Ex-NYPD Diver Files A Complaint Over Alleged Racial Taunts And Harassment

March 6, 2014  |  

Being on the New York City Police Department’s elite scuba-diving unit is a tough job to begin with. Divers search the waters of New York for bodies, weapons and other unimaginable things. It was part of Oscar Smith’s daily job. But what made it harder, he says, was the racism he faced continuously for seven years.

Smith was the only black man among the unit’s divers. Now retired, the 48-year-old Smith has filed a discrimination complaint against the Police Department with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to Smith, his race made him an unwelcome outsider.

There were problems from the beginning. Smith said when he first applied  in 2003 and was denied and heard the captain turned him down “because, he said, ‘black guys couldn’t swim,’ ” according to his complaint. Even after he joined the unit, that stereotype persisted. He writes in the complaint, a supervisor “repeatedly asked me how it was that a ‘black man’ could have passed the swim test.”

In the unit, Smith said he was “subjected to racial hostility, derogatory comments and unfavorable treatment.” He was  given a nickname, Tautog, another name for the “blackfish.” Some colleagues said he was “descended from slaves.”

Smith tried to “brush it off,” but the hostility only increased to the point of cloaked threats.

“You could go on a dive op and not wake up — anything could happen,” his co-workers told him, Smith recalled to the New York Times . “I’d say, ‘That’s nice to know.’ ” But he said, “It didn’t seem like it was in jest.”

In fact it was the harassment that made him retire in May 2013. He says it had reached a point “where I just couldn’t deal with it anymore, and it was time for me to leave.”

Smith was reportedly the first black diver in the unit. And there have been no others. There are two Hispanic officers and an Asian officer among the 29 members.

As a demographic, African Americans do learn to swim at much lower rates than whites. “Some researchers say it is a legacy of segregation, which closed off many swimming pools to blacks,” reports The Times. There are even several discredited theories, such as blacks are less buoyant.

Still Smith was an exception. He worked as a lifeguard before joining the Police Department. For him the scuba-diving unit was a dream job, he says.

According to one of Smith’s lawyers, Norman Siegel, “Oscar Smith’s situation raises serious questions about racial stereotyping in the N.Y.P.D.”

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