A conversation with Ben Tucker, former first deputy commissioner of the NYPD.
In the wake of the Tyre Nichols killing, in which five Black officers in Memphis fatally beat a young Black man during a traffic stop, we reached out to Benjamin Tucker.
Tucker, who joined the NYPD as a trainee in 1969, has more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement, culminating in his service as first deputy commissioner for the department, a role from which he retired in late 2021. He was an officer on patrol; worked with the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board investigating police misconduct; and served as deputy director for operations in the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services.
Given his long career as a Black officer in a majority-white department and his role as a top-ranking NYPD official at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement demanded reforms, we wanted to glean Tucker’s initial insight on the Nichols killing.
Vital City Managing Editor Josh Greenman spoke with Tucker late last week. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Josh Greenman: Why don’t we start by just talking about your reaction to the Nichols killing. Can you talk about how you reacted as a cop, as a lifetime public safety professional, how you reacted as a Black cop, and how you reacted just as a Black man?
Ben Tucker: I was stunned. I grew up in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy, back in the 1960s. And police-community relations were as tense then as they are today. And I thought, here we go again.
But then when I heard and I saw that the officers were all Black, that was on a personal level just abhorrent, I mean their actions are a stain, and a particularly visceral insult to people of color and considering the long history of strained police-community relations. I know it and have seen it up close and personal, both as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, and later as a member of the NYPD, where I witnessed the challenges facing the Black community.
As a member of the department, I believed that I could make a difference, that I would be the best cop ever, treating people fairly and justly. I thought my voice could resonate as a young Black cop with young white cops, who didn't really understand that their job as cops was to protect and serve people in every community.
As a public safety professional, their actions were stunning, invoking disdain and disgrace for a long list of Black officers who suffered under racist policies and practices, but who nevertheless persevered. As a young trainee and cop, I stood on the shoulders of people like Chief Lloyd Sealy; Chief William Bracey, the first Black police commissioner; Ben Ward and many others. The actions of these five officers are an assault on their legacies.
JG: How do you explain it to yourself right now? Of course, there's a lot we still don't know about what might have motivated these five men to do what they did.
BT: What I know at this moment is that they had very little time on the job. So, you have the blind leading the blind. I think that what happened was, they didn't have anyone, there didn't seem to be much supervision.
I believe the issue of supervision is really critical. And the culture of the agency might have played a role in why these officers felt comfortable in doing what they did.
Moreover, the fact that they were selected with little experience to be assigned to the specialized Scorpion unit was a factor as well. You should not put young officers in sensitive assignments too soon, particularly without the proper supervision. They have to have some life experience on the street — interactions with the community, with the public — and learn the job the proper way.
At the end of the day, executive leadership must set expectations throughout the chain of command and hold officers accountable.
JG: What about level of education? Do you think that cops should have to have a college degree, or do you think that is beside the point?
BT: I was fortunate to attend John Jay College while working toward my undergraduate degree. The tuition was paid for, as it was for so many other officers back in the late 1960s and into the ’70s, through the Safe Streets Act, following a Kerner Commission recommendation.
Noting that the vast majority of police in the country had nothing more than a high school diploma, the commission reasoned that if police officers earned a liberal arts degree, it might enlighten and sensitize them.
Does a college degree make a better cop? I think it would be unwise to suggest that it makes you a better officer. There are many more factors that go into what makes a good cop, but it is not a given that someone who has a college degree, or even a graduate degree, will be a well-rounded cop.
JG: These five cops: If you evaluated their work on the job before this beating, do you think there are ways in which they were not bad cops, or even good cops?
BT: I wouldn't assume they were bad cops, because there are lots of good cops who do really dumb things, and bad things, in the spur of the moment. This was almost like a mob. Without supervision and no governor on their actions, no officer in that group of five stood up to the others and said, “Hey, lighten up, stop it.”
One acted and then the other acted, and then they fed off of each other. And so that becomes dangerous, and that's happened in the past and that is why training is important. But more than that, the notion of supervision is critical. At the end of the day, executive leadership must set expectations throughout the chain of command and hold them accountable.
Keeping any community safe is a shared responsibility. So, solving problems means working with the community, not doing things to the community.
JG: What does it tell us about the limits of body camera footage, other kinds of footage?
