Bringing Police and Students Together
with JW Cortés of The Detective Rafael Ramos Foundation
Ongoing protest movements are drawing increased attention to police-community relationships.
JW Cortés, actor and President of The Detective Rafael Ramos Foundation, reflects on his personal background, and outlines how trust can be built in communities across the country.
Sep 14, 2020
Anderson: The killing of George Floyd sparked recent protests across the U.S. as Americans demanded racial equality and an end to police brutality. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. While protesters continue to rally across the country, efforts are also underway to rebuild trust and repair racial rifts between communities and law enforcement. And someone who knows a whole lot about that is JW Cortés. He is the president of the Detective Rafael Ramos Foundation. And, JW, thank you for joining us.
Cortés: Thank you so much for having me.
Anderson: So, you've got a pretty decorated past. You were a Marine combat veteran. You were a law enforcement official. And not only were you a cop in real life, you actually played one on TV, and you're using all that to build police-community relations. Explain how all that happened.
Cortés: By the grace of God. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that a kid who grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on a block that the NYPD had nicknamed "Little Vietnam"... I lived in a building, and I was being raised by two amazing parents, proud Puerto Ricans. But there were many trials and tribulations and challenges growing up in that sort of environment. To go from that environment and find myself, you know, almost a decade later, in the middle of the invasion of Iraq, and there, of all places, I decided that I would no longer prolong or put to the wayside these dreams that I had floating inside of my mind. It was there that I made the decision that, if I made it out of there alive, I would pursue these things that I had always wanted to, and one of those very strongly was to pursue the arts. So to answer your question, to go from what I say is the Brooklyn stoops to the sands of Iraq to screens in Hollywood, it's a story that most people wouldn't believe, but it's the absolute truth. And fast forward, after making that decision, like every other actor, although I wasn't waiting tables, I was walking a beat and running to auditions whenever I could. I was getting lucky. And then eventually, in 2014, I was casted as Detective Carlos Alvarez on the hit series "Gotham." And I'm the first human to play Alvarez. And since that moment, that story has become somewhat viral, and that platform that I've always longed for really is quite sturdy, and we've done really tremendous things for the military community, which I'm incredibly close to, having served nearly 13 years of my life in the Marine Corps, but also for the family members of our officers who have fallen and made the ultimate sacrifice here in the United States. So, those two efforts lived inside of my bones.
Anderson: And you're now using that at the Rafael Ramos Foundation. And in your role, I'd love for you to talk to us about the importance of police-community relations and what that means to developing a highly functioning police force.
Cortés: So, in 2014 -- December 20th, to be exact -- two NYPD police officers were sitting in their car. They were about to get off, and Maritza Ramos had just spoken to Rafael Ramos. He had every plans of hanging up his uniform and going home and being a husband and a father to his two sons. These two men were executed simply for wearing a uniform -- a uniform that I've worn for now close to 17 years of my life. To be president of this foundation after coming on just as a volunteer, it resonates in my bones, and it's because I'm a father, I'm a husband. Rafael was Puerto Rican, I'm Puerto Rican. He's a proud American, he's a God-fearing man. So am I. To take on this role as president means that I can connect the dots, become the connective tissue that I believe members of my community, people of color, long to hear from someone like myself who knows firsthand what it's like to live in these communities, to come from these communities, to face the same challenges that I faced back in my day that are still going on today. Our foundation says, despite these tragic things that have happened, we want to embrace our community. We want to walk alongside our community. We want to stand with our community. And to look like this and come back and say these words, it resonates.
Anderson: So, knowing that, what are some of the things that the foundation is actually doing to promote community relations, and what are you seeing that's actually working?
Cortés: Yeah, so, one of the great things that the founder, his widow, Maritza Ramos, invented and created for us as a movement was to really focus on the children of these communities. So, right now, one block in either direction from where these two men were executed, there are two elementary schools in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Now, if you're familiar with New York City and Brooklyn in particular, you know, Do or Die Bed-Stuy is a name that comes with a lot of history. And its challenges are still very much a part of its fabric today. So, these two elementary schools have been our focus. We've gone back since the executions have happened, and we have collected more than 5,000 book bags filled with school supplies, and we give them free. I think our mission overall is, "Hey, let's make sure that the first interaction a young kid has is a positive one with a police officer." So it's cops giving these kids these bags, and, of course, we're there as well. So, that's one of the things that we've done. Toy drives -- We've collected over... several thousand toys at this point. But we want to take it a step further. Now that I'm president, I want to create a curriculum that lives within the Board of Education. We want to expand to the other parts of New York City. And that's just the beginning.
Anderson: So, if people want to find out more about the work of the foundation, just quickly give us their website.
Cortés: DetectiveRafaelRamos.org. And we're super active on social media, so you should follow us there as well.
Anderson: Using Detective Ramos' tragedy and your star power for good. Thank you for all your work, JW, and thanks for being here.
Cortés: Thank you so much for having me.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.