If Black women are already invisible across the country in various fields of work, it’s not hard to imagine the type of erasure we face in a male-dominated, contentious field such as law enforcement.
But in New York City, among the boys in blue, one woman is taking on the heavy task of dismantling the normality of misconduct within the NYPD system.
As a Black female officer, Felicia Whitely is bridging the gap between two worlds — a feat in which she takes immense pride. Her soft-spoken presence and petite frame belie a formidable inner strength, built up over years of standing up to racism, even at the expense of her own career.
She’s part of the NYPD 12, a group of plantiffs comprised of officers who, having served decade after decade in blue, decided to take a stance against crooked policing by filing a formal lawsuit against the force.
Having been with the force for 10 years, Whitely took the oath to protect and serve to change lives, but quickly learned her career’s success was contingent on unlawful quotas and racism.
“They want me to hunt,” she told HelloBeautiful exclusively.
The statement is simple and disturbing. But not hard to believe in the current climate. In the last few weeks, the world has watched in astonishment as the national conversation surrounding police brutality has warped into a divisive battle between the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements.
In the face of unimaginable tragedies, like the brutal killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, followed by the murder of five cops in cold blood by a military trained sniper in Dallas, Texas, the schism between police forces and the communities they are paid to serve seems deeper than ever.
And in that cavernous divide, a multitude of questions linger. Questions as to whether the tragic deaths of these officers meant the erasure of the victims of police brutality who just lost their lives under the weight of the badge. Questions about how all lives can possibly matter if Black lives don’t. And, perhaps most concerning — if there are so many good cops in this country, where are their voices?
A small but critical chorus of those voices has emerged in Whitely and the rest of the NYPD 12.
Whitely told us that she was reprimanded in 2013 when she didn’t meet a certain quota during her shifts. She was required to make one arrest and five monthly “c summonses “(a minor infraction that must be responded to or it becomes a warrant).
“You’re on patrol a certain amount of days a month, and sometimes you just don’t see anybody committing an infraction, and they want you to get creative and make stuff up, and I’m not willing to violate someone’s civil rights for a number,” she described.
Within the quota system, minority officers were reportedly more heavily penalized for not meeting their numbers than their White counterparts. Some of the retaliation included losing overtime, the loss of eligibility for a promotion and the loss of independent contracts with security companies.
“If you have a White officer who hasn’t made an arrest in a year or two, he still gets overtime that is available to him. He can still come to work if he puts in for a position — he’ll get it. They won’t look at his activity,” she added.
Frustrated by the blatant bias, Whitely sought the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“I told them, ‘I’m a female and I’m Black, and I feel like I’m being discriminated against,'” she explained. The representative reacted by asking her to pick her status — did she want to pursue the case as a woman or as a Black person?
“‘I can’t choose,'” she said in frustration and withdrew her petition.
Soon after, Whitley called an attorney representing other officers who were experiencing the same discrimination and joined the group that would later be called the NYPD 12.
Media attention quickly followed the team, and the spotlight made Whitley physically sick.
“There’s a code. There’s a social culture within the department and, basically, coming out you’re putting a target on your forehead. I felt like I was at work being punished anyway. I felt like what else could they possibly do? I felt like someone needed to speak up,” Whitely said.
Her courageous voice comes into the fold at an opportune time, when distrust between African-American communities and cops is at a boiling point. Whitely seeks to use her uniform to continually work to repair this relationship.
“It’s a difficult time for police officers. For Black police officers I think it’s even more difficult, because you put that blue uniform on and you’re hated. Especially New York, nobody likes cops. People say, ‘If you are so good of a cop, why are you working there?'”
Whitely stresses that her role within the system is only to help those who are caught up in it.
“They don’t get it,” she explained. “The break that I may give a minority for a simple infraction, another cop won’t do it. The way that I see Black kids in a community, and how I feel about them, the officers don’t feel that way. I’m a mom … first. And I put 100 percent into the juveniles. If I see them cutting school or having altercations at home, I always pull them to the side and talk to them.”
She told the story of a woman she arrested last month for a domestic incident. On the way to jail, the woman told Whitely she has to go to work and was juggling two jobs.
Whitley told her, “I’m going to help you.”
When they got to the station, the woman started screaming about hating the cops, but instead of reacting angrily, Whitely held on to her commitment to help her.
Whitely called the woman’s place of work and worked something out so she wouldn’t lose her job due to the incident.
“People don’t see that about us,” she lamented.
With Whitley’s voice, and the voices of the entire NYPD 12, people are hopefully going to start to see. And together, in partnership with the community and the police, the better future we imagine filled with equality and justice suddenly seems within reach.