Rising Through The NYPD’s Ranks
BY SAM RAPPAPORT
On a recent afternoon, Assistant Chief Juanita Holmes gazed into the large, impressionistic painting that hangs on the wall of her fourth floor office in the 112th Precinct in Forest Hills. The Brooklyn Bridge is in the foreground of the canvas spanning toward a glimmering Manhattan skyline. Opposite the bridge, floating in the painting’s soft shades of indigo, is a man blowing into an alto saxophone.
“I should have been an artist,” Holmes said, without breaking her gaze.
Holmes’s career has been wildly divergent from that of an artist, and at first glance it appears that Holmes was destined to become a police officer. She joined the city’s Police Department in 1987 as a patrol officer in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. Since then, she has risen through the ranks to hold one of the department’s top positions. She currently presides over Patrol Borough Queens North as its commanding officer, a position that she has held since September 2016. Previously, Holmes headed the NYPD’s Domestic Violence Unit.
Holmes comes from a family entrenched in the police department. Of her 13 siblings, six are on the force. Holmes’s son is now also a member of the department.
Much has been made of the fact that Holmes is the first black woman to hold her position. Yet, Holmes said, she never views her tenure in this context.
“It’s completely out of my mind,” Holmes said of being the first African American woman to serve as borough commander. “Other people on the outside looking in see that. Me, I just look at myself as a member of the police department, an executive member.”
Holmes said that she feels it’s more important to be viewed as a leader, mentor and teacher than to be seen as a “first.”
“I’m here to do the job,” Holmes said.
Holmes noted that her being promoted to borough commander might say more about the changing nature of the NYPD than it does about Holmes.
“I think the department is changing tremendously, absolutely for the better,” Holmes said. “The diversity in the department now, it’s overwhelming e Department, it should be a representation of New York City. And that’s what we’ve been accomplishing.”
A more diverse police department, Holmes believes, is a necessary step in assuaging the often tenuous relationship between the force and the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Holmes has made it a priority to strengthen community-police relations. One of her tactics has been to embrace a community model of policing.
“The key ingredient to that philosophy is that we keep the same officers in the same area all the time,” Holmes said. “It allows them to be more responsive to the needs of the community, and they develop a relationship with residents as well as business owners.”
According to Holmes, one of Queens Borough North’s most pressing areas for improvement, in regard to community-police relations, is Corona.
“This is where we have many undocumented immigrants who don’t speak the language,” Holmes said. “Those I think are the most critical in the relationships we’re trying to establish because in today’s climate, you have a lot of concerns about ICE and whether these residents are going to be deported.”
One of the difficulties, Holmes said, is getting undocumented immigrants to respond to summonses.
“The likeliness of them going to court because of today’s climate—it’s just not going to happen,” Holmes said.
To address the issue, Holmes is working with the Queens District Attorney’s office on “Safe Surrender” sights.
“The idea is that we would give them a neutral ground—a church or school—where they can come in, pay the summons, and even if they are coming to follow up with a federal warrant, we won’t arrest them.”
The “Safe Surrender” program, Holmes said, would be in operation by this spring.
“We’re not going to ask you if you’re here illegally, and we’re not going to notify ICE of your status,” Holmes said of dealing with undocumented residents. “We want them to know that we’re here to assist.”
The mayor’s office has released a report that showed a reduction in crime from January 2017 to January 2018. Queens Borough North, Holmes said, is no exception to the trend.
“That reflects the reality here too,” Holmes stated. “Out of the eight police boroughs, we had the biggest reduction in crime for the month of January.”
Holmes attributes this to community policing efforts, reconfigured deployment and a series of gang take-downs at Queensbridge Houses. The public housing development—the largest of its kind in North America—has been an area of concern for Holmes. She said that in the coming months, a series of anti-violence initiatives would be concentrated in that area.
Staying true to her mission of developing relationships with the communities she serves, Holmes leads a mentorship program known as “Girls Talk.”
“It’s a group of girls that were sort of incorrigible, you know,” Holmes said. “Mom and dad were having a tough time.”
Holmes tasked some of her officers with recruiting the girls that would become a part of the mentorship group.
“I said, ‘Find me the problem children,’” Holmes said.
There are now 16 youths, ages 14 to 18, with whom Holmes meets once a month. Often, they just talk and, other times, Holmes invites psychologists, professors and community leaders to speak.
“The more that I can expose them to that is positive,” Holmes said, “I think it’s going to have a tremendous effect on their outcomes in life.”
Holmes began the first “Girls Talk” meeting by telling her mentees about her own journey from a large family in St. Albans to one of the top positions in the NYPD.
Shortly into the meeting, one of the girls raised her hand and offered Holmes a comment.
She said, “I thought you were going to be this mean woman. But, you know, you’re mad cool.”