Leyla Lopez

Leyla Lopez ’79

retired police officer, New York City Police Department
teacher, citizenship and English as a second language

Few experience discrimination, marginalization and the challenges of working in law enforcement simultaneously. Leyla Lopez ’79, an NYPD officer for 20 years, did. To hear her perspective, we asked her:

Q: As a former police officer and woman of color, what do you think is overlooked in conversations about policing?

A: “Cops are people. You have hard days. It’s hot. The elevator’s not working and you have to walk up six flights and you get up there and you’re the enemy. Those situations can be pretty challenging. You have to think of all these ‘what if’ scenarios to come out in one piece.

The general population forgets that we are people. We have bad days. You should never get hooked in an argument. And it’s on those bad days that cops get hooked.

Social media makes it difficult for people to receive all the information they really need, so rushing to judgement comes naturally. The general public doesn’t have the same training as we do, so we often think differently. The NYPD offers a Citizens Police Academy, which is designed to help bridge that gap between officers and the public, and provide insight as to how officers are trained on the law and human behavior. In general, you have to look at the entire picture to make an informed decision.

There are a lot of dynamics that make the work what it is. We’re human too. We’ve got aches and pains.”

The Call To Serve

In her 20 years as an officer with the New York Police Department, Leyla Lopez ’79 ended each day with wellness checks on those she had met during her shift. Did they change their locks? Were their kids all right? “I did this on my own,” says Lopez, who joined the force amid the skyrocketing crime rates of the 1980s. “Cops are like social workers out on the street.”

Understanding people and what makes them tick is, admittedly, an enduring passion for Lopez. At Hobart and William Smith, she majored in sociology— a discipline she “put to work” as an officer. “We don’t see people at their best. We see them when they’re downtrodden, in pain, when they’re hurt, when someone is in a car accident and we’re knocking on doors to tell someone a family member has passed,” explains Lopez, who retired in 2006 but keeps the calls fresh in her mind.

“All of the things you learn about in books, you may experience it in a situation on a job. You learn about why things are happening and don’t have to jump to conclusions, understanding that sometimes people are in a bad situation through no fault of their own.”

For Lopez, those experiences were the training ground for her greatest asset in the field: ‘the gift of gab.’ “I can talk my way out of a lot of things. I was never in a situation where force had to be used,” says Lopez, who found patrolling to be particularly challenging as a woman of color. “Some people may insult you, your family. They taunted me by saying I was wearing a ‘man’s uniform.’ Being able to talk to people and bring them to a level of compliance is the hardest thing.”

Lopez didn’t grow up wanting to wear the badge; she played cops and robbers with the other kids, but took a Midtown corporate desk job after graduating from William Smith. After two years of 14-hour days stuck inside, she craved a change and applied to the police academy. “I thought, ‘If I don’t like it, I can always come back. I’ll just try it.’ I kept trying it for 20 years,” says Lopez, who retired upon earning eligibility. “It was very satisfying and humbling. You get to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life who you otherwise wouldn’t.”

In retirement, Lopez has taken a different approach to public service as a teacher for courses in citizenship and English as a second language. Here, Lopez feels a kinship as a Latina woman who has embraced her heritage while navigating predominately white spaces. “The students I teach are very hard workers. They want to invest in their own education. We talk about what makes the U.S. different from the nations they come from, and I make the material relevant to their lives,” says Lopez, who served as vice president of what is now the Latin American Organization during her time at HWS.

For Lopez, who will celebrate her 40th Reunion with the Classes of 1979 next June, her time at the Colleges marked the beginning of vast change. It was the first time she was away from home, the first time she was in coeducational classes that would require her to exercise agency in a new way. “I felt intimidated, but it prepared me for the police academy,” says Lopez, who still ends her day with the books she loved from her literature courses at the Colleges. “You can learn something every single day.” –Morgan Gilbard ’15


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.