Hanks found viral fame in 2019 when his one-on-one basketball games with young people made him a rising star in the community and earned him an honor from the city. The exchange with the hotel employee summed up what the Syracuse native has aimed to do as one of the few Black officers in his nearly five years with the police department: Be yourself and show young Black people what success can look and sound like.
“That’s why I act the way I act and talk the way I talk, because people from my community that do not have anything can relate to that,” Hanks said. “It motivates other people behind me to want to be successful the right way.”
But when Hanks was up for a coveted job this year with the department’s gang violence task force, he allegedly was denied the position after some of his White colleagues accused him of being a “gang member” and “narcotics trafficker” who has “known associations with gang members and convicted criminals,” according to a new federal lawsuit. Hanks’s colleagues also did not like that he listened to rap music, using the profanity in the songs and a tattoo of a 2Pac track he has on his left arm, “Only God Can Judge Me,” as a mark against him.
Hanks filed a federal lawsuit on Monday accusing his White colleagues, the city and the police department, his own employer, of “blatant and extreme racism” because of what he and his attorney describe as a “Jim Crow culture” against Black officers. Hanks, who remains on active duty, is seeking $33 million in damages from the discrimination complaint filed in the Northern District of New York, as well as reforms so that Black officers in Syracuse have increased employment and training opportunities.
“It’s a clear, clear, clear-cut example of racism and discrimination,” Hanks said to The Washington Post, calling his White colleagues’ attack on his character “an ultimate violation.” “This is what’s been going on, and this needs to stop.”
The lawsuit underscores the challenges Black officers face within their own departments.
Twelve of the 13 officers or officials named in the lawsuit did not respond to interview requests. In a statement to The Post, Police Chief Kenton Buckner, who is named in the lawsuit, said Hanks’s allegations “painted an inaccurate picture” of the department, adding that the city would “vigorously dispute these claims through the legal process.” Buckner, who previously said the situation surrounding Hanks had become “a little bit of a lightning rod moment for our community,” rebuked the claim that the officer was denied the position, saying the opportunity was still available to him.
“I am confident that when all the facts are presented, it will show that the Syracuse Police Department does not maintain a racially hostile work environment and does not otherwise engage in racist employment practices,” said Buckner, who is Black. “I would never tolerate any such practices, and to the contrary, in my seven years as Chief I have taken many steps to create additional opportunities for Black officers, including Officer Hanks.”
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh (I), who did not respond to an interview request, noted to the Daily Beast last month that Hanks’s allegations were “concerning and hard to read” but that the city aimed to ensure that “SPD is a fair and equitable department with its officers and with the community.”
This year, several discrimination lawsuits have been brought against police departments by former or current Black officers in states such as Kentucky, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Jesse Ryder, Hanks’s attorney, said his client’s lawsuit has the potential to send a message to other Black officers nationwide grappling with departments that have “beaten them down to the point where they just don’t even lift their head anymore.”
“This is the case that every civil rights attorney across the country has been waiting for,” Ryder said. “This is the case where we can show the country, and show the world, that there is a better way of policing these communities.”
‘You’re trying to be a cop?’
Growing up on the south side of Syracuse, Hanks had negative feelings toward law enforcement, recalling how he would see police in his predominantly Black neighborhood only when someone was arrested or going to jail. Nyatwa Bullock, a community organizer and a longtime friend, reflected on how “you would walk to the store and you might get shot or have to run for cover or worry about people looking at you funny or messing with you.”
“Our neighborhood’s relationship with police was horrible,” Bullock said.
Hanks’s mother, Michele Vanfossen, raised him and his three brothers on West Colvin Street — working at Verizon while keeping them away from the gangs and violence that plagued the area. Police were no help in keeping her sons off the streets, she said, adding that she even thought of law enforcement as “scary.” Knowing the allure that gangs held for young people in their neighborhood, Vanfossen wouldn’t even let her boys play with toy guns.
“A couple of his friends in school went the opposite way … and joined gangs, and Brandon was like ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Vanfossen said. “He thought anyone who joined a gang was crazy.”
Hanks found serenity in basketball, going from pickup runs at the Boys and Girls Club to high school stardom and a college scholarship. After he graduated with a criminal justice degree from the State University of New York at Morrisville, Hanks — a dean’s list student and record-breaking point guard for the Division III men’s basketball team — took a job as a security guard. He then looked toward a future that would have been laughable years earlier: working as a police officer.
