By Sam Bojarski
Last June, as thousands of New Yorkers hit the streets to protest police brutality and shout “Black Lives Matter” in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Detective Daniel Lefevre of the New York Police Department was on the other side of the barricades.
And being Black did not exempt him from the wrath of protestors, who came in all colors and ethnicities.
“Like every other cop out there, we were being verbally abused and sometimes, you’d see physical aggression could be imminent,” said Lefevre, a 19-year NYPD veteran. “Sometimes we feel like we get it worse than the white cops. I don’t know how many times I’ve been subjected to verbal abuse by Black people.”
As a member of the Haitian American Law Enforcement Fraternal Organization or HALEFO, Lefevre and many of his Haitian American colleagues have acted as a bridge between law enforcement and the larger Haitian community. What the Black Lives Matter and broader social justice movements have done is reinforce the need to carry out this additional duty.
Now more than ever before, groups like HALEFO can play a crucial role in rebuilding or maintaining positive relations between police departments and the communities they serve, law enforcement experts and members say.
“I think it was a wakeup call to most police officers to understand that all lives matter, but you can’t treat [someone] based on the color of his or her skin,” Lefevre said.
HALEFO president, NYPD Lt. Claude Celestin, concurs.
“[The George Flloyd killing] damaged the trust that we’ve built over the years with the community, so people start looking at you differently,” Celestin said. “Our job is to bring the message out and let people know that most police officers are here to do their job, and we want people to feel more comfortable when they see us.”
Dr. Alfred Titus, Jr., a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD detective, said fraternal organizations representing minority police officers have a responsibility to quell distrust in law enforcement.
A history of suspicion and distrust
The effort is an ongoing uphill battle, members of HALEFO and the community said. For one, Haitians have a long history of suspicion and distrust for law enforcement that dates back to Haiti. In America also, distrust runs high in the Black community overall.
Dr. Judite Blanc, a research psychologist and adjunct faculty member at New York University, said law enforcement has traumatized Haitians both directly and indirectly.
The widespread violence of the Duvalier dictatorship is a prime historical example, Blanc said. Today, an onslaught of American law enforcement images via social media also shapes Haitians’ perceptions. Seeing these images and videos tends to drive overwhelmingly negative views of police, Blanc said.
Between the Duvalier years and today’s media images, Haitians have also experienced police brutality as new immigrants in the U.S. After all, it was high-profile cases like the severe assault of Abner Louima that brought the issue of police brutality front and center in 1997.
After arresting Louima outside a Brooklyn nightclub, police officers repeatedly beat Louima, then sexually assaulted him with a plunger while inside the 70th Precinct bathroom. Two officers involved in the incident went to federal prison, but the saga left an indelible mark on the Haitian American community.
Emmanuel Alexandre Jr., 43, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, recalled hearing about the Abner Louima incident as a new American.
“It was being done to a Haitian person,” said Emmanuel Alexandre Jr., a Manhattan resident. “And then with it came all the politics of police brutality, [whether] it be dealing with law enforcement or dealing with the judicial system.”
Two decades later, tensions between Black communities and law enforcement are still high, as the protests in reaction to George Floyd’s killing have shown. In Brooklyn and elsewhere, Haitians have been visible during these protests and, in many cases, march while carrying the Haitian flag.
Community engagement born of tragedy
It was after the Abner Louima incident that Haitian American officers formed HALEFO as a nonprofit in 1997. Celestin said the goal then was to be a link between law enforcement and Haitians.
“People of Haitian background [who] lived in Haiti are very fearful of the police, they don’t know how to interact, and there’s also a language barrier,” said retired NYPD Sgt. Herve Guiteau, a HALEFO founding member, in recalling the reasons for the organization. “So we’ve always done community outreach.”
In 2018, HALEFO received official recognition as a fraternal group of the NYPD, a designation that comes with more access to NYPD resources for community engagement programs.
Given that, by Lefevre’s estimate, more than 600 police officers of Haitian descent work in the 36,000-strong NYPD, the fraternal group has a significant opportunity to make a difference in their community.
In 2019, his first year as president, Celestin said HALEFO put on more than 10 service projects and social events for members.
The projects, designed “to build trust and also to bridge the gap with the community,” Lefevre said, include breast cancer screenings in Brooklyn and delivering presents to families during the holidays, HALEFO has said.
Over the years, the efforts have had some impact.
Monalisa Ferrari, an educator and Flatbush resident, has partnered with HALEFO on a mentoring program at Erasmus Hall High School. Called “Law and Order in the School,” the program aims to educate students about and prevent them from joining gangs. Ferrari said she has seen a positive response from students paired with HALEFO officers.
“They were able to save a lot of my kids from gang involvement,” Ferrari said.
Ferrari said that having Haitian officers on the streets during events like the West Indian American Day Carnival on Eastern Parkway, has also helped prevent law enforcement from misperceiving cultural practices.
One such cultural practice is gagann, which involves staged, one-on-one fights between young men. More police officers working the parade route now know about gagann, thus defusing the need to arrest participants from misconstruing the revelry.
In precincts with large Haitian populations, like Brooklyn’s 67th Precinct, HALEFO members have helped increase understanding of Haitian culture among non-Haitian coworkers as well, Celestin said.
Black Lives Matter calls for deeper engagement
While needed, community engagement efforts do not address the systemic racism and police brutality that has caused tension, experts and community residents have said. Nor do they insulate Black officers from the suspicion and menace they face on the job.
Protesters today, particularly youth, are bolder, Guiteau said. They seem more willing to challenge authority and risk their safety than in years past. This attitude, he said, forces officers to make difficult decisions, like whether or not to use force.
Titus, the John Jay professor, emphasized the need for open dialogue between communities and officers.
“What really needs to be done is these minority organizations need to set up meetings with the community, maybe via the community board,” Titus said.
Lutchi Gayot, a lifelong East Flatbush resident, compared the protest movement that has arisen since George Floyd’s death to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
“I think we are living in an incredible time,” said Gayot, 41. “My hope is that we use these movements to come together.”
And with the killing of George Floyd, Black police officers have faced more difficulties on the job with the nationwide reaction.
With calls to defund the police being shouted since late May, some cities are cutting police budgets. New York City shifted $1 billion from the NYPD’s $6 billion operating budget, directing the money to other areas such as the Department of Education.
It is not clear how the changes will impact concerted efforts over the decades to bring more minorities into the NYPD’s ranks. A recruitment effort in the 1990s increased the share of Black officers from 13% of the force in 1988 to 18% by 2008. As of May 31, there were 3,652 Black patrol officers in the NYPD. Non-Hispanic whites now make up a minority of patrol officers in the force, or 43%, according to reporting by The City.
The upper echelons of the NYPD remain overwhelmingly white, comprising more than 75% of officers above the rank of captain.
The NYPD public information office did not return a request for comment.
Despite the broader societal questions to be addressed, on a day-to-day level, residents seem open to improvements all around.
Gayot said police and community relations have improved greatly since the 1980s and 1990s. Still, he said, the city should update training to help eliminate aggressive policing.
“There should be certain rules of engagement, you know, if you’re in a dangerous situation, I get it,” Gayot said. “I think when [aggressive policing] is the norm, then people just get aggravated and upset.”
Ferrari said Haitian officers should continue to teach their non-Haitian colleagues and encourage officers to treat community members with dignity, regardless of race.