March 6, 2021

Professional employees told me some great stories


Dear PERF members, 

To judge by the feedback I received, last week’s Trending column really struck a nerve. I talked about how “civilians” in policing are too often under-appreciated, and I suggested that police agencies try to get away from the traditional sharp distinction between “civilians” and “sworn” members. 

And I suggested that we should have new terminology to mark this shift.  Instead of calling employees civilians, why not call them what they really are?  They’re professional staff members. 

This shift in perspective is already happening in many agencies, because of what the top leaders are doing. Officers, supervisors, and commanders take their cues from what the chief or sheriff says and does. That is evident from some of the responses I received:

  • Punta Gorda, FL Police Chief Pam Davis sent me an email saying she already made the change in terminology.  In fact, she said one of the first changes she made when she became chief three years ago was changing the title from civilian to professional staff.
  • Yonkers, NY Police Commissioner John Mueller forwarded my column to several of his top commanders.  “I would ask each of you to send this to every one of your civilian staff, or better stated, your professional staff, as Chuck puts it,” he said. “And let them know that I couldn’t agree more.” 
  • Colorado Bureau of Investigation Director John Camper sent my column to all his managers, saying it reminded him of something he has told them before:  “Apollo 11 put the first two men on the moon, but it took thousands of men and women to get them there.”

I wanted to delve deeper into this topic, to get a better sense of what makes professional staff members tick, and how they  contribute to their agencies. I was talking about it with John Miller, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism at the NYPD, and he suggested I talk to three unique members of the department. Their stories show how fortunate we are to have this level of experience and commitment.

Their backgrounds are unique and reflect the variety of experiences that professional staffs bring to their agencies.

Before joining the NYPD, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Ernie Hart served as a prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney’s Office, as a criminal court judge, and as chair of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board. “With my background as a prosecutor and judge and with the CCRB, I had a good overview of how the criminal justice system works,” he said. “And being from southeast Queens, and being black in America, I’ve experienced firsthand some of reasons that people complain about the police and the justice system.”

Assistant Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism Rebecca Weiner was a star at Harvard University and Harvard Law School. She could have gone anywhere with those credentials. But fresh out of law school, she happened to attend a speech in 2006 by Ray Kelly, then Commissioner of the NYPD, who discussed a counterterrorism program that he was getting off the ground.

“I went up to him after the talk and said, ‘I just graduated from law school.  Is there any room in this new civilian cadre that you're putting together for somebody with my background?’ Eight weeks later, I was at the NYPD, starting off as a civilian analyst.”

On the other hand, Deputy Commissioner for Support Services Robert Martinez is a life-long NYPD member. He started with the department in 1986 at entry level, as an assistant mechanic, and worked his way up. Today, he is in charge of the NYPD fleet of 10,000 vehicles, as well as maintaining evidence, central records, including fingerprint and criminal records, and other operations. He has 800 employees and a budget of nearly $180 million. 


These three have vastly different backgrounds, different skill sets, and different life experiences with the police. They don’t represent all of the professional staff in the NYPD or policing in general.  And there are others who deserve recognition, whom I hope to highlight in the future.  But these three provide an interesting view of how some professional staff get into policing and the many contributions they make. 

And they had some interesting perspectives on their work and the work of professional staff in general.

First, they told me that the distinction between “sworn” and “unsworn” is mistaken. Everyone is sworn to uphold their duty. 

As Commissioner Martinez said, “I go to conferences and events and people ask me, ‘Are you sworn or not?’ I tell them, ‘I took an oath. I had to swear that I will enforce the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York. So I consider myself sworn.’ What they really wanted to know is whether I can arrest somebody. But I always break their chops a little bit about it.”

Second, they said that the diversity of skills and viewpoints they bring strengthens police organizations. 

Deputy Commissioner Hart said his outsider’s perspective can make the NYPD more transparent and effective.

“When Commissioner [James] O’Neill offered me this position, he basically told me what I wanted to hear. He wanted me to help make the department more transparent, to help our officers make informed decisions, to advise them that just because you can make an arrest doesn’t mean that you should make an arrest.

“As a judge, you deal with one case at a time, and you’re one of many judges. But I saw an opportunity in the NYPD to have a larger impact on criminal justice in New York City.”

Assistant Commissioner Weiner spoke of the synergy that can come when professional staff are teamed with sworn members.

“Our core mission is to protect New York City and its environment from terrorism. The basic idea is to marry up seasoned investigators who have spent years in this department on the street, with analysts like me, who come from entirely different backgrounds. To fuse the street smarts with the book smarts, working hand in glove as a team. The leaders pushed hard for us to be well-integrated, and it worked.”

And Deputy Commissioner Martinez demonstrates how a professional staff member, especially someone with a degree in engineering, can provide life-and-death value to officers on the street.