BT: I believe in the efficacy of body-worn cameras. When I came back to the NYPD, Bill Bratton and I spoke about this, and we were both fans of and advocates for body-worn cameras. They level the playing field in these encounters, as long as you have the policies in place, and as long as those policies are followed. And one of the ways you ensure they’re followed is by having better supervision.
But these five officers represent classic examples: they knew they were wearing body-worn cameras, and still, they thought it was okay to do what they did, to viciously beat Tyre. And so that suggests a whole host of things in terms of their maturity, their character perhaps as well.
JG: You started as a cop in 1969, and you hinted that there wasn't much sensitivity in policing in the Black community back then as compared to today. But over the same period of time, some would argue that we’ve seen the rise of the “warrior cop” — specialized units that fail to partner with the community but instead arguably act upon the community. How do those two trendlines intersect and interact?
BT: There are 18,000 police departments in this country. and on average there are something like 15 officers in many if not most of these departments. Your question shines a bright light on the complexity of the nature and quality of how they police their respective jurisdictions.
I strongly believe that culture is a major factor in how any given department ultimately is at the heart of how they engage the community. The very reason police exist is to keep people safe. But it is also true that keeping any community safe is a shared responsibility. So, solving problems means working with the community, not doing things to the community.
A milestone was when Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1994, which among other things created the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS). I served as one of the first deputy directors to stand up the office under President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno.
That was the seminal moment, I think, in professional policing, moving away from what could be described under the warrior rubric, numbers-driven policing, toward a community-oriented policing model based on evidence-based, problem-oriented policing.
With respect to the NYPD, you will likely recall the stop-and-frisk challenges that lasted for almost a decade, under the Ray Kelly administration, when hundreds of thousands of stops of Black and Brown young men led to litigation and the appointment of a federal monitor. The policies and practices supporting this approach to bringing crime down could fall under that rubric of “warrior”-based policing.
Training has to be continuous, it has to be relevant and it has to morph to meet new and emerging issues as a result of changes in the law, policy, crime patterns, counter-terrorism, new technology, climate and challenges in society.
JG: You spent a lot of your career thinking about and implementing police training. Do you think there's something that a lot of departments get wrong about training, an insight that you think you have that a lot of departments don't? Can you also speak to the limits of training? Even if you had the greatest training in the world, what could it still not accomplish?
BT: Well, two things come to mind. One is training, which is indispensable and should be continuous and evolving. Meaning it doesn't end with entry-level, recruit training. We try to recruit the best people, and we make sure they're qualified psychologically, and all of those things.
But in-service training is equally if not more important. When I returned to the department in 2014 to join Bill Bratton’s team as deputy commissioner of training, my first order of business was to design and implement a field training program for every new graduate of the police academy. When they graduate and get their assignment in the field, they are assigned a senior officer, a Field Training Officer (FTO) who can guide them, who can make suggestions, who will observe them taking police action or performing other tasks doing the job.
So, training matters, but it has to be continuous, it has to be relevant and it has to morph to meet new and emerging issues as a result of changes in the law, policy, crime patterns, counter-terrorism, new technology, climate and challenges in society. For example, we trained all 36,000 members of the NYPD in implicit bias. We wanted to educate our cops that all of us have biases, and not everything is overt.
Then, of course, there are tactics. Six months after I returned to the department, Eric Garner was choked and died at the hands of one of our officers. And while we were rolling out the field training program to get it off the ground, we had to pivot immediately to re-train the 22,000 in our patrol services bureau in tactics, reminding them of the prohibition on the use of chokeholds.
JG: What about the role of police unions? Are they a counterproductive force when it comes to truly professionalizing departments and holding officers accountable?
BT: If you're running a department, it is imperative that you find a way to build trust and work with the unions in ways that allow you to implement your policy. If you choose to ignore them, you do so at your peril. Unions can be a real obstacle, or they can assist you in implementing new policies, handling discipline, introducing new technology such as smartphones or body-worn cameras or working with the federal monitor, as we implement court-ordered remedial measures.
JG: If it's not been a straight line of progress, why not? What else needs to happen to complete the evolution of the department and its attitudes toward young Black men primarily?
BT: It's a complex question. The way to think about policing is that it is sort of this organic thing, and there are many different pressures on the job. You have politics, you have racism, you have people's attitudes who are police officers, and a whole range of issues, and whether or not the training is adequate, but also the dynamic of new administrations and the culture where officers felt empowered to engage in the use of physical force, for example, and in doing so felt like that was what was expected of them by their superiors.