This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
James H. Lawrence Jr. was born in New York City in 1946 and grew up in the Lincoln Houses projects in East Harlem. To get him out, his mother sent him to a military boarding school at age 14, which set the stage for Lawrence's nearly 40-year career in law enforcement.
In 1966, Lawrence walked through the doors of New York City's U.S. Army draft headquarters for the battery of tests that would qualify him to serve in the Vietnam War. He was the only Black person in his class to graduate from Officer Candidates School (OCS), after which he served three years in the Army, where he attained the rank of first lieutenant.
His career outside the military began in 1970, when he joined the New York City Police Department, working his way up the ranks in roles that ranged from patrol officer to chief of Brooklyn Housing. At that point, he'd come full circle from living in the projects to supervising the cops who protected them. For nearly three years, he was the only Black precinct commander out of 75 precincts in NYC.
In 2000, Lawrence became NYPD's chief of personnel, managing human resources for the police department’s 55,000 employees. On September 11, 2001, Lawrence was the highest-ranking officer at police headquarters, just blocks from Ground Zero, and courageously took control of the command center until the police commissioner arrived hours later.
A graduate of Columbia University’s Police Management Institute and the FBI's National Executive Institute who also holds a J.D. from CUNY Queens College, Lawrence became commissioner of the Nassau County Police Department on Long Island in 2002, after 32 years with the NYPD. After five years in that role, he retired from top cop to the golf courses of Sarasota with his wife, Gail.
What it was like growing up in Harlem in the late 1950s?
“Like any other kid, it was my safe neighborhood with friends. Our parochial school was just five blocks away, and I walked there on my own. Back then, I didn’t realize what a housing project was. It was just home.
“Most of my family lived in the Bronx, so every Sunday we had a ritual of visiting my grandparents, on my mother’s side, on Dawson Street. My grandparents had 10 children, so we have a large family. Those Sunday get-togethers taught me about family and how important it is when a family gets together; kids learn from the adults. I will always remember my grandfather’s fish-head soup and what he called plum pudding—but I say was a fruitcake.
“My maternal grandparents were from Bermuda, and like many others, they came [to America] looking for opportunities to make a living. My grandfather found work as a longshoreman and a doorman in downtown Manhattan.
“As Frank Sinatra said, it was my kinda town. I never thought I’d move away from New York— until I found Sarasota.”
Tell us about a time when you experienced racism.
“My first memory of discrimination is of the segregated bathrooms on the Chesapeake Ferry on our way to visit my father’s family in Ahoskie, North Carolina. One trip, we were traveling with my Uncle Fred, who took me into a ‘whites only’ bathroom. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t worry about that, c’mon.’ And he took me inside.
“Another memory was when I was about 16. I was in St Emma’s Military Academy in Virginia. Around 1962, the glee club took some of us to a concert performed by the West Point chorus in Richmond. We stopped at a pizza shop where we were told by a young lady that she couldn't serve me as she pointed at the proprietor. At that point, I was a teenager from New York, and I had never experienced being told I couldn’t be served because of the color of my skin.
“And when I was graduating from the Army's Officer Candidates School, my parents drove down for graduation. They were chased off when they stopped to get a hotel room. I was upset about this, but happy the situation didn’t escalate—and that they finally found a room.”
How were you treated in the military?
“While in Vietnam, I was a combat engineer. We swept roads for mines and built everything from roads to a ferry site to barracks to bunkers. One operation called for us to clear a sizeable amount of land that was being used by the Viet Cong as an intelligence route.
“The military was where a lot of Black folks found opportunities for careers that supported the family. The military system rewarded you for a job well done. In fact, I look at any public service in the same way: people tend to work their way up. If you pass the test, then you pass the test. It’s not subjective.
“I’m not saying that there wasn’t any discrimination. But the military needs a diverse population. And it does not operate like a corporation, where the son of somebody can be promoted. The military wants to run efficiently and keep the people within it happy, so they perform.
“I was lucky I survived Vietnam, my friend James Braswell—who was ambitious and sharp—joined the Marine Corps and did not. We had close calls, but I never lost anyone under my command."
You were NYPD Chief of Personnel on 9/11. What stays with you from that day and the time following?
“Seeing the buildings come down. I went into work that day on the Long Island Expressway and could see the World Trade Center, but I hadn’t paid it much attention. My wife, Gail, called and said, 'They say a plane just ran into the World Trade Center.’
"I looked up at the building and saw the second plane hit. Someone was driving me, and we went straight to police headquarters. I was the highest-ranking officer at headquarters on that morning—Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and Mayor Giuliani were barricaded in a building near Ground Zero for several hours after the buildings collapsed before anyone heard from them. So, I took control of the command center, which is the hub of the police department. Everything that goes on in the city is more or less controlled from that operations center.
