Behind the Badge: NYPD Lieutenant Commander Rennae Francis B.A. ’09, M.A. ’13

Behind the Badge: NYPD Lieutenant Commander Rennae Francis B.A. ’09, M.A. ’13

Behind the Badge: NYPD Lieutenant Commander Rennae Francis B.A. ’09, M.A. ’13

Since its inception, John Jay College has been an institution proud to educate public safety leaders in law enforcement, fire suppression, and emergency medical services. Every day, these brave members of our community work hard to keep us safe. We’re continually grateful for their service, and in recognition of their considerable contributions to our safety, we’re dedicating our “Behind the Badge” series to them. In these articles we get to see the man or woman “behind the badge.” We get to know what inspires them, understand what challenges them, and most importantly learn about their jobs through their own thoughts and experiences.

New York Police Department (NYPD) Lieutenant Commander Rennae Francis B.A. ’09, M.A. ’13 is the first woman and first Black woman in command of the Detective Squad at the 46th Precinct, but she didn’t start out wanting to become a police officer. At 17 years old, Francis came to New York City from her native Dominica with thoughts of becoming a forensic scientist. “I used to love watching crime shows like CSI and Investigation Discovery,” says Francis, who now also teaches as an Adjunct Professor at John Jay. “On the news, I started noticing the same name on every channel, Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky. Whenever someone needed to interview a DNA expert, there was Dr. Kobilinsky with John Jay College underneath his name.” Francis’ mother encouraged her to apply to John Jay and in the summer of 2005, Francis enrolled in the College.

“Initially, I had zero interest in being a cop. I was good at science. I loved physics and chemistry. So, I decided to major in Forensic Science,” Francis recalls. “Then I walked past an NYPD cadet corps recruiting table and everything changed.” At the time, Francis was juggling two jobs while earning her degree—including some very challenging lab requirements. She needed a better paying job than working in retail, and she needed the job to have flexible hours so that she could fit in the labs. “I was an immigrant from a really small island and I had no money. I didn’t even have furniture in my apartment. It was bad,” says Francis, shaking her head. “The recruiter explained that I wasn’t going to be a cop, but a cadet, which is an admin position. He said that I could make my own schedule and be paid $15 an hour. At the time I was making $7 an hour at Radio Shack. That was it. I signed up. The rest is history.”

“The cops used to drop me off at school and pick me up from school. They’d walk past me at the desk and say, ‘Cadet, I hope you’re studying hard. I hope you’re doing your homework.’ They were really encouraging.” —Rennae Francis

Working as a cadet gave Francis a better understanding of who police officers are as people. Her appreciation for the position moved past the monetary benefits and developed into a deeper respect for the men and women on the job. “Once I became a cadet, I saw how great they were—none of this foolishness you see on television. These cops used to drop me off at school and pick me up from school. They were really nice and excited for me to go to John Jay. They’d walk past me at the desk and say, ‘Cadet, I hope you’re studying hard. I hope you’re doing your homework.’ They were really encouraging.” We sat down with Francis to learn more about her John Jay and NYPD journey.

What was your experience like at John Jay?
Wonderful. I have been talking good about John Jay from day one. A lot of colleges don’t have to be invested in their students because they’ve already made their money. That’s not what it’s like at John Jay. What I saw at John Jay was a community of caring people. The faculty and staff give their all to the students. John Jay gave me multiple scholarships to help fund my education. John Jay sent me to Austria for a week to participate in a global initiative. John Jay helped me stay in Manhattan for a school program. I called up my mother and bragged, “I’m staying at the Marriott in Times Square. She was like, ‘And you don’t have to pay anything?’ Nope, the school paid for it. For an immigrant from Dominica, where the tallest building is six stories, that was huge. Going to Austria—I’d never been to Europe—was a big deal.

“What I saw at John Jay was a community of caring people. The faculty and staff give their all to the students.” —Rennae Francis

What are some of your best John Jay memories?
When I was trying to go on job interviews, I realized that I didn’t have a suit. I wasn’t going to buy a suit, because I didn’t have the money to buy a suit. I remember going to the Career Center where I found some resources; there’s always so many resources at John Jay. They were like, “We have this program called Dress for Success. They’ll give you three suits.” They sent me to a warehouse that had all these suits that people donated. I remember thinking, This school thinks of everything. Recently, when I was cleaning out a closet of mine, I found one of the suits that John Jay gave me. I almost cried.

