George Floyd’s murder and police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the crime have sparked conversations all over the United States and the world about whether police are biased against Black and brown Americans and perpetuate white supremacy.
Caught in the middle are some white Jewish police officers, a minority within the force both committed to the profession and aware of the ways the state can abuse its powers.
I spoke to Josh Zucker, a sergeant at arms with the New York Police Department’s Shomrim Society, a fraternal organization for Jewish men and women in blue. He has worked for the NYPD since 2015, but stressed that in conversation with the Forward, he was not representing the department.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Molly Boigon: How does your Jewish identity shape your work?
Josh Zucker: As Jews, we grow up with a sense of law and order. In my background, I learned Talmud; I learned the bible; I prayed daily. So I definitely get a sense of justice and of law and order from religiosity, from Judaism. It affects the way I police in terms of being evenhanded.
Boigon: How have the protests around racial justice and the larger conversation around police brutality impacted you?
Zucker: I can’t say that it impacted me specifically. It’s impacted the job and it’s definitely impacted the guidelines. And it’s changed the way that we’ve policed and changed the way we’ve had to think before we’ve taken action on the streets.
Boigon: Can you give an example?
Zucker: There’s more oversight than there already was — as if we didn’t have enough already. There’s always new training videos that we have to watch. I would say that one of the positives that’s come out of it is that the training has improved. We’re definitely getting better training.
Sometimes I’ll think twice before stepping out of a car when there’s a large crowd, because you don’t know how it’s going to go down. It could go south for many reasons.
Boigon: When you talk about things going south, what are you anticipating?
Zucker: People are definitely more confrontational now than they have been in the past. When I was in the academy, the way they explained it to us was, you make an arrest and that person finds out their charges when they are appearing for arraignment. But what’s happened with the times is that people have decided that they’re going to start questioning the arrests on the streets. And they’re going to start resisting arrest a lot more often than you’ve seen in the past.
Boigon: Was there something in particular that led you to want to be a cop?
Zucker: I had been wavering over time — did I want to do it, did I not want to do it? I wasn’t sure if I could support my family. I wasn’t sure if I could live a Torah lifestyle, being able to afford kosher food and sending my kids to Jewish schools on a police officer’s salary. So I wasn’t clear if I wanted to do it. But when I sat down and looked at my options, it kind of stuck out as a clear path, so that’s why I took the test.
Boigon: There’s a national conversation happening about whether or not police forces have a legacy of enforcing racial inequity and whether police forces are tools of white supremacy. I wonder how you feel about that as a Jew because obviously antisemitism and racism go hand and hand.
Zucker: I can only speak as a Jewish police officer working in New York City. I enforce the laws that are legislated or enacted by the New York City council, by the legislature, and most recently by emergency powers granted to the governor. So I enforce laws that are written for New York in New York State or NYC and that’s that. I don’t really try to delve into why they were created or how they were created. I look at it as black and white — this is the law and it’s applied.
Boigon: Can you comment on the Derek Chauvin trial and verdict? What do you think about it? Was it fair?
Zucker: In terms of the verdict, we as police officers — and again this comes back to being a Jewish police officer — we respect the rule of law. We respect the judicial process. We enforce the laws that are established by the government. So for us, once an arrest has been made or a summons has been issued, then the judicial process begins, at which point we step back and only reappear if we’re called to testify or to present evidence.
There seems to be a misconception by some people that justice is only served if the verdict goes the way they want it to, and that’s not the case. In the Chauvin case, Derek Chauvin was probably thinking that justice was not served, but the Floyd family maintains that justice was served.
So when the jury or sometimes the judge issues a verdict, whether guilty or not guilty, that in and of itself is justice being served. The person may disagree with the verdict, but that doesn’t mean that justice wasn’t served.
Boigon: It sounds from talking like you are very trusting of the system and that you view it as, ‘We just have to let it do its work.’ I’m wondering if you could talk more about where that comes from.
Zucker: There’s a concept in Judaism — Dina d’malkhuta dina, ‘The laws of the land are the law.’
In this country, we have prayers for the president of the United States, and we also say prayers for the land of Israel. So there’s a respect. It doesn’t matter necessarily who the leader is, but there’s always a respect for the government. I was never taught to rebel.
I went to yeshiva. There’s a concept in the Ten Commandments: respect your father and your mother. Respect is ingrained in us. Especially as Jews. So that’s why I have such a respect for the law.
Boigon: What interactions did you have with the police in your past?
Zucker: Pleasant interactions. I never put myself in a position where I would have had a negative interaction. There was one time when I was working for a friend of mine, I was helping a friend out, and I was at this storage facility late at night, and a neighbor had heard noise coming from the storage facility, and they called the cops to come investigate. And I walk out and there’s cops staring at me saying hey, what are you doing here? And I put my hands up and I told them what I was doing there, and they saw that I was up to nothing wrong and I was free to go.
I was always taught by my parents, respect the law, respect police.
Boigon: You’ve talked about how Judaism has informed your view of the law, but I also see how Judaism might make you feel differently. It might make you skeptical of police, and align you or other Jews more with Black people who are saying that police are overstepping their bounds and infringing on their rights.
Zucker: It’s not that I would say that my Judaism would cause me to feel skeptical, because the religion would never cause that. It’s more experiences as Jewish people that we would feel skeptical, in terms of the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the violence that took place in the Middle East after the State of Israel was founded.
Jews definitely have reasons to be wary of governments and especially in this country. This country was founded because people here were sick and tired of what was taking place under the crown. There definitely are concepts as an American and as an American Jew to be weary of the government.
That being said, I don’t think that Jews and even African Americans in this country can say that they’re the only ones who have been victimized. You’re always going to find someone that’s been victimized.
Boigon: Have you had any conversations with your Black colleagues about these issues? Do your identities inform those conversations?
Zucker: I think many things shape conversations. I would say that I’m definitely influenced by everyone that I speak with, no matter what their background is.
I’ve talked to all of my colleagues about it.
Boigon: Do you think that there’s a problem in police forces of enforcing calls against Black people? Do you believe that there’s a system that targets Black people?
Zucker: There’s always going to be someone who’s going to complain about law and how it’s written and how it’s enforced.
Boigon: Anything else you wanted to add?
Zucker: I’ve been asked many times by my fellow colleagues and by people on the street — ‘Are you in the right business? Shouldn’t you be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant?’
Jews have been police officers for many years — in the NYPD going back to the early 1900s. It’s a proud profession; it’s an honorable profession and it’s one that does not discriminate as to its hires, and everyone is welcome among the ranks.
There’s a sense of law and order in Judaism; there’s a sense of justice in Judaism. And what better way to follow God’s path than to help others, serve others, protect others, and to be a police officer?
A Jewish police officer weighs in on the Chauvin verdict