Are you the kind of person who examines the name and photo of your cab driver on the permit inside the plexiglass while he drives you to your destination? Do you look at police badges too? If so, you’ll notice there are still quite a few cops with Irish and Italian names, the two major immigrant groups whose sons joined the NYPD in droves after disembarking in New York harbor. You’ll also see quite a few Castros and Garcias, as another large immigrant group joins the blue fold. But what about Indians, or Indian-Americans? You never see the name Chatterjee or Chopra on an NYPD badge. Or do you?
While rushing through Grand Central one morning, as a cop walked past me, I noticed the black letters engraved in the shiny badge: J-A-G-N-A-T-H. It turns out there are police officers who have roots in South Asia after all. Further research revealed that the number of Asians in the New York Police Department increased from 5 percent in 2000, up to 6 in 2002. Though the data is not broken down to indicate what percentage of those officers are from India or of Indian origin, unofficial estimates are 20.
Given how the Asian Indian population in the U.S. increased by almost 106 percent between 1990 and 2000, and that in the New York City area, according to the 2000 Census, the number of Indians doubled and grew faster than any other Asian group in that decade; you might wonder why this group isn’t better represented in the NYPD.
There could be several explanations. In the 1960s, the majority of Indians coming to the U.S. were often doctors, arriving to fill a need here, much like the many computer professionals since the mid-1990s. Meantime, back in the 1980s, working class Indians started arriving in larger numbers, and they found jobs in small grocery stores, as taxi drivers in the NYC area, and also in motels and hotels around the U.S.
It’s not difficult to understand the lack of interest for first generation emigrés given the low salaries and risks that police work entails.
But that’s changing. Starting around 1990, several men who had either left India and come to New York as young children, or who were born here to Indian parents, joined the NYPD. One sub-group of that population are four policemen whose roots are in the southern Indian state of Kerala, a particularly green and lush region, a part of that country known for the abundance of coconut found growing everywhere and used liberally a cooking ingredient. It is also as the place in India with a high percentage of Syrian Christians, who are easily identified by family surnames like Anthony, Thomas, and Abraham. One of those four men is Sergeant Thomas Anthony.
Tommy Anthony’s mother and father came to the U.S. in 1957 and settled in Brooklyn. Mr. Anthony completed an MBA at NYU and went on to run a seafood business. Mrs. Anthony is a professor in microbiology who still teaches today at New York Technical College in Brooklyn. They arrived in the U.S. with a young daughter and later had another daughter and one son, Thomas. In 1984 they moved to Woodmere, Long Island. Thomas recounts a pretty typical suburban childhood aside from one year during high school when his father thought that an Indian education might do him well, and sent him to stay at an uncle’s in Bombay. However, it became complicated, he explains, for the Indian school’s administration to reconcile the differences between his Long Island transcripts and their requirements, and he ended up back in Woodmere a year later, his graduation from high school slightly delayed.
Thomas recalls that like almost any young boy, he dreamed of being a fireman and a policeman and even a cowboy. At age 19, he volunteered and joined the Woodmere Fire Department. (All Long Island fire departments are made up of volunteers.) “I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Tommy says and laughs, “I enjoy the excitement. Besides, the way I see it, the fire department, and the police department too, are all about public service, like the Kiwanis or Lions Clubs, but with fire trucks.” In 1993, Thomas applied and was accepted into the NYPD, starting out in the Transit Police. While grateful for the experience, he recalls “It’s not what I really wanted to do. You’re on foot all day and the world goes by very slowly.”
Two years later he transferred to the Special Operations Division, to a homeless outreach program. He expressed frustration at seeing the same people falling back into the same situations, never making their way out of drug or alcohol addictions. He left that department a year ago, and notes that in the time since he left, the department’s approach to the homeless has changed and more are arrested now, for things like aggressive panhandling, urinating in public and trespassing.
For the past year, Thomas has worked at Highway Patrol 1, in the part of the NYPD responsible for traffic accident investigations, DWI enforcement, and now, in this post-9/11 time, using radiation detectors at truck checkpoints. He readily admits: “You’re not gonna get rich in the police force, but you make a lot of friends, you’ll be at parades and the MTV Music Awards, a lot of high profile events. Plus, there’s a certain prestige to the clout you have; I mean, you’re running the city really.”
He says he hasn’t had a hard time as an Indian-American in the NYPD, a group that has faced a lot of criticism in the past for the treatment meted out to minorities. Tommy says: “It takes a strong personality to be a cop anyway. You have to have a lot of chutzpah to deal with things. On top of that I have pretty thick skin and I like sarcasm and jokes. So if one of the guys says to me ‘Hey, Tommy, does your Mom wear sheets?’ I’ll come right back at him and say ‘Didn’t your Momma teach you anything in that trailer when you were growing up?'”
When he’s not on duty or serving on the volunteer fire department, where he was promoted to captain in 1998, Thomas is out on his motorbike, his jet ski or his boat. “I love to be on the water, with the smell of the sea, just relaxing.” He’s single and lives less than two miles from his parents in Woodmere, who are mainly retired now. His daschund lives there too and Tommy makes frequent visits to see all three of them. At 36, after living his entire life in New York, he speaks Malayalam fluently, though he hasn’t been able to write the curvy figure-eights of the script since he was little boy. His mother still makes lots of savory south Indian dishes from Kerala, brimming with coconut and fish. “She’s no macaroni and cheese girl,” he says with a smile.
Thomas will be taking a promotion exam and later on would like to do intelligence work. He is in touch with several other Indian-American cops, and while he may officially be a member of the Asian Jade Society, the only organization for NYPD members of Asian origin, he doesn’t seem overly involved or concerned about his status as one of a small ethnic minority on the force.
Tommy guesses that as more and more second and third generation Indian-American children grow up here, more will be bitten by the adrenaline, or public service, bug and join the force. He says the job is challenging and rewarding. “I meet 15 or 20 new people every day, and you take away something from every interaction.”