Black Officers Say They Felt Isolated, Discouraged in Syracuse Police Force
A group of Black current and former Syracuse cops with more than 100 years of combined service say they agree with officer Brandon Hanks’ charges of racial discrimination in the police department.
By Chris Libonati
John Baggett, a former Syracuse police officer, says his experience at the Syracuse Police Department mirrors Brandon Hanks’. Baggett was nearly disciplined for calling out what he considered to be racist comments.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A group of Black current and former Syracuse cops with more than 100 years of combined service say they agree with officer Brandon Hanks’ charges of racial discrimination in the police department.
Seven current and former officers who spoke with Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard say department leaders have serious work to do to fairly manage, recruit and promote Black officers.
“He’s going through what we’ve all been through,” Grace Kelley-Neal, a Black former officer who spent 26 years in the department, said of Hanks.
Hanks, possibly Syracuse’s best-known cop, brought a bombshell legal claim in June that charged that department middle-managers blocked him from assignments because of his race. Hanks alleged his bosses were wrongly suspicious of his background as a Black man in his hometown.
The current and former officers interviewed by Syracuse.com generally agree: Hanks is right.
Those officers said the department has failed to hire and promote enough Black officers, created a racially hostile workplace and disciplined Black officers more severely than white officers.
The inability to fix internal bias, intentional or not, hurts the community, they said. It makes the city harder to police, and it damages relationships between the department and its most policed communities.
“It’s not a majority of the white officers that are like that,” said Leon Saddler, an officer in the department for nearly 20 years. “It’s just a small minority that keeps it going.”
The current and former officers revealed their lack of trust in the department leadership that mirrors the distrust residents expressed here when they marched against police brutality last summer after George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota.
These officers describe a cyclical problem: Because of a culture of bias, the department fails to hire Black candidates. Those who get hired rarely get promoted. Those in power remain mostly white. The process repeats.
Over the last 20 years, the number of Black officers has remained consistently low; 9.5% of all officers in the department are Black. Three of the 82 officers in the command structure are Black. Six of the 93 sworn officers in its investigations bureaus are Black.
These are problems Police Chief Kenton Buckner said the department is trying to fix. During his tenure, 14% of hires have been Black — an improvement but still not enough, he said.
Buckner said he hasn’t experienced the same unwelcoming atmosphere the officers describe but that being Black in the command structure can be isolating. Buckner said he is often the only Black officer in the room when big decisions are made.
He said the department has plans to fix that, too. The department recently had its recruiting, retention and promotion practices audited. It plans to change the promotion process to include an evaluation of candidates’ on-the-job abilities, beyond just the civil service exam.
“Some of these historical frustrations, because I am Black, people think that I can walk in and wave a magic wand and turn around the Titanic on a dime,” Buckner said. “It’s not possible. Nor should anyone expect me to do that overnight. It is fair to expect me to understand those things and to give a genuine listening ear to the complaints when I hear them and to genuinely look into those things.”
The legal claim filed by Hanks, which preceded the lawsuit his lawyers say they intend to file today, laid out what Black officers have said for years about the department, those officers told Syracuse.com.
In the claim, Hanks alleged the department cultivated a “Jim Crow culture.” It pointed to a memo written by Capt. Timothy Gay that was intended to keep Hanks off an all-white gang task force. The memo contended Hanks is affiliated with gang members. Gay cited Hanks’ interest in rap music as evidence.
“If the department would’ve been a more level playing field,” Saddler said, “it wouldn’t be going through the issues it’s going through right now.”
The N-word and the response
Like many U.S. departments, the Syracuse police have faced such complaints for years.
Seven years ago, two high-ranking SPD officers were deposed for a federal lawsuit filed by community service officer Sonia Dotson.
Then-Captains Joseph Sweeny and Richard Trudell were questioned about their use of the N-word.
Sweeny said he had used the word on duty, in front of subordinate and superior officers, though not with the intent to demean officers.
Trudell, who was later dropped from the lawsuit, testified to having used the word in the past and not while on duty.
John Baggett, a Black officer who spent nearly 22 years with the department, saw the statements as admissions. By then, he had become a repository for complaints by Black officers.
The depositions concerned Baggett and others because they believed it hinted at the attitudes the high-ranking officers harbored toward Black residents and officers.
When he realized the captains wouldn’t be punished, he wrote letters to Trudell and Sweeny.
“I’d like to take this time to thank you, for finally putting a name and face to the word racist,” the letters began.
Then he hand-delivered the letters.
That set off a chain of events that led Baggett to retire months later, threatened with punishment for having written the letters.
“I said, You know what? It’s time for me to go,” Baggett said.
Trudell told Syracuse.com last week that he was not given a chance in the deposition to put his comments in context.
Trudell said he was referring to his use of the N-word and other slurs growing up in Northern New York as a teenager. He has not used them during his college or professional career, he said.
As he was exposed to different cultures and met people of color in high school and college, Trudell said, he learned the effect of the N-word and other slurs.
“I realized how evil and how negative those words are,” Trudell said.
Trudell said he is not racist.
In the last 20 years, at least two employees — officer Stephanie Irving-Linton and Dotson — accused the department of racial discrimination in federal court and won. Irving-Linton negotiated a settlement and a judge awarded Dotson $50,000.
Three officers, including Baggett, alleged in a 2012 federal lawsuit that the department failed to promote Black officers. They dropped the lawsuit, believing the issue would be fixed.
The culture has, at times, made the department an unworkable place for Black officers, according to several officers.
Saddler retired early. He used a benefit for those who served in the military to get his pension.
“I didn’t want to deal with the bullshit no more,” Saddler said. “I just got tired of it. I didn’t want to deal with it no more. It just wasn’t an environment you wanted to be in.”
The officers say they experienced not just blatant racism but crass jokes.
In his deposition, Sweeny tried to differentiate between jokes using racist language and using the word to demean another officer. A joke warranted a verbal reprimand while the latter required more substantive action, he said.
Sweeny also testified that he had heard that language in the department and used it, and that he had never disciplined someone for using it.
Until he retired in 2018, Sweeny was a captain, one of the department’s 20 or so most powerful officers — a similar position to that of Tim Gay. He was allowed to make recommendations for discipline and oversaw officers.
After Baggett delivered the letters, Sweeny asked that Baggett be investigated for insubordination, according to documents obtained by Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard.
Deputy Chief Joseph Cecile was among those who recommended discipline for Baggett. Trudell said last week he did not support that action.
“I don’t think John should have been disciplined for it. … I understand why he in just reading the testimony had a concern,” Trudell said.
Worried that he could be fired, Baggett chose to retire in 2015.
Work on hiring is ‘far from over’
Seven current or former city officers spoke to Syracuse.com about what they saw and felt in the department. Two spoke on the condition their names not be published.
Several said that if the department had improved its hiring and promotions, the culture at the department could be more welcoming to Black officers.
Five of the seven say they passed the civil service exam and actively tried to become sergeants. None was promoted.
Baggett and Esteban Trotman, the current president of the Black officers association CAMP 415, each had passed the test when they sued the department for failing to promote Black officers in 2012.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge David Hurd preserved a consent decree put in place 40 years ago to help SPD hire more Black officers.
In his ruling, Hurd wrote that the number of Black officers still lagged. He wrote that Black officers have “minimal representation” in the middle and upper levels of the department.
“The work of remedying the city’s past discriminatory hiring practices is far from over,” Hurd wrote.
Buckner and Trudell said the failure to hire and promote Black officers stems from a lack of intentionality rather than bias. The department needs to better mentor Black officers who want to get into positions of power, according to Trudell. Black officers need to see more representation in positions of power, Buckner said.
“We can’t do the same things we’ve always done and expect to have diversity in our workforce,” Trudell said.
Officers in supervisory and investigatory roles wield an inordinate amount of power, Saddler said.
Detectives investigate backgrounds of SPD applicants. If an applicant makes it to the academy, training officers have the power to determine who makes it through the academy or past their probationary period. Once an officer is hired, a sergeant is a direct supervisor.
While the chief may direct policy or big picture goals, sergeants and training officers often control how the department interacts with the public.
SPD’s two Black sergeants, Christina Garwood and Carlos Romain, were both promoted by Buckner. The chief also promoted a third sergeant Marcellus Roundtree, who is currently on military leave from the department. Garwood and Romain are the only two Black officers who passed the last civil service exam given in 2019, according to Buckner and a publicly available civil service list.
Romain took the civil service exam as early as the early 2000s, according to former officer Sheldon Lloyd. Lloyd said Romain passed then, meaning it took about 20 years to be promoted.
No Black officers are listed as candidates for lieutenant or captain, positions Black officers have not held in the department in at least the last 25 years. That’s partially because so few are sergeants, the next step down.
Lloyd and others said repeatedly being passed over is discouraging.
“Right now, you’ve got all white males running that department. You’ve got two black sergeants. That don’t mean jack,” Saddler said. “Who’s on that fourth floor running that department? Who are the captains running the different divisions and the lieutenants running the units?”
When to go into ‘police mode’
SPD’s failure to hire Black officers hurts Black residents, the officers said.
Most officers interviewed recalled having to de-escalate disputes between white officers and Black residents who had called the police.
“(Some white officers) want to let everyone know they’re the police,” Saddler said, “so they want to just start disrespecting people.”
Baggett agreed: “If you’re not shown that this is what you should do first before you go all police mode, you just go in all police mode right out the gate. Yeah, the Black community’s feeling that wrath.”
Training can help, Baggett said. Joe Shanley, a white former officer, taught him he cut an imposing enough of a figure that his voice alone could get someone to comply, Baggett said.
Years later, Baggett said, he taught the same lesson to a white officer who he noticed liked to get “handsy.” The white officer thanked him when he retired, according to Baggett.
Both Buckner and Trudell said they see it as a benefit to hire officers who are from Syracuse, particularly those who reflect the community they police.
“We see that with officers right now who come from Syracuse. The people that they know, the ties they have, their ability to connect with a citizen on the street is different,” Trudell said. “… I came from a very rural community in Northern New York. My ability to come down here and interact in an urban environment, I had to learn a lot.”
Baggett explained his relationships came down to discretion. He felt Black officers, particularly those from Syracuse, were willing to give residents more of it.
He used to respond to East Fayette and Croly streets, near where he grew up, to break up dice games, he said. If he showed up and anyone picked up the money, he would arrest them. If they scattered, he picked up the money and gave it to neighborhood kids to buy ice cream.
“You get that with officers that are not Black. Absolutely you do,” Baggett said. “But not nearly enough.
“There’s a reason we have discretion, and it needs to be utilized.”
A need for empathy
Kelley-Neal said she knows how the department sometimes treats Black suspects, not just as an officer but as a mother.
Her son was arrested several times by the department. Once, her son called her to pick him up from the Justice Center after he’d been released. He had no shoes.
“However they find you, in your underwear or whatever, they have no empathy,” Kelley-Neal said of the department she once worked for.
In 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, Kelley-Neal wrote an opinion piece for Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard about the police brutality she witnessed working for the department.
“I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve had to stop officers from beating prisoners in handcuffs. I’ve even had to stop officers from putting their foot on prisoners’ necks while they were lying on the ground,” she wrote. “… I was told by a higher ranking supervisor officer once that I better join in next time.”
In 2016, her son, Roy Neal Jr., was murdered, making her the mother of a Black victim. His murder is unsolved.
Kelley-Neal said she feels the department is apathetic. Each year, she’s waited for a detective to follow up with her, even to let her know that there are no new leads. She says she’s heard from the department once — when she complained to Buckner about the lack of an update.
She would only hear from former colleagues four years later, after she wrote the op-ed, to tell her she had described a department they didn’t recognize.
“I’m a former officer. I’m a part of them, whether they like or not, whether they want me to be or not. I am,” Kelley-Neal said. “And when I look at my case and how I’ve been treated, I can’t even begin to think about how someone who’s not even a part of their fraternity is treated.”