Why Good Cops Must Speak Out About ‘Bad Apples’
Former tennis pro James Blake makes a case for transparency in police departments.
James Blake left Harvard to join the professional tennis circuit in 1999, playing until his retirement at the US Open in 2013. He received the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2005 and was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year in 2008. He is the author (with Andrew Friedman) of the New York Times bestselling memoir Breaking Back. He lives in San Diego, California.
James Blake: September 9, 2015. I was standing outside the Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, I had been planning on getting a car, heading to the US Open. I was going to do some corporate appearances and sponsor visits and things like that. I didn't think much of it.
I looked up while I was waiting for the car and saw someone running towards me, and as he got to me I was smiling thinking this was some sort of friendly encounter—a fan or someone that was just a long lost friend or something—but he quickly dispelled that myth in my head and put me on the ground and slammed me to the ground and had his knee in my back and cuffed me and told me to not say a word and just listen to whatever he had to say. So I did. I complied.
I had seen everything in the news about noncompliance or perceived noncompliance of anyone in custody of the police so I stood up and did what he said.
And they said it was just a case of mistaken identity, but it was clearly, in my mind, excessive, and it didn't need to be handled that way when there were five officers on the scene and could have easily just asked me for my identification and moved on and not had any sort of an incident.
As it was happening I was pretty much in shock. I try to think of myself as pretty calm, cool and collected, and I didn't know what to do and what to say, how to act—because I hadn't been put in cuffs like that before, I didn't know how else to get my point across because they weren't listening.
I was trying to let them know that my US Open credential was in my back pocket. “I’m not someone that—whatever it is you're looking for, for whatever kind of criminal you're looking for, it has nothing to do with me, it's not me.” They weren't hearing it. They didn't want to hear anything about it. They were in power; they were in control, and let me know that.
So going through it I was embarrassed, I felt extremely vulnerable, because they had me cuffed and I didn't know what for, and I didn't know what they were planning on doing.
So, the blue wall of silence, from what I understand it, is when any officer does something wrong, inappropriate, the rest of the officers are going to be silent. They're not going to mention it, they're not going to go against him and turn them into internal affairs or turn them into anyone else, they're going to stick with him and that's almost like a fraternity, a brotherhood. And it's something that was - is hopefully outdated and was prevalent supposedly back in the '70s, '80s, '90s and a lot of the officers I speak to now say that it's a thing of the past, that it's not happening, but in my case it seems like it happened, because there are five officers that all witnessed what happened, or four that witnessed what happened, one was that was the instigator, and none of them filed a report. Any of them could have filed a report and said, “This is what happened on this day, this was inappropriate,” but none of them did.
So the first time the NYPD made a statement it was that they were investigating whether excessive force was used, and that I wasn't even in handcuffs, and the whole encounter took less than just a couple of minutes.
And when I saw that and couldn't believe that that was the story they were going to go with, I didn't even know at that time that there was a videotape. There was surveillance footage that showed what actually happened, and it was just infuriating to see that because I knew that if there wasn't that video they could get away with that, they could say that and they could have four or five officers say the same thing “No, nothing happened,” and move on, and I was very much afraid that that was going to be the case. Even as much as I feel like I'm credible—I have no reason to lie or to make up a story—I feel like the general public would listen to five cops that are on the scene that would say one thing even if it's contradictory to what I say actually happened.
After I got back from the US Open is when I realized that there was a video, and as soon as I spoke to the head of security at the Grand Hyatt he said, "Well, I saw that too and we have the timestamp on here, and it was for 15 minutes so we know how long you were in cuffs for, we have them leading you away in cuffs, we have all of that."
So I was very thankful to him for helping me and for making sure that tape stayed safe, because I think that's what helped the truth get out and helped people realize that I wasn't just making this up or that what they initially said was far from the truth.
And I don't blame the ones that are the higher-ups, the powers that be because they may have heard that story from the officers that were on the scene, and you would expect them to believe them to tell the truth.
And without that video there was no way for them to know that, so they had no reason to not believe them. I just think it's sad that that would be how those police officers that saw it on the scene would then report that to their superior officers.
It was something where I wanted to make sure that the police officers that aren't doing the job the right way don't take away from the police officers that are doing the job the right way, and the ones that are so-called bad apples are held accountable.
And that's when I decided I wanted to make that something I was going to write about, something I was going to talk about and speak on, the fact that it just can't keep happening.
Police departments in these cases, in my opinion, would be better off with transparency, with letting a lot of people know, letting the public know exactly what happened and finding out from the rest of the officers what really happened. And I think so many officers I've spoken to since that time really feel like that whole 'blue wall of silence' is not a real thing, that they're not all sticking up for each other, but it seems in this case they did. And if that is just maybe optimism from other police officers and police departments, I hope that it's going in that direction, that there will stop being the whole “blue wall of silence” that they won’t just stick up for each other no matter what's right or wrong as opposed to just sticking up for what is right for what actually happened for the truth.
And as far as police reform across the country—I just hope for more transparency all across the country.
And the accountability is what matters to me, because I truly believe that the majority, over 95 percent of the police officers are acting in an honorable dignified way and they deserve to be called heroes, but the ones that aren't are really eroding the trust.
The ones that are doing the wrong things are making it so that people like myself, anyone that's been in any sort of encounter like this may lose some of their trust for any police officer, and that's not fair to the ones that are doing the job the right way that deserve our trust that we should look to for support to keep us safe, to keep our communities safe.
And when the ones that aren't doing it that way, the ones that are using the badge as a shield to protect them as a way to continue being a bully or anything else they're using it for—those are the ones that should not be protected by the unions, by any sort of system that is going to just protect—“once you get a badge you're protected”—I think that shouldn't be the case, you need to be accountable no matter what your job is. You're a human being and you need to be held accountable for your actions, especially when you're allowed to make life or death situations with the people you interact with.
And if someone is making a life or death situation with my life I would like them to be trained properly, I would like them to feel comfortable in every situation, I would like them to not feel scared in any situation, and I'd like to know that they are doing so with honor and with respect for my life and for the lives of everyone in their community.
What is the "blue wall of silence"? It's a term for when the police department says either nothing wrong or nothing at all about the discrepancies of a fellow police officer. If taken to extreme lengths, this silence allows police officers the ability to do pretty much do whatever they want providing that there isn't evidence to the contrary. In tennis professional James Blake's case, a few years ago, just before a U.S. Open media day, he was tackled outside of a Manhattan hotel by a police officer in a case of alleged mistaken identity. Four other police officers stood by the arresting officer and maintained that Blake had been in custody no more than a couple of minutes. They hadn't counted on security footage from the hotel that proved that James Blake had been in custody for nearly 15 minutes—even after showing them evidence of his identity with his U.S. Open credentials. With so many cases of police brutality in the news, it's easy to see why James' case is relevant. Should police stand up for themselves or the truth? James Blake is the author of Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.
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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
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