Police recruits (photo: mayor's office)
Almost a month ago I graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the premier college in the country for leaders in law enforcement. Today, I am taking the first steps to find a job in social work, convinced, like many people my age, that keeping my community safe has to start with compassion and respect, not violence.
I started like many other students at the college, ready to become a cop. My cousin is a state trooper, and my grandfather served in the military in the Dominican Republic. I love my family's history, and I wanted to protect the neighborhood in the Bronx that we emigrated to in 2006 when I was a kid. I was going to be an officer that came from the same community I was going to serve. The type of officer who understood the hard life of Latino people in the Bronx, and was willing to put his life on the line. My parents were scared for me but supported my passion.
One of the first professors I had in the department of police science at the college was a retired NYPD captain, a role model for who I wanted to become. He would always tell us the struggles he faced trying to change the department's culture to emphasize community policing and end racism and brutality. He told everyone in his command that if they didn't like how he went about business, then he would get officers who would. He was an inspiration and cared about the community, but it never seemed like he won those arguments or changed the minds of many officers. He seemed to be an outlier in policing that was hard to find.
The more classes I took in policing and correction, the more I realized how bleak it is to try to reform policing from the inside. I wanted to be in a profession that did not make me question my values. I wanted to be there for the people without continually questioning my actions or the actions of those around me. I had a change of heart and decided to pursue a career in social work because it focuses so directly on helping individuals, families, and communities.
Growing up with immigrant parents and as a first-generation immigrant I learned the importance of support services. When I interned at the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, one of my duties was to conduct mock interviews with people preparing to take their citizenship exam. This is where I realized the impact I could have. Seeing the joy of those who passed their interview and became a United States citizen inspired me as much as taking a class from a retired police captain. Their reactions give me the motivation to keep moving forward to impact as many lives as possible in a positive direction.
My decision to pursue a career in social work was not connected to the protests to defund the police -- I made my choice long before this year and the events of the past weeks. I believe that the police need to be held accountable. There are many avenues that need to be explored, among them possibilities around defunding and adjusting the police budget in New York City.
Precious funding can be better allocated towards social services and the needs of underrepresented communities. As the conversation has picked up steam, I know firsthand that if our city supported groups like the ones I interned with or the hundreds of other under-funded social service organizations across the city, my community would be healthier, better educated, and happier.
When I was struggling over my career change, I remember a professor reassuring me that there are many paths where I could make an impact. "You could help so many people without having to be a police officer," she told me. It is with that mindset that I keep moving forward to the next chapter of my life. I am eager to do just that and support every one of my fellow graduates from John Jay and other institutions who are planning to do the same to help our city make much-needed progress.
Jerel Pena Duran is part of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice class of 2020.