“Naturally, calls were coming in about the World Trade Center. We coordinated operational responses where needed. Initially, we received lots of confusing information and tried to get a handle on what happened and what was happening in the moment. The chief in charge of the operations center suggested everyone in the office meet to coordinate and pull together what we were going to do. Someone broke into that meeting and said, ‘Chief, the buildings are coming down.’
“I stood up and went to the windows of the operations center, where the World Trade Center was just three or four blocks away. I watched as the buildings came down. It was surreal, like a kick in the gut.
"When cops returned to the center, they were covered in dust from head to toe. I spent a year in Vietnam, and on 9/11, I had been a cop for 30 years. That was the worst day of my life.”
How did you and the NYPD find the strength to go on?
“We had to continue to operate because people were depending on us. That’s our job. People tend to look at cops as crime fighters, but in general, most of our job is about helping people.
“Joseph Esposito, the chief of the department, eventually took charge of the operations center that afternoon and I got to my role as chief of personnel. It was my job to account for everyone in the department. And I did, for all but 23 people. The next task was to notify the families. I sat down with the staff, and we began to make the phone calls. We eventually found those people, but not alive.
“The families would come into police headquarters every day until we found them. We built relationships with them. Every morning we had breakfast available, we’d go to Mass together and pray. Eventually, we took the families down to the site.
“What struck me about the events of 9/11 was how everyone came together. And I mean everybody. Not just the city, but across the country and other countries as well. Everyone was ready to do whatever they could to support us. If we could just capture that feeling again...
“It was unbelievable. Cops were working all these hours, so restaurants brought food, and money was donated for survivors. All types of folks showed up, including those with construction experience to help work on the World Trade Center pile. I saw the good side of people.”
Defunding the police is a hot topic these days. What are your thoughts?
“When people need help, they call the cops. Police are the group who are always available to help.
“When people say ‘defund,’ they're jumping the gun. If police are not operating the way they should, then make changes. People in the community should have a say in how their community is policed. That’s the answer. Sit with those folks and talk. Most communities that I know want a police presence. I’ve never gone to a community meeting where they say they want less police. It’s a matter of people understanding that the police are listening to them and their concerns and responding to them.”
How do you combat white supremacy in the military and in law enforcement?
“When you look at the makeup of the police and the military, it’s a microcosm of society—a little bit of everything and everyone.
“What we don’t want is for the white supremacists to be an influence on policing or military when they're there to serve the country.
“You can’t really change the way people think, but you can do things to impact their behavior. You could work with someone for years and not know they are a white supremacist. The one who is will likely not let you know because they are aware of how people feel about what they're thinking.
“Those running police departments or the military need to put standards in place where people are expected to have a certain behavior, and abide by those standards. It’s important for cops to know how you want them to operate and what’s expected.”
Recently, the officers present at the Jan. 6 Capitol riots testified to the Congressional commission investigating the events of that day. As a longtime police insider how did you feel?
“I think it’s disgraceful what [the officers] went through. It looked like they weren’t prepared by their superiors for what was coming. Questions need to be answered. And I think you have to go to who’s running it.
“Operationally, there’s a lot of coordination that goes into an event such as [the Trump rally]—you prepare for it. I know when we had an event coming in NYC, we prepared with everyone necessary, such as [bringing in] outside agencies and officers in other jurisdictions.
“Intelligence exists, and if it doesn’t get to the people on the front lines…I don’t even know how to speak to what happened there. It looks like somebody dropped ball.”
During recent protests of 2020/21, some law enforcement wielded high-grade combat weapons—many of which were acquired through Marshall Project grants. Is this a good thing or a dangerous precedent?
“Having run a department, I’m well aware that there are always budgetary concerns. So any time I could get something for free from the federal government, I tried to take advantage.
“As far as those weapons at the protests, we didn’t use those. I don’t know why [officers] need an M-16, which is something I carried in the military. We did have some specialty weapons [at the NYPD], but those were for highly specialized personnel.
"As far as using military-grade equipment to respond to peaceful demonstrations, it’s bound to be problematic. Instead of quelling the protest, it might incite people to do something they would not have if they'd been approached differently.
“Dealing with demonstrations is one of the most difficult situations for police officers. Protests happen for a reason; people are upset, and emotions are high. As law enforcement, we're concerned about the protestors, but at the same time, we want to keep order.
“That’s why it’s important to know how to approach a demonstration when citizens are doing something that they are legally entitled to do. Balance has to be maintained.”
What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?
“That’s the hardest question of the day. Many white folks don’t really understand the experience of Black people in this country.
“I go back to the girl who said that she couldn’t serve us a slice of pizza. I venture to say that most of my white friends would be surprised to know that happened to me.
“When white folks see protests, they should understand that there’s a lot of background. They didn’t just happen. There’s a lot that people don’t consider when they see Black Lives Matter. You have to think about what other people have experienced. I say, walk a mile in my shoes.”
Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill