The blue ceiling

Like father, like son. Or, in the case of retired police lieutenant Andrew Rivera— sons. Three of his kids followed in his footsteps. But it was more than Rivera’s 22 years of service on the New York City Police Department that inspired his children. As a founder of the NYPD Hispanic Society, he also set a precedent for Latino presence in the police force when few had access to it.

When Rivera, 72, joined the Department in the 1960s, only 200 of its 12,000 officers were of Latino origin. Currently, 26% of the NYPD’s personnel can trace their roots to Latin America.

Rivera, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, recalled how tough it was for a member of a minority group to shatter preconceptions in the police force and rise along with his peers.

What was your experience like when you joined the NYPD in the ’60s?

After I joined the NYPD, my welcome depended on each person, since some were racist and made it obvious. Based on my experience, most police officers were dedicated to their jobs and honest. Of course, you saw some types of corruption in those times. But that was something that was part of the system, not what they looked for… In the ’70s, many of us were against corruption and the way to reject it was by not participating in it.

In the ’60s, police officers weren’t seen as oppressors, the community trusted us… we served the community and kept in direct contact with people.

What was the Hispanic presence like back then?

There was minimal representation. Back then, Latinos were 2% of the entire force and the community settled in New York must have been more than 10%. So the percentage of the Latino community wasn’t represented in the department.

Did Latinos have opportunities for advancement in the Department?

The highest rank that Latino police officers could reach in the ’60s was to become detective, first grade. They had huge careers as investigators. You earned that with sweat and training, because the system didn’t allow us to go beyond that. Back then, there was an evaluation system. For example, my supervisor gave me the best recommendations. But what did that do for me, if the NYPD didn’t recognize it?

What differences can you point out between the 1960s and now in the NYPD?

As far as Latino officers, unfortunately now there is no unity or fraternity like there was back then among Hispanic officers. There are three organizations that currently represent Latinos in the NYPD: the Hispanic Society, the National Latino Officers Association and the Dominican officers group, which is the largest group and has gained the most members lately.

What message would you send the members of these three organizations?

The message would be to unite because their interests should be the same: to serve and to improve service to the community. To be professionals dedicated to serving the community, and represent the NYPD in front of the community while still representing the community before the NYPD. If we lack unity, we can’t have the most impact.

What changes would you like to see in the NYPD?

I would like to see the first Latino police commissioner, and hope to see this before I die. I would like to see equality, which still isn’t there, so that Latinos move up through the ranks. I don’t want to call it discrimination; it’s lack of recognition. In those times, we had to work hard enough to win two gold medals, so that we could receive a silver.