Noel Leader spent more than two decades as an officer in the NYPD. During his career, he experienced firsthand the racial tensions that exist between law enforcement officers and the Black communities they serve. In 1995, Leader co-founded 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care, as a way to give back to the neighborhoods he felt were being abused and misguided. Here, we talk to Leader about police brutality and what this country must do to improve relations between African-Americans and the police.
ESSENCE.com: What are your thoughts on the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases?
NOEL LEADER: In both cases, the police violated what is supposed to be our number one priority—the preservation of human life. Unfortunately, in the case of Mike Brown we don’t know too much, but the community’s response is an indication that they really believe this was unjustified. Fortunately, in the Eric Garner case we have a video of the police using a chokehold—an unlawful tactic and a direct violation of the New York Police Department guidelines—and are able to see exactly what happened. Had it not been for videotape, the official police explanation probably would have read: “There was an attempt to make an arrest, the individual resisted, and he succumbed to previous medical problems, i.e. asthma, heart attack, etc.”
ESSENCE.com: What needs to happen in federal law to forbid situations like these from happening again?
LEADER: The primary thing that has to happen is for these officers to get prosecuted. You have to send a message that excessive force will not be tolerated. The government needs to not only take them to trial, but to convict and to sentence them when it is apparent that they have violated the primary objective of each police agency—to preserve human life.
ESSENCE.com: The scene in Ferguson looks like a war zone. We’ve seen images of police in military body armor, armed with rifles, riding around in armored vehicles, using tear gas, etc. Do you think that police squads have become militarized?
LEADER: I don’t think they have, I know they have.... The response of these public servants to a civilian population is preposterous.
ESSENCE.com: What are your thoughts on the overall relationship between the Black community and police?
LEADER: The problem isn’t with the Black community; the problem is with the police force and their treatment of the Black community. People don’t hate police if they do their job and save civilians from harm. The problem begins when officers aren’t public servants, but become an occupying force. They become disrespectful, abusive—that’s what the community hates. Officers who act that way need to be terminated. Police departments also need to reflect their community. In Ferguson the community is 65 percent Black and the police department only has three Black police officers. That shouldn’t be tolerated.
ESSENCE.com: How has 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care worked to repair that relationship?
LEADER: It was important for the people to hear from Black police officers. We often feel the same way as our community, because we still have family members who are or could be subjected to police mistreatment. So we work in Black neighborhoods to get criminals off the street. We hold workshops to teach youth how to react when they’re pulled over or detained by police. We also try to get the facts out to the public when we know they’re being fed misinformation about high-profile cases. Every person is a potential juror.
ESSENCE.com: What will it take to end the unrest in Ferguson?
LEADER: Justice. If you have justice, then you’ll have peace. If you want this to stop, give the people justice.