My Father Was a Bad Cop


Some years ago, a professor at Stanford University set up a mock prison on campus and recruited students to play roles as guards and prisoners. It was to be a two-week experiment, but within a few days the professor aborted the study because the student-guards turned vicious. To maintain power, they brutalized the student-prisoners whom they considered troublemakers. In like manner, some of the student-prisoners turned to collaboration with the student-guards in order to gain a scrap of control over their lives. The professor concluded that humans quickly learn to act according to their expectations of the roles they are given. This he called The Lucifer Effect.

I’m writing about this because after a week of non-stop news about the racial animosity gripping our society, I awoke at two this morning alarmed that the situation is unchanged—probably worsened—since I was a kid growing up in an industrial, blue-collar New Jersey city during the years that Puerto Ricans were first arriving in large numbers.

My father was a cop in that city. And a bully. I fictionalize him in a novel I’m completing:

Tony often came home at the end of his shift to describe his prowess at law enforcement. Like the dirty-talking woman he had to slam against a wall after he arrested her on a drunk and disorderly call. “She started swearing at me,” he told Antoinette. “She had to learn ya’ don’t talk to a police officer that way.” Or how he had kneed a young Puerto Rican in the groin hard enough to leave him doubled up on the floor of a holding cell.

“Maybe he didn’t know enough English to understand what you wanted,” Antoinette said.

“He was just making out that he didn’t comprendo,” Tony said. “I’ve seen him around. He’s a wise-ass Spic. Always gives me this stare like he wants to knife me. That’s how Spics are. They all carry knives. I opened the cell and gave him a little push from behind to get him to hop-to, and he turned around too fast, like he was gonna take a swing at me. So I shoved my knee up between his balls. He understood that pretty well.”

For my father, there seemed to be an endless supply of wise guys, drunks and punks—both male and female—who didn’t hop-to. He even made it a point to tell my mother and me how blacks have a particular stink about them when they perspire.

I didn’t get it. I thought my Puerto Rican classmates in middle school were cool guys with whom I got along just fine. I was crazy for a dark-eyed Puerto Rican girl named Rita. And my best friend during those years was Lawrence Dalton—a Negro, as we called “them” back then.

If I indict my Dad for his wrongs, though, I also have to point an accusing finger at myself:

  • When we were planning my wedding, my future in-laws refused to invite one of my friends because he was dating a Jamaican girl. Instead of insisting, I let it go.
  • When I was a cub reporter earning a hundred dollars a week, I drove a jalopy Cadillac. The police chief of one of the towns on my beat pulled up next to me at a gasoline station and called to me: “What are you doing in that nigger car?” Instead of writing a story about it, I let it go.
  • When I was brand new at IBM in the late Sixties and turning out the employee newspaper at one of their sites, the head of Personnel called me about doing a story on the fledgling diversity program there. He opened with: “We have to do something for the Boons.” Instead of reporting him, I let it go.

Prejudice is a form of bullying. I realize today that my father succeeded in teaching me to be a racial bully—not in my overt actions, but by my cowardly silence, by my benign bigotry.

Maybe by getting out of bed in the middle of the night to write about it, I am finally standing up and trying in some small way to right what has been so terribly wrong for so terribly long.




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  • John Roman
    commented 2016-07-10 16:08:42 -0400
    IBM’s effort was more cosmetic than real in many respects, so its lack of sincerity probably wouldn’t have set-off tsunami reactions if you had reported the idiot making the comment.
    Big Blue’s minority hiring overtures sought out and embraced those who appeared able to ‘fit in,’ much more so than its vaunted high recruitment standards for other hires. They were placed in high visibility low-to-no power positions; very well-groomed, very well-spoken ‘tokens’ who knew they were in way over their heads in Big Blue waters smart enough to ‘get it,’ and, to play along as the rewards were otherwise just fine…
    This came to light with a handful of them whom upon leaving IBM with glowing references, crashed and burned in their new corporate jobs – real ones – in lower Fairfield County. Going along to get along didn’t cut it any more.
    Much more admirable was Darwin Davis, who realized his job as a Chicago school teacher was never going to make him comfortable. He got into sales at Equitable Insurance, rising (on result$$$) through the ranks, to the top of the company. I believe he has been personally responsible for creating more successful minority executives than any other business leader.
    You may recall that my father died when I was sixteen. In order to earn my tuition money and help my widowed mother, I worked overnights at a bakery oh the west side of Stamford. I had to pass through a very tough neighborhood to get there. Becoming a minority is enlightening, to say the least. At the bakery I was the only primary English speaking white guy on the night shift. My co-workers were southern Blacks; guys from the hills of Puerto Rico who couldn’t speak Spanish properly, much less English; and a mix of Sicilians and Calabrians. The mainland Italians looked down on the Sicilians – something about a guy named Hannibal labarca and kinky hair.
    Did I get an ‘education!’ I also answered to “Chonnie.” Juan Grande, and Giovan…
    Never worked harder in my life – or with better people once we knew who we were…
    John Roman
  • Ana Lacey
    commented 2016-07-09 11:21:26 -0400
    Peter, thank you so very much for writing this piece. As a native born Puerto Rican who migrated to NYC in the 50’s I had my share of bad experiences. We lived in the Bronx and were one of the few PRs in the neighborhood, though that soon changed. I remember the Jewish ladies yelling at us,while we played at Crotona Park," to speak English you dirty Puerto Ricans". I was sassy even then and I would answer in English, I’m not dirty I just took a bath, ha,ha, and as I ran away they would commence to speak to each other in Yiddish. Or the time we were at my aunts Brownstone attending a family party and my dad was beaten up by a bunch of guys and thrown down the to the steps while he was coming back from the store simply because he was Puerto Rican. Mind you, my dad was a WWII decorated Army recruit, and witnessed unimaginable horror when his unit The 65th infantry helped liberate the camps, alongside the Russians. When I was at NY University hospital while doing my nursing clinicals a patient said to me "your so pretty, are you Italian or one of those dirty Puerto Ricans. I cried all the way back to the nurses station. My children are ItaliRicans and when I talk about what it was like back then, they are shocked.
    While some things have changed, some still remains the same. I argue with my non hispanic friends when they say things I find offensive, and though some get it, most don’t and usually say, “well I didn’t mean you”. Really?
    Anyway, thanks for your heartfelt unbearing of your soul.