“While I was going up the food chain here at NYPD, I kept going to school. I got my master’s in executive management, but my undergraduate degree is in engineering.  

“At the time when NYPD cops started getting shot in 2014, a company that does ballistic-proofing of bridges had been trying to sell us some type of removable ballistic shield that went onto the side of a car with magnets.  So we started to look at this panel with an eye toward protecting our officers who were getting shot.

“I didn’t like the magnets. If we were going to do something like this, it would have to be bolted on.

“We also got some pushback about whether it would send the wrong message and take away from community policing if the car windows were always shut with heavy ballistic glass. But you know, when someone's going to shoot at somebody, they're going to shoot at what they can see. So we designed the shield to be like halfway, so the officer could still communicate with the public through the front part, but the silhouette of the officer’s  head would be protected. Now our marked vehicles and a percentage of our unmarked vehicles have ballistic panels on the front door windows.”

Deputy Commissioner Martinez, third from left, with Commissioner James P. O’Neill (left) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (right).

Here’s a tip that the NYPD professionals told us:  Professional staff members gain the respect of others in the organization not through their credentials per se, but by demonstrating their worth and value to the organization. 

Assistant Commissioner Weiner told a funny story demonstrating this idea:

“On my first day, a salty veteran Lieutenant brought me into his office and said very bluntly, ‘Don't think that just because you went to Harvard, you'll be able to cut it here at the NYPD.’

“It was sort of a kind-hearted but unsentimental joking-around. He was trying to tell me something, but at his core he was also embracing the fact that civilian analysts were coming in.

“It’s about appreciating that you can bring people together from totally different perspectives, present them with a problem, and work collectively to solve it. I think that there is something about the melting pot of the NYPD that's really conducive to using civilians in this way.”

It’s also important to realize that having diversity in a police department makes the work more interesting and rewarding for everyone.

Deputy Commissioner Hart said:

“I enjoy my job. It is somewhat stressful, particularly these days. But I think I'm helping to change the way policing occurs in New York City. I have no problem speaking my mind.  That's what Commissioner O'Neill wanted, and it’s certainly what Commissioner Shea wants.

“People are different, and nobody has my collection of experiences. For example, when I was a judge, there was a situation where a 16-year-old kid was arrested for taking up two seats on a subway. He had no prior arrests, and it was an uncrowded train.  He spent time in jail because he had no identification on him. As a result, that kid is not a fan of the police, and you can understand why. That’s an example of something I saw and how I can bring that experience and make a valuable contribution.”

I told Assistant Commissioner Weiner I was surprised that with her Harvard degrees, she’s still with the NYPD after 15 years. Here’s what she said:

“It's true, I probably could have made more money in another job. But I've had opportunities in my 15 years here that my colleagues from law school couldn't dream of having, as I witnessed firsthand the important issues of the day, in fighting the changing types of terrorism. 

“And I work with people who aren't just colleagues that you leave at the end of the day and don't think about. They’re truly family members.

“So embracing this culture of law enforcement is quite unique. And I'm extraordinarily grateful that I've been a part of it. Eventually, maybe I'll get another job, but when I do, I'll miss this one terribly. That much I know.”

These are just three examples from one agency. I know there are thousands more examples at agencies across the country, encompassing everyone from front-line employees to upper management. They are working hand-in-hand with their sworn colleagues toward a common mission: to make policing more effective and more just.


And finally, I got this letter from Peter Lennox, a former superintendent of the Toronto Police Service, about last week’s Trending piece:


This essay strikes to my heart.  When I was a superintendent on the Toronto Police Service, I fought an unsuccessful battle to have the identification cards of our unsworn members, which are always visible clipped to a shirt or a belt, changed from “CIVILIAN” in big letters to “MEMBER” in equally big letters.  My theory was that “civilian” was a term that excludes people, while “member” implies that the person is included in the family of the organization. 


I am sensitive to this issue because I started as a civilian member myself; I got a summer job at the end of my second year at the University of Toronto as a clerk-typist.  At that time, I had no intention of being a police officer; I wanted to be a high-school history teacher.  But I got bitten by the policing bug.


I knew there was a substantial disparity between sworn and civilian members, so I chose the sworn side of the house.


Through my career, I was very aware that I relied on professional civilian members, from administrators to analysts to psychologists, to do various jobs.  I didn’t like seeing them treated as second-rate members, but it happened. 


Now, my favourite member of the Toronto Police Service calls me “Dad.”  My daughter Joanna took her master’s degree in library and information science and crafted her skills to become the homicide analyst – civilian – that she now is.  I’m so proud of her that I could burst.


“Just a civilian.”   Bah.

Weekend Clips are below.