Policing Burlington: An Interview with Detective Ray Nails

Detective Ray Nails of the Burlington Police Department was born in Chicago, Illinois and moved to the Burlington area in 1990. In 1993, he became the first African American police officer to be hired by the Burlington Police Department. He has two sons and one daughter. Professor Laura Fishman invited him to speak at my Sociology 118 Class: Race, Crime and Criminal Justice. Later, Detective Nails was very willing to sit down with me for an interview. I omitted a few of the questions and answers from the interview in order to shorten the article.

MH: What are some of the responsibilities of your job as detective?

RN: I’m currently assigned to general investigations. The Detective Bureau is broken down into several parts: sex crimes investigators, drug detectives, juvenile detectives, and general investigators. My job is to dabble in everything. We do a lot of financial crimes and burglaries; we also cover suspicious deaths and assaults. We work very closely with narcotics investigators because usually we find that financial crimes and burglaries are committed by people with some sort of dependency on narcotics; it’s also interwoven. I’m kind of a generalist in detectives; there are four of us that are assigned to general investigations.

MH: Is it hard to balance demands between work and family?

RN: It’s tough, luckily though I met my wife when I was already a police officer. She understood the demands of the job even before we got married. It was different with my first wife. I met her before I became a cop and I had to work all of the weird hours. It was very stressful. My wife now is great. She takes on a lot of responsibilities: she gets the kids up in the morning, she’ll get them dressed and she’ll drop them off at school, and pick them up from school. Generally I get home late at night and try to sleep a little in the morning and I don’t get done in time to pick the kids up. She does a wonderful job and I don’t think I would be successful if I had to worry about those responsibilities. My job at home is to cook the big dinners. Last night I made a big pot of homemade spaghetti sauce and spaghetti so they can eat that tonight. It’s a balancing act and it’s tough. I think we get through it because we’re both older. If I work overtime I can make the extra money.

MH: Can you describe how you got your job as police officer in 1989? Do you feel you were treated unfairly because of your race?

RN: I actually didn’t get hired until January of 1993. I never thought that I was being treated unfairly because of my race but I did feel that there was something going on that I couldn’t identify. For internships you’re only required to do 40 or 50 hours, but on my own time I came in and did over 200 hours. I wanted to be here and immerse myself in the culture. As a result I became known to the recruiters. I was very interested in working here. As far as police work goes, this is the best place in the state to work. But I couldn’t get past that next point. I would take the written exams and psychological exams but I couldn’t go to the next step. I would have almost weekly conversations with the recruiter. At the time Burlington was in the midst of a hiring freeze so they weren’t hiring people. I was told that the police department was going to hire three people and I was number four.

One evening I’m watching the news and I see that Burlington just hired three new officers. The reporter asked the very person I had talked to for months “why weren’t any minority officers hired?” The recruiter responded, “there were no qualified minorities in our applicant pool.” To be honest I was a little frustrated. I was an honorably discharged marine. I just graduated from Champagne College (Summa Cum Laude) with a degree in law enforcement and criminal justice and was a part-time police officer in Stowe. And I had never even been through the entire process. If I wasn’t a qualified candidate then what exactly were they looking for? Instead of being silent about it, some of the people in the community helped me and we got some answers. Tuesday I was finally interviewed at the Burlington Police Department and that afternoon I was offered a job. Four days later I was at the police academy. So everything moved very quickly whereas for months things never happened. I could have let that leave a bad taste in my mouth but I didn’t. I drove on and here I am. Do I think that it happened because I was Black? I certainly hope not. There is nothing that I can point to say that this happened because of the color of my skin. I don’t believe it in my heart. All I can do is though is to tell the story and let others make their decisions and judgments. Later on I was told I didn’t get the job because I hadn’t gone through the entire process; I only did two out of five parts of the job. Like I said earlier, I couldn’t get to the next step. I think the hiring freeze had something to do with it.

MH: Are you satisfied with the current atmosphere in the police station? Do you feel accepted or excluded at times from the other police officers and detectives?