Hanks joined the police department in December 2016 at what he called a “horrible” time to be a Black officer in the country. Deaths of Black men at the hands of White officers or while in police custody — from Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray to Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — sparked protests, outrage and calls for reform.
A personal experience also stuck with him: Hanks’s brother Trevon ended up suing the city after an officer allegedly struck him three times with a Taser inside a classroom in 2012. (As part of the settlement, Syracuse changed its policy and restricted how police use Tasers against children and others.)
Hanks said his colleagues on the force also questioned him, wondering how “a kid who grew up in the hood, grew up around these gang members and street criminals, gets hired in this police department.”
The officer also faced the skepticism of people from his neighborhood who thought he had sold out by joining the police — a familiar feeling for some Black officers. Officers across the country have been torn between a personal stake in changing the way Black Americans are treated and a professional duty to carry out orders as police. The tension was profound during last year’s racial justice demonstrations, resulting in at least one Black officer, Andre Bottoms of the Louisville Metro Police Department, retiring because of the challenges of being both a Black man and a police officer.
“I’m from a rough neighborhood, and there were a lot of gang members around there who would look at me like, ‘Yo, you’re trying to be a cop? Are you kidding me?’ ” Hanks said. “I was like, ‘I want to do something different.’ ”
Being different meant connecting to Black communities through spontaneous one-on-one basketball with young people. The idea for the “Pull Up Challenge” was simple: If they scored on Hanks, who was wearing pounds of police gear, he would buy them whatever pair of sneakers they wanted. If he scored first, they had to do 20 push-ups.
He won about 18 games in a row in the summer of 2019 before a miraculous shot from a 7-year-old boy who ended the streak, he said, and picked out a pair of Nike Air Max sneakers
. A video of one of the competitions soon went viral, and Rajon Rondo, Hanks’s favorite NBA point guard, donated 25 pairs of sneakers to the officer for the challenge. Walsh honored Hanks in 2020 with an achievement medal for his work in the community.
I PLAY ONE ON ONE ...FIRST PERSON TO SCORE WINS !!! YOU LOSE YOU DO PUSH-UPS ...IF YOU WIN I’LL PERSONALLY BUY YOU A NEW PAIR OF SNEAKERS !!! SPREAD THE WORD !!!! DROP A LOCATION AND IM PULLING UP !!!!! THIS IS TOO EASY !!!!!!Posted by Brandon Hanks on Sunday, July 28, 2019
So when the time came for a potential promotion, Hanks was in a good position to move to the department’s gang violence task force, where he would be the first Black officer. While his basketball challenge gained him acclaim in Syracuse, the work he had done to get drugs and illegal guns off the street meant even more. Hanks said he was responsible for getting 16 illegal guns off the street in the past 11 months — good for almost a third of the department’s total.
“My lieutenant recommended me because I see the way the gang members move, I see where they live, I know everything about them,” Hanks said. “I lived it, and I worked it.”
But on March 26, one day after Lt. Donald Patti recommended Hanks for a 30-day rotation with the gang violence task force, an internal investigation got underway that Hanks didn’t know about. It wasn’t until his lieutenant showed him photos of a memo used to allegedly deny Hanks’s request for the position that it fully occurred to the officer that some of his White colleagues didn’t trust him.
In fact, some even thought that he was affiliated with the gangs the task force was targeting, according to the lawsuit, which accused the other officers of having an “intent of destroying his career.”
On April 8, Capt. Timothy Gay, head of the police department’s special investigations division, expressed his “founded and reasonable concerns” about Hanks joining the gang violence unit in an internal memo to Deputy Chief Richard Trudell. Gay wrote that other gang violence task force members, including Trudell, shared his sentiments that Hanks was closely associated with gang members.
“Hanks’ association with known gang members, convicted criminals — felony and RICO — known to be involved in gangs, narcotics trafficking and other criminal activity are cause for concern when considering a transfer to the Special Investigations Division,” Gay wrote in the memo, which was obtained by The Post. RICO refers to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Gay was among a group of officers who had been previously sued for bringing pornography to work and discriminating against Sonia Dotson, a Hispanic female community service officer. (The jury ruled in Dotson’s favor in 2010.) Court records obtained by The Post show Trudell acknowledged that he had previously used racial slurs, including the n-word, when he was off duty.
