Mending Police-Community Relations

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Events in recent months have directed national attention to profound fractures within our criminal justice system. Trust between police departments and the communities they protect is disintegrating and causing us to reevaluate the systemic biases inherent to our legislation.

The potential for such ruptures may not come as a surprise when we consider how much power police officers wield in their role. Laws created to protect the permissible violence officers can enact have undermined many of the initiatives to mend police relationship with the public.

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri; the death of Eric Garner captured on cell phone video in New York City; the release of the Department of Justice (DOJ) assessment of the Cleveland, Ohio, police department; and the first report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing–these events all pose a serious threat to a vital aspect to our democracy: trust in our government.

The route out of the country’s tumultuous situation will be founded on establishing public faith in police once again, while simultaneously having the police trust the public.

Samuel B. Cohen, an accomplished civil rights attorney in New York City with a focus on underserved communities, spoke with BTR about some of the undermining public policies that disrupt healthy police-community relations and the ways in which trust can be found again.

“Honestly, what I see more in my practice is less of a racial profiling based on animus–where it’s a sense that these police really hate minorities–and it’s more of what I refer to as racism of ready victimization,” explains Cohen. “Essentially, they know that minorities in low-income areas are unlikely to have the resources to dispute charges against them, and that the courts will give a lot more credibility to police officers.”

The credence given to law enforcement by judges is well-documented, and even legally permits the use of violence against those they arrest. The Supreme Court describes this as qualified immunity. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Court explained that “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

“There were a couple of Supreme Court cases at around 2003-2004 that were very difficult for citizens’ rights,” says Cohen. “One was this case Atwater v. City Of Lago Vista, which basically stood for the proposition that even if the offense that police observe doesn’t have a possibility of a jail time, if they arrest you on that charge it is not a false arrest.”

This results in arrests that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate, as was seen in the case of Sandra Bland’s arrest for failing to signal at a traffic stop in Texas. Bland tragically died after being jailed under circumstances that were never made clear. The officer who charged Bland was not indicted.

These more recent cases of power abuse and physical force are nothing new. Streaks of misconduct within the New York City police force in the ’70s called for the famous Knapp Commission to hold hearings on the extent of corruption in the city’s police department.

Police officer Frank Serpico’s startling testimony against fellow officers not only revealed systemic corruption but highlighted a longstanding obstacle to investigating these abuses: the fraternal understanding among police officers–known as “the Code of Silence” and “the Blue Curtain”–under which officers regard testimony against a fellow officer as betrayal.

In the 1980s and 90s, the work of criminologist Herman Goldstein aimed to improve organizational rules and publicized a code of police conduct by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. One policy he initiated was better community-policing efforts. However, according to Cohen, these efforts were largely undermined by other congruent laws in place.

“Community policing is a great idea,” poses Cohen. “The principles of it are very sound, more often than not, but the way that it gets implemented is a bit more segregated than normal enforcement.”

Two of the main obstructions to community policing is effective arrest quotas and impact policing, according to Cohen.

“Community policing in New York was really being implemented at the same time as effective arrest quota,” points out Cohen. “Arrest quotas give a perverse incentive for officers to make something up or face consequences for their career.”

It’s one subject that both police unions and police reform advocates seem to agree on, which is that arrest quotas are counterproductive and dismantle any lasting trust.

Officer Adhyl Polanco joined the NYPD force in 2005 and quickly realized the corroding use of quotas. He encountered an unspoken rule that expected officers to bring in 20 tickets and one arrest per month.

“The culture is, you’re not working unless you are writing summonses or arresting people,” Polanco said in an interview with NPR.

“Community policing and quotas are antithetical principles,” continues Cohen.

On top of that, Operation Impact was implemented in order to have more boots on the ground in high crime-ridden neighborhoods. This was a movement in the NYPD to take rookies, fresh from the academy and place them into the worst areas of the city under traditionally hardened, jaded sergeants.

“It’s well documented that a police officer’s behavior is molded more by their sergeant than by the academy,” lays out Cohen.

These three programs all work against each other in the effort to bring about more humane policing and fruitful community relations with police officers. But recommendations on the most effective tactic to improving policing methods can be as numerous as the complaints levied against current law enforcement.