Officer Crawford is about as close to the average NHPD officer as you can get—he’s white, in his 40s, and from a suburb outside of New Haven. He works full-time, often the 4pm to midnight shift, sometimes even picking up overtime hours working the night shift before he goes home to his wife and two young kids. He grew up poor, with a troubled family life, and, as he recounts it to me, pulled himself out of poverty by sheer force of will. Officer Crawford is a tall and intimidating presence, and in the first five minutes of my ride-along, he’s already boasted of how many people he’s straightened out through fist fights. “It’s all about respect,” he tells me, “once you’ve pinned them down, they respect you as an officer.”
The articles I read in preparation for my ride-along used glowing terms to describe the NHPD, marveling at its successful implementation of community policing through strategies such as requiring new officers walk a beat, or section of a neighborhood, for their entire first year on the job. I was ready to meet an empathetic and enthusiastic officer who was fully aware of the problems of police violence and dedicated to addressing these issues in his area of patrol. Within minutes of meeting Officer Crawford, however, I learn I will get a glimpse beyond the immaculate image curated by NHPD public relations and into the lived experience of an officer whose views don’t always align with our expectations.
“What’s been the biggest change since you first joined the force?” I ask, hoping to spark a conversation about community policing.
“The only thing that’s changed in the past nine years is that now the government hates cops,” he says.
Our first stop on the ride-along is the parking lot of a laundromat, where Crawford has received a call about an “aggressive panhandler.” The panhandler turns out to be an elderly African American man, selling furniture along the side of the road. I stay in the squad car and watch as Crawford scrutinizes the man’s permit, making sure it’s legitimate.
“It’s not fair they do that,” he says as we speed away. “These people didn’t spend money on a storefront, so they shouldn’t be allowed to sell their shit in someone else’s parking lot.”
After only one stop, we head to a small police headquarters located in the middle of a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. “I just had my day off,” he tells me, “so I’ll be catching up on paperwork today.” I perch on a plastic chair in the corner and sip on a cup from the water cooler, staring at a map of murder locations that’s been pinned to the wall. Thirty minutes later, it’s clear I won’t be witnessing any more actual policing.
After a long period of silence, he asks if I have any family members who are officers. I tell him about my cousin who is enrolled in the police academy in Washington D.C. and this seems to put him at ease, as if he’s found a sympathetic ear. He starts to tell me about the job—the long hours, low pay, dangerous working conditions, and staffing shortages that plague the force, necessitating that officers work shifts alone rather than with a partner. They only get new uniforms once every two years, he tells me, and you have to save your “points” if you want to get a big-ticket item like a jacket.
Soon it’s clear that Crawford just wants to talk. He asks me about my family, about Yale, about my hometown. Though his tone is genial, I can tell he’s trying to see if I have any kind of personal agenda governing my behavior. Am I a closet Black Lives Matter activist? An anti-police crusader? A spy sent by the liberal media? Having seemingly confirmed to himself that I’m just an average Yale student interested in getting to know New Haven better, things get more personal.
As Crawford sees it, taking responsibility for yourself is the biggest difference between himself and the people he polices. He works long hours on the job; they sit at home and watch TV. He reads to his children after his shift; they let their kids run wild through the neighborhood and take up drugs and alcohol. He spends his money paying back loans and saving for his children’s future; they use it to buy expensive cars and flat screen TVs.
He sees the neighborhood residents as “generations of knuckleheads” who refuse to break the cycle of crime and bad behavior due to lack of motivation and generous government handouts. “These people don’t want to make an effort,” he says, “the government pays them so well they just stay home.”
I press him a bit: “Maybe there aren’t many jobs available in this neighborhood.”
“I drive thirty minutes each way to my job every single day. Why can’t they?”
Years on the job have made Crawford cynical. He tells me the biggest misconception new officers have is that by joining the force they’ll be able to save the communities they police from crime. He shakes his head at the naivete of new officers, telling me with pride that he is long past viewing himself as a savior. Instead, he sees his role as to crack down on violent and dangerous criminals, send them to jail, and hope they stay locked up for as long a period as possible. He speaks enthusiastically in favor of longer sentences for minors and for lowering the age at which a child can be tried as an adult.