Can you remember any specific lessons or classes that really stuck with you or inspired you?
I have two. In undergrad, the course was called Criminalistics. You have to analyze evidence and see what the conclusion is. Criminalistics involves fingerprints, blood, soil, everything that is not DNA and toxicology—which is a lot. It was hard work, but I developed problem solving skills in the Criminalistics lab. You never know how it’s going to end, but there is always a correct answer. You could be running a lab for three weeks, questioning: What step should I do? What should I take out? What should I add? It builds patience. You can’t speed up the lab.

When I got to grad school, the one class that stuck with me was Research Methods. I remember the instructor started off the class by saying, “I know you guys don’t know my story, but I did 20 years for a murder bid in Virginia.” Mentally, I questioned what he could teach me about research. I thought, This man shouldn’t be here. But the more he talked about his story, the more inspirational he became. He didn’t say whether he was guilty or not. We didn’t go into his case, but he talked about how far he’d come from the mistakes he made when he was a teen. He basically grew up in prison. It made me think, If this man can change his circumstances, there is nothing that I can’t do. He turned out to be a great research teacher.

What does a typical day look like for you on the job?
Generally, it depends on how nice it is outside. Warmer months are our most violent months. June and July are the biggest months in the squad where we’re dealing with a lot of people shooting firearms. Sometimes they’re shooting at someone and missing, sometimes they’re striking someone, sometimes they’re killing someone. Either I respond to the scene or I talk to the investigators and we come up with a plan. While people are getting hurt by bullets, we also have people who are victims of other crimes—people getting robbed, people getting burglarized, people getting assaulted, people getting their property stolen, and people getting their cars broken into. All of that has to be investigated and supervised.

Describe your best day on the job. What happened that day to make you proud, happy, or encouraged?
Last year, we had a tremendous year in terms of case closures. We had over 45 shootings last year and we solved 58 percent of them. We also had a 100 percent clearance on our homicides. When those numbers came out, I was getting a lot of calls from chiefs asking, “How is this possible? Everyone else is like 20 percent.” My guys are tremendously talented. My guys never stop. When someone is shot, they start from now until they can solve it. If they can’t solve it, it’s because they really cannot solve it and they’ve done everything possible. This past March, people started recognizing that we were doing an incredible job, and then I found out that I was getting promoted to Lieutenant Commander of the Detective Squad. That has to be my best accomplishment on the job thus far.

“Most people have similarities, that’s how they fit into the pack, but it’s okay to be an anomaly.” —Rennae Francis

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
It’s very challenging when you’re young, female, Black, and an immigrant. It’s challenging because you don’t fit into the boys club. I don’t watch hockey and American sports. Most people have similarities, that’s how they fit into the pack, but it’s okay to be an anomaly. The challenge was trying to gain respect from people, but not lose myself in the process. Cops are big on earning respect. I knew once I showed them that I was competent and that my main goal was to protect them and support them—which is what a supervisor should be—they’d respect me. The first four months were tough, with them questioning if I was qualified, but once they saw that I was good at my job, a switch went off. Now it’s like night and day.

What advice would you give future law enforcement officers?
If helping people isn’t your top priority, I wouldn’t go into this job because I don’t think the stress would be worth it. Don’t come on the job if you’re a person that can’t handle stressful situations. The job itself is stressful. You’re not going to be able to make every Thanksgiving Dinner. You’re not going to make every Christmas. You are going to sacrifice some family time, but that’s why they give you a great benefits package. The job provides a lot of opportunities, but a lot is expected from you.

What do you want the public to know about your job?
It’s easy to judge cops because we expect a lot from cops. I expect a lot from my cops. I expect a lot from me. The Police Commissioner expects a lot from cops. The City expects a lot from cops. We totally understand the responsibility, but at the end of the day, when something terrible happens, cops are just as mad as civilians. They might not show it because they are trained to be stoic, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not upset. Behind closed doors, cops always show emotions to other cops. When George Floyd happened, white, Asian, Black, and Hispanic cops were mad. Most of the cops I know wanted that man to go to jail for life. There was no blue line. It was clear cut.