removed because of the incestuous relationship. And we should have a special prosecutor investigate these shootings. Over the years - and in particular, these two latest incidents in Missouri and New York City - you see where the district attorney, who can indict a ham sandwich whenever they want to indict a ham sandwich, failed to get an indictment in two cases that are very much problematic. And we believe because of the relationship, there's a lack of will to get indictments of police officers because of their close, close, very close relationship.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, on the police side, you were a training supervisor with the NYPD for a time. Is there a specific training you think local departments should be emphasizing right now?

LEADER: Well, you know, it's always amusing for me to hear commissioners throughout the country talk about training after we have a horrific incident. New York City Police Department's one of the best-trained departments in the world, I would go to say. A lot of departments come to New York to receive training. So it's always comical for me to hear the police commissioner or the mayor to talk about training.

Training is not the problem. We have a problem of racism within law enforcement as it relates to communities of color. You know, some of these horrific incidents only occur in communities of color. And officers that get trained in the police academy are dispersed throughout the city. How come it's not happening everywhere?

CORNISH: What is it like for you to be a black police officer in this moment?

LEADER: Right. When I was in uniform, and sometimes a member of the community would spew out their anger on me, I didn't take it personal because I understood. And I observed what was going on, and I agreed with a lot of what they said. And many times, people in the community only complain at these egregious shootings 'cause police officers lock individuals up and shoot individuals, you know, periodically. And you very rarely see this level of outrage unless it's a grotesque shooting that the community really believes is unjust.

So a lot of times, I was sympathetic, but at the same time, I'm a police officer, so - though, there is a balance because I cannot ignore, like some of my co-officers would do, the passions of the community 'cause they were right. This was an egregious shooting. It was wrong. And the officer would be - should be prosecuted. And I'm not going to side with him just because both of us wear the same uniform. If it's wrong, it's wrong.

CORNISH: Noel Leader, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEADER: Why, thank you.

CORNISH: That was retired New York police sergeant Noel Leader. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.