Crawford views himself as an authority on the community he polices and the people who live there. He tells me that he can predict the type of people making a 911 call from the nature of the crime (Mexicans for domestic abuse, blacks for drugs and guns). “Do you think that might cause you to prejudge situations sometimes?” I ask.
“Oh I’m not biased,” he assures me, “I enter all situations with a wide-open mind.”
The job demands constant vigilance and suspicion, and often requires judging people as dangerous or harmless in a matter of seconds. Perhaps as a result, Crawford seems to see people as dichotomous—either good or bad, lazy or hardworking, criminal or innocent, us or them. “About 90% of the guys I see on patrol are just bad guys,” he tells me. He sees little hope for rehabilitation or forgiveness, believing that those he sends to jail will soon be out and “up to the same shit” after having served a short sentence due to a far-too-lenient criminal justice system.
Crawford places blame not only on those he sends to jail, but also on residents who haven’t committed crimes, believing they further criminal culture by hesitating or refusing to call the police when crimes occur. “We can’t help them if they refuse to help us,” he says. I ask if he thinks people might be scared that officers might react to the crime with violence. “It’s all distraction” he informs me. “These people try to hide their criminal activity by accusing us of police brutality. You know, most of the big Black Lives Matter activists are the parents of the children with the worst behavior.”
He brings up an infamous instance of police brutality that occurred on St. Patrick’s Day of 2015. A young African American girl was slammed to the ground outside of a Buffalo Wild Wings and suffered from a fractured arm and bruised head. Crawford tells me with disgust, “Chief Esserman went right to that girl’s’ house and apologized, didn’t stand up for his officer, didn’t visit his officers’ house.” It’s this kind of political posturing that Crawford can’t stand. He sees joining the force as becoming part of a fraternity bound by an unretractable oath—officers will enforce the law (often to the point of compromising their own safety), while citizens must accept the consequences of such enforcement.
Crawford tells me all of this in a conspiratorial tone, often warning me that his views may diverge from the public statements made by the NHPD. Because everything he has told me contradicts what I had expected to hear, I ask if he thinks his views are an anomaly on the force. “Absolutely not,” he says, “not everyone would tell you all this, but I know most officers agree with me.”
As Crawford lowers his voice, wary of being overheard, his blue eyes analyze me, searching for an opinion, a nod of agreement, a shake of the head. I look away.
Over the course of our conversation, Crawford has admitted to racial profiling, to excessive use of force, to almost every ill police are accused of across the nation. He’s shown little sympathy for victims of police violence and has admitted a desire to assert himself over those he polices. But he’s also come across as a principled man who is genuinely committed to promoting fairness, moving up through hard work and dedication, and enforcing the law. He cares immensely for his children, works hard at his job, and dedicates himself to embodying the principles of good law enforcement. His views did not develop independently; they developed as all our views do—through our personal experiences of the situations in which we are placed.
For Crawford, this is a situation in which he’s broken bones, been beaten up, and feared for his life, all in order to protect predominantly poor, black and latino residents with whom he naturally compares himself—wondering why he works such long, dangerous hours to support a lifestyle which he sees as similar or inferior to theirs.
Perhaps what he does not realize is that residents of the community he polices have similar concerns—they fear for their safety, struggle to support their families, and are often discounted by government and politicians. Crawford views residents as dangerous and unpredictable, yet residents may often have similar fears about him. He feels impinged upon by the government and by anti-police activists, just as many communities of color may feel victimized by the police.
Maybe the question is not, as the media has portrayed it, whether Blue or Black lives matter more, but rather why our society seems to undervalue both types of lives. Perhaps the divide lies in broken institutions: the underperforming American educational system, the lack of quality healthcare, the decline of unions, the rise of the prison-industrial complex. All these factors contribute to a situation in which two underserved, undervalued groups come to see their interests as inherently opposed, rather than as interrelated symptoms of the same underlying maladies.
As he drives me the twenty minutes back to Yale’s campus, an amicable silence sustains us. In the four hours we’ve been talking, we’ve delved into intensely personal subjects—our family lives, our political beliefs, our philosophies on life—and I feel as if I’ve emerged with a surprisingly deep and complex view of a man I’ve just met. I can tell he believes he has firmly convinced me of all he has said and that I will be a staunch pro-police advocate going forward. I step out of the cruiser and he pats me on the back, as if we’re old friends. “Write a book on me,” he shouts, as he turns the corner and heads back for the night shift.