Black History Is Our History: First Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker, NYPD’s Highest-Ranking Black Officer, On Why He Decided To Become A Police Officer, George Floyd and More
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Continuing our celebration of Black History Month, tonight we profile the second-in-command of the largest police force in the nation.
First Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker is the highest-ranking Black police officer at the NYPD.
Raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Tucker is the youngest of four children and the only boy.
He was sworn in as an NYPD trainee at 18 in 1969, the decade of the Civil Rights Movement when nation leaders were assassinated and tension between police and the Black community often erupted on the streets.
Tucker told CBS2’s Kristine Johnson he spent his childhood at 528 Putnam Ave. between Sumner and Troupe. He lived in the brownstone with his grandparents, mother and three sisters in the 1950s.
“My grandmother was always cooking, and we’d have formal dinners around holidays … And we weren’t wealthy,” he said. “There were maybe five cars on the block.”
“So you had a lot of room to run around,” Johnson said.
“We were always in the street. We were always outside,” Tucker said.
Tucker describes life there as “comfortable,” but not when police were around.
“We might be playing ball or we might just be walking down the block, you know, and they’d break your chops. ‘Where are you going? What are you doing?’ Tucker said.
“With this perception, though, that you had, you said you didn’t hate them, but you didn’t like them,” Johnson said.
“No,” Tucker said.
“Yet you decided to become one?” Johnson said.
“You know, in those days, the police department in New York City was probably 95% white males … So for me, if I become a cop … I can also show them that not every kid who looks like Ben Tucker is out there knocking people in the head and committing crime,” Tucker said.
Changing perception from the inside would take patience. Remember, this is on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement when Blacks rallied for equal rights and leaders were assassinated for it.
“And of course, the tension between police and community, particularly communities of color in this city, were very intense,” Tucker said.
In 1974, working as a plainclothes officer, he was the victim of an inexplicable attack.
“You were actually beaten by another white officer, and it was case of mistaken identity. Is that true?” Johnson said.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Tucker said.
Tucker remembers every detail, working alongside his partner.
“We were standing on the corner of Winton Road and Nostrand Avenue,” he said.
In the midst of trying to calm tensions with a group of school kids, he felt a stunning pain in his hand.
“I’ve been hit by a nightstick. I turned around and I’m facing this officer, who is pumped up like you wouldn’t believe … At that moment, Sam yells to the guy, the officer, ‘Hey, he’s on the job,'” Tucker said. “He was like in this zone, he was, and I’m looking into his eyes and I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s nuts’ … He says, ‘Well, eff it. Tell him to put his shield on.'”
Tucker never filed a formal complaint, and he never got an apology.
“I thought I handled it as best, as I, at that moment in time. Because if I made a complaint, now it’s going to be in the media and it was in the press anyway, and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said.
“Commissioner, what does Black History Month mean to you?” Johnson asked.
“It means really kind of a reflection … in particular given the climate we’re in right now,” Tucker said.
“It’s been a rough year, hasn’t it?” Johnson said.
“The year of the perfect storm, perhaps, or nightmare,” Tucker said.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed, even more so, the deep-rooted inequities people of color confront in American society — access to medical care and supplies, jobs, salary, food and mistreatment by police.
The flashpoint – the murder of George Floyd. When the nation watched George Floyd plead for his life and die at the hands of a white police officer, communities of color and their supporters rose up.
“Can I ask you, personally, what that moment was like when you saw that?” Johnson asked.
“That was horrible, and I think I was angry and I was sad, and I was outraged, and I was embarrassed,” Tucker said. “The vast majority of those folks take the job for the right reason. They want to help, they want to do good, they want to keep people safe, and then to witness that sort of an event, that is the ultimate betrayal of the oath.”
“Did you understand where they were coming from? Could you sympathize with that?” Johnson asked.
“Absolutely … If you didn’t react to that and feel outraged by it, there’s a problem,” Tucker said.
Tucker remains in charge of overhauling NYPD training and discipline.
Back in his Bed-Stuy neighborhood, he effortlessly mingled with his officers and residents, leading by example.
“I was brought up that way, to respect people and treat people the way you want to be treated. And that’s not hard, doesn’t cost you anything,” Tucker said.