In the memo, Gay pointed to Hanks’s tattoo of the 2Pac lyric and said it matched that of an alleged gang member. Hanks said he got the tattoo with someone he considered his best friend when they were 16. They lost touch after they graduated from high school, he said, with Hanks off to college and the friend gravitating toward a gang.
While initial concerns among several officers about Hanks’s prior relationships and friendships were reviewed, Buckner said, the allegations were “ultimately never adopted or accepted by Department leadership.”
There was also a traffic stop involving Hanks in which, Gay alleged, the officer was thought to be with gang members in his car “who were drinking,” and potentially a person with a felony warrant. The memo provided no evidence as to why his colleagues thought people in Hanks’s car were gang members. Instead, Hanks said, he was with a close friend, a high school teacher in Syracuse, and the officer who pulled him over never asked for their identification.
Many of the allegations, however, focus on Hanks’s social media activity. Police alleged in the memo that a Syracuse man who pleaded guilty in a RICO operation had tagged Hanks in a Facebook post that said, “Come pick up your shirt.” There were other instances, Gay wrote, in which alleged gang members, who were not named in the memo, took to Facebook to ask Hanks about “police related topics.”
Hanks acknowledged that he’s probably too open about his personal life on social media, but he rejected the suggestion that people tagging him on Facebook meant he was gang-affiliated.
The task force was also concerned about how Hanks, while in uniform, had posted pictures and videos of himself listening to rap music. Gay suggested that the accusations meant that “justifiable caution would be expected” in weighing the officer’s credentials.
“These behaviors also speak to Hanks’ judgment and professional/personal decision-making,” Gay wrote.
The relationship between the star officer and his department had soured, leaving Hanks wondering what lay ahead.
‘Are they going to have my back?’
Months after Hanks first saw the memo, he retained Ryder as his attorney and filed a notice of claim on July 1 that let the department know a federal lawsuit was coming as a result of the “sham investigation.” That same day, he received a written reprimand for posting a brief social media video in February in which Hanks was in uniform while the n-word could be heard in a rap song playing in the background.
Buckner told The Post that his directive to issue a written reprimand to Hanks for violating the department’s social media policy came three weeks before his notice of claim was received and was not delivered in response to the officer’s filing notice. The posts “negatively impacted the reputation and professionalism of the Department and the credibility of Officer Hanks,” the police chief said. Hanks’s punishment had little to do with him listening to rap music, Buckner said, even as the officer and his attorney have argued that the music in question was coming from someone else’s car.
Hanks, however, described the action by his department as “blatant retaliation” that only worsened online. News of the lawsuit angered some residents, who accused Hanks on Facebook of wanting to “cash in on the current anti-police movement,” according to court documents. “How has he earned his way?” one critic wrote. “Because he bounces a ball?”
The notice of claim got the attention of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, which denounced what it called the “active, overt, and systemic racism” against Hanks. Appalled by the allegations against her son, Vanfossen organized a rally in support of Hanks last month that included T-shirts that read, “I listen to rap music.”
One of the supporters in attendance was Joyce Suslovic, Hanks’s history teacher at Henninger High School. Suslovic, who is White and taught generations of students using “corny” raps, said accusations based on Hanks’s musical preference are certainly racist — but also feel familiar in American culture: “If someone listens to Frank Sinatra, does that mean that they have mafia affiliations?”
Sitting in a hotel room during an interview with The Post, Hanks acknowledged that he does not see “a bright future in the police department” for him. But Hanks, who has a 1-year-old son, is more concerned about a question that can arise any moment in the field: Will my colleagues protect me when I need it the most? It’s a question that worries Vanfossen every day, she said, even if her son maintains a brave face most of the time.
“I don’t worry about the stuff in the memo, but the silent officers who haven’t said anything about it to me? Those are the people that I’m scared of,” Hanks said. “I don’t know if I can trust being around these people. Are they going to have my back?”
Buckner emphasized that Hanks remained “a valued member of the Syracuse Police Department who has made great contributions to our community.”
Leaving the hotel, Hanks runs into the employee from a couple of hours earlier, who gives him a handshake and another thank-you message: “I support what you’re doing out here.”
He holds on to that encouragement before he drives off to work that afternoon as Jadakiss, his favorite rapper, booms throughout his sports car. As he has done each workday for the past few years, Hanks is clocking in for a profession he loves — even if, he said, he feels more isolated now than ever.