RN: What’s common about police work is that we’re all blue. Every cop that works in this state or in any other sate can talk about experiences that I have had. I have had people out on the street come in and ask for me; they mention “he is tall, he wears glasses, he has earrings…” They don’t say the most obvious thing which is that I am Black. If they were to say that he is black cop then everyone knows who it is. I think the public see me as a cop. As far as my peers I wouldn’t want to work with any other group of people. I don’t feel ostracized; I feel completely and totally accepted within the agency. I have had to work hard to get to where I am. I have made some mistakes along the way like everyone has but I have stuck with it and worked hard. So I feel very accepted here. I feel the police department is doing what it can to diversify itself. I think what they are experiencing in the recruitment efforts can be seen across the country. Nobody wants to get into jobs that pay what they pay us for the work we do. If you go to college for four years I don’t think you want to work at a job that pays you $50,000 a year as base pay after ten years. Can we do more to recruit in order to diversify? I think we are doing all we can as an agency.

MH: Can you paint a picture of the typical Vermont police officer in your opinion? What biases does he or she hold, if any?

RN: I think the biases that individuals have, not necessarily just police officers, are shaped from their experiences. Like I said in class, if you grow up in an environment where there is absolutely no diversity or very little diversity and you don’t have interactions (real interactions) with people who don’t look like you, then the biases or the opinions that you may form about people who don’t look like you are going to be from what you see, read, and hear. I think that’s human nature. I think in law enforcement we are such public figures that the biases that individual officers have based on their own experiences and upbringing are more visible than in the corporate world where there are offices and it is quiet. We are out in the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Individual people are going to come into the job with their individual biases and prejudices. You hope that in the hiring process, tests, and polygraphs that you are able to identify those and not hire people with prejudices against one race or gender. I think that it is all shaped from your experiences when you are very small. I think all of that stuff is built in and the more you can expose yourself or be exposed to people and things that you would not consider normal, the more of a well-rounded of person you will be. I think that holds true not just for law enforcement but for society as a whole.

MH: Is there any way that you can give some advice to someone being arrested? Is there a period of time that you can work with a potential suspect?

RN: There is not set program. My conversations may be just from the transport from the scene to the police department. I had a conversation a couple of months ago with a 25 or 26 year old African American arrested for narcotics. I asked him if he had any children and he said he has two sons, both very young. While at the court, as he is about to be arraigned (before he is brought in) man to man, I said “What are you doing? Just look at you. Handcuffed, in a holding cell, about to go to jail for drugs. Do you want your sons to be doing stuff like this? Do you want your children to see you now, handcuffed? What are you doing? Did you graduate high school? Did you go to college? As a father now you have to set the example.” I was just trying to get that message out. Is it heard because I am African American and he is African American? I don’t know, but if I read his body language, he heard what I said. Whether he puts that message to any good use, I don’t know, but at least I feel that I’m trying to have a positive spin on something very negative. I don’t know if any of my peers do that; I’m sure they do. Just trying to help people get themselves out of the situations they are in by making better choices and not allowing themselves fall prey to “that’s all I can do.” No one really grows up in a Brady Bunch household. Everybody has got trouble, static, and things that are problematic. I guess there are people who have a perfect upbringing. I certainly didn’t and I came from a great family (all college educated and all have jobs and we were never arrested). If I can do it and not grow up in the best house (I had an alcoholic father), other people can do it too.

My last question focused on the relationship between college students and police officers. Detective Nails drew an interesting comparison; here is an excerpt from his response:

“I think that a lot of our efforts and our work are focused on that small percentile (this holds true for law enforcement in general). It’s not the norm; it’s not everybody. I think you have a handful of immature people that are in school causing all the trouble and making everything look bad for the whole. And that holds truth with a lot of the stereotypes that are put out there about African Americans and Hispanics; they’re all drug deals, they’re all gangsters when actually it’s only a very small minority of us that are in those roles. It’s the same thing.”

I want to thank Detective Nails for taking time out his day to sit down with me and reflect upon his job. I wish the best of luck to him as he continues to work with the Burlington Police Department. I also want to thank Professor Laura Fishman for inviting Detective Nails to our class and giving me the opportunity to meet him.