9 December, 2014

They see themselves as a group apart from the rest of society and above the law; a group whose first allegiance is to each other. They are recruited and go through a, sometimes, rigorous and dangerous initiation during which they prove themselves worthy of being admitted to the gang. They wear a specific color as a uniform to identify themselves to each other and to the population at large. They quickly resort to violence when they feel that they as a group have, or one of their members has, been disrespected. They have a strict code of silence (you do not rat out a fellow gang member, no matter what he or she has done). And if it’s decided a member has violated that rule, he or she may be ostracized, shunned, stripped of their membership, threatened with bodily harm or even left undefended in a dangerous or life-threatening situation.

No, this is not a piece about the Crips or the Bloods. I’m writing about the NYPD. But I could be writing about the police department in Ferguson or too many other cities and towns across America.

Now, I’m not saying that every member (or even most members) of the NYPD are hoodlums. I have two friends who are retired city cops… and socially they are caring, considerate people. But I never experienced them when they were members of the Force (compare that often-used phrase with the actual word “police”). Nor have I ever been around them when they were with a group of fellow officers (retired or active). But my observation is that, speaking in general terms, our police force and the gangs exhibit versions of the same group behavior.

In the wake of the Eric Gardner murder, did even one member of the police force publicly state that what happened was wrong? Quite the contrary, they closed ranks. And Patrick Lynch, the head of the PBA, ranted on an NPR broadcast that these things wouldn’t happen if the public started being taught to respect the police. You disrespected me, so I have the right to kill you; classic gang mentality. What about the police being taught to respect the citizenry whom they serve? The citizenry who pays their salaries. And in a city whose mayor has succeeded in keeping the calm so that the ongoing protests here have remained peaceful and not turned into what we saw in Ferguson… whose is the one voice (along with former Mayor Giuliani) that seems determined to inflame tensions and to incite violence? That same “disrespected” gang leader, Patrick Lynch.

It’s not the fault of every individual police officer that this us/them mentality has arisen. Living apart, spending all your time with like-minded people, creates in the relationship between the police and the population the same sort of polarization we see in the country’s political landscape. But though we can’t de-homogenize the country’s electoral districts, I think, we can do something about this situation.

I’m hardly an expert on these matters, but it seems clear to me that if the police, whether in NYC or Ferguson, or elsewhere, were once again required to live in the jurisdiction in which they work… if they saw themselves (and hence were seen) as members of the community as opposed to an outside force coming in to control what they, at best, perceive as people who do not and cannot understand and appreciate them, and, at worst, as adversaries (think the Israeli army marching into Gaza or the West Bank) then perhaps relations would be different. There is a reason our military has acknowledged the need (whether in Iraq or Afghanistan) to turn policing over to locals… so the laws are being enforced by members of the community, not by occupiers.

In addition, what if we got a significant number of the police out of their squad cars and back out on foot patrol? Walking the streets of a neighborhood, instead of driving through it, would go a long way toward making the officers and citizens all feel like part of the same community. Seeing people day after day, face to face could (as in the old days) foster healthy relationships and cooperation between the public and the police. Fewer patrol cars speeding down the streets would also cut down on air pollution and save considerable tax dollars in terms of the amount of gas used and car maintenance paid for. Plus, walking rather than driving the beat could create health benefits to, what it appears to me, is the ever-increasing percentage of overweight and even obese police officers.

In the wake of the Grand Jury decision to not indict Officer Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner, the City announced a new three-day training program to teach officers how to de-escalate potentially explosive situations. One recommendation, apparently, is to increase the number of female officers sent to those situations… because, according to the reports I’ve heard and read, women are better at calming things down than men. Really? Has anyone at the Department watched The Real Housewives of Wherever?

Seriously, I find the unspoken message here that male officers can’t be expected to control themselves and that we’d better send in some girls because “boys will be boys” to be worrisome. The gang’s going to do what the gang’s going to do. And though I applaud the intent of the new training program, I wonder if anyone really believes the status quo can be turned around with a three-day course. It reminds me of when I was at ABC and we all had to take a training program in sexual harassment in the workplace. The day after taking the eight-hour course, I was on the phone to the studio with one of my superiors who interrupted our conversation to tell me that the new intern had just walked into his office and she had the nicest tits he’d ever seen. I then heard him call her back in, saying, “Welcome to ABC, God you’ve got great tits!” So much for quick fixes. I also wonder why no one ever thought about including training that might avoid citizens being needlessly killed by police officers as part of the standard curriculum at the Police Academy before this.

But gang members can be rehabilitated. They can be taught to think of themselves as part of the population as a whole. Something that might help the NYPD achieve this is some training in basic common courtesy. I’m a friendly guy, and often I will smile at or say “hi” to a police officer… as I do to other people I see. Rarely does a policeman ever reciprocate. Instead, I get either a blank stare or open hostility. Why? Because I, as someone who is not a member of the gang, dared to speak to him? Does their code state that smiling or saying “hi” to a civilian might be seen as a show of weakness? Let me be clear, it’s not like I do this while they’re in the midst of something or try to engage them in a lengthy conversation. It’s just smile or a “hello.” I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t do this to someone who was obviously a member of the Crips or the Bloods, so maybe I shouldn’t try it with a member of the NYPD, either, but…

And to in no way minimalize what is happening to the Black community by the police… the arrogance and above-the-law attitude of many police officers is not limited to people of color. How many peaceful protesters were hassled, hit and worse during the Occupy Wall Street days? I am a white man, but when peacefully protesting the Republican convention, and in various other marches, I have been screamed at and shoved by officers though I’d done nothing wrong. No, I have not been wrestled to the ground, I have not been choked, I have not been shot… and perhaps that is because I’m white. But I also do not feel safe when I see police officers approaching me in a lawful, peaceful protest.

One afternoon in the latter part of this past summer, I was walking through Central Park heading south. A police car was sitting inside the park about half-way down the ramp leading from the lower loop to Seventh Avenue. Leaning up against the car was an extremely overweight policeman smoking a cigarette… which is against the law, since former Mayor Bloomberg banned smoking in the parks. Now, maybe I should have kept my mouth shut, but I didn’t. I approached him, smiled and said, “Hello.” He stared blankly as he continued to smoke. I then very nicely said I didn’t mean to cause trouble, but that by smoking in the park, which was now against the law, he was setting a bad example for the citizenry. He stepped toward me, took a long drag of the cigarette, and told me to get the hell away from him unless I wanted to wind up in trouble. I did… get the hell away from him. At the time, I didn’t think about it, but now I wonder what might have happened if I were a black man.

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