How cities across New York are trying to heal the rift between communities and cops

How cities across New York are trying to heal the rift between communities and cops

How cities across New York are trying to heal the rift between communities and cops
December 9, 2016

Albany police officer Justin Wallace approaches a middle-aged African-American woman who smiles warmly at him on a chilly fall night. They exchanged greetings before Donya Edmounds reminded him they have a neighborhood watch association meeting coming up.

“Do you think it’s crazy that I feel safe riding my bike around here at night?” Wallace said. “I’m not scared at all.”

“No,” Edmounds replies, playfully hitting his arm at a teasing remark.

The neighborhood watch member said she sees Wallace – a community police officer on the department’s neighborhood engagement unit – around her Arbor Hill neighborhood all the time. While kids standing on the corner most times will scatter when an officer comes by, they usually don’t go anywhere when he rolls up on his bike.

“He’ll pull up and be like ‘Oh, what’s up guys? How’s it going?’” Edmounds said. “He’s not busting their balls. He’s showing them respect.”

Even if there is someone potentially doing something illegal, a conversation might go further in protecting the community than a minor drug charge. The next time serious violence is imminent or one particular person has become a neighborhood menace, instead of running away, the people who know what’s going on might instead talk to Wallace. 

Just being visible helps to build trust, he said.

“Mostly I ride my bike up and down here. I’ll stop and engage in groups,” Wallace said. “A lot of people don’t want to be engaged at all, they just want to see me ride by. They just want to see me.”

Albany police officer Justin Wallace walks down the streets of Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood on his nightly patrol. (Heather Ainsworth)

The Albany Police Department’s push to change its philosophy is often praised by experts and considered the most progressive in the state, but they are one in a sea of agencies moving to address concerns over community and police relations. Departments across the country have been engaged in a kind of collective self-reflection in recent years as high profile incidents have drawn the nation’s attention to police departments and how they interact with the people they most often encounter. The deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police – incidents with men of color, who are disproportionately arrested, jailed and serve longer sentences than their white counterparts have drawn the lion’s share of scrutiny – have raised a multitude of questions about the efficacy of the data-driven, zero-tolerance policing tactics that have dominated departmental philosophy across the country over recent decades.

In New York that conversation has gained substantial momentum in recent years and now stands to draw the attention of the state Legislature.

As an observer of community policing issues in the state for about two decades, the one thing Terry O’Neill sees as the biggest obstacle to progress is the lack of communication, not just between police and citizens, but between groups from across New York who are all dealing with similar issues.

That’s why the Albany attorney and director of the Constantine Institute is pushing members of the Legislature to consider a bill that would allocate funding for the creation of a kind of repository and think tank for best practices in community policing. 

His proposal would see the Government Law Center at Albany Law School serve as the administrator of the community policing center, which would solicit input from activists, law enforcement executives and academics, and would distill that information into white papers and other tools to help departments make the shift. The Legislature would also allocate funding to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services for the purpose of providing technical assistance to agencies and small grants to establish community oversight groups.

And he may find a good deal of support, as activists across the state have pushed for greater reforms, while incidents of strife have continued: The tackling of a woman caught on video in Rochester, the beating of a handcuffed man in Buffalo, the arrest of a man videotaping another man being arrested in Syracuse, the death of Dontay Ivy in Albany, and several deadly incidents in New York City, including Eric Garner, whose videotaped fatal encounter drew national attention.

While O’Neill has appeared before the Legislature for the last decade running to urge lawmakers to allocate money to address these issues, this year is the first time he’ll be offering a concrete and thorough blueprint for how, exactly, they might go about doing that.

“We’ve not yet got state government to take the idea of community policing seriously,” O’Neill said. “You’re still following this whole trend toward data-driven policing, and that’s all they want to hear.”

He is now in the process of circulating his draft bill to advocacy groups around the state in an effort to build a movement around the legislation and get feedback before finalizing a version to take to lawmakers.

But this year, he said, legislators should expect a vigorous push from himself and others around the state. While he has a few lawmakers in mind he wants to wait for input from partners before deciding which lawmakers to bring the bill to seeking sponsorship and introduction.

He thinks he’ll be able to get the bill considered quickly, as early as this session.

“I think this is going to happen,” O’Neill said. 

Community policing is loosely defined as the dedication of resources by a department to try to engage citizens and build familiarity in a spirit of cooperation that makes both groups safer. But, the implementation of that idea comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are police departments attempting to make the shift toward that philosophy.

Many departments, especially those in areas with higher concentrations of poverty and people of color, have adopted some kind of community policing strategy to show that they are making an effort to connect with those neighborhoods where they focus most of their resources.

In Buffalo, there are two community police officers – CPOs in cop jargon – in each of the city’s five districts, a program revived by Mayor Byron Brown in 2010. They spend most of their shifts contacting people in the neighborhood, attending community meetings and taking in information that might be helpful to their patrol officer colleagues. There is a scholarship program aimed diversifying the force that provides tuition and book money for the academy.

Last year in Rochester, Mayor Lovely Warren restructured the department into five smaller sections, instead of two massive precincts, the idea being that cops more familiar with a smaller area can better engage with the residents in those neighborhoods, a move that is being met with mixed results. While the city has no dedicated CPOs, all officers receive community police training and are expected to spend time interacting with citizens outside of calls for service.

Syracuse has had a community policing division for about 20 years, and, like many other departments, they hold events meant to forge relationships in the neighborhoods they patrol. Politicians in the Salt City are as quick as anyone to throw the phrase community policing out there when asked by a reporter about tensions between law enforcement and residents.

Even in New York City, the place that made data-driven policing and zero tolerance tactics famous, the philosophy seems to be shifting. Bill Bratton, the architect of the NYPD’s data-driven scheme and a constant promoter of the mindset for two decades, publicly acknowledged that police need to change some of their methods in interactions with citizens before he retired from his commissioner post this fall. A pilot program for neighborhood policing  – another term that represents the same idea – began last year and has been expanded to about half of the department’s precincts. His successor, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, has vowed to continue to expand the program and institute a neighborhood policing philosophy in the nation’s largest force.

“Members of every community should feel that they are understood by their police and know they are treated fairly,” the NYPD boss said at an Association for a Better New York event shortly after coming into office. “We need all New Yorkers to view their police through a lens of trust.” 

While the shift in policy, or at least language, is seen as a positive by many observers, and is still at the beginning of what could be a complete change in law enforcement philosophy, critics say that many of the things police leadership and politicians have done in recent years are baby steps that do little to address the problem. 

Terry O’Neill called Buffalo’s dedication of resources a “sham.”

Out of a force of more than 750 officers, to put just two officers in each district, with one supervisor who oversees the whole program, can’t change the culture of the department as a whole, which will be necessary if the problem is to be honestly addressed, he said.

And other departments in larger cities across the state, excepting Albany, have done little to change their philosophy, he added.

“I’m afraid that a lot of places, in New York and elsewhere, the way that police executives interpret this concept of community policing is to create a special unit and assign a few people to go to community board meetings and have picnics,” Terry O’Neill said.

Seth Stoughton, an attorney and former police officer who serves on the faculty of the University of South Carolina’s law school, describes this as “PR community relations” policing. 

“We still ascribe to the same principles and the same approach,” Stoughton said. “We just dress it up in the language of community policing.”

Those tactics are designed to create the optic of a department dedicated to repairing relations with the community while doing little to change the overall philosophy of the department, he said.

“You can dot the I’s and cross the T’s and make everything look all shiny and spiffy,” Stoughton said. “But, if you’re just doing it as a community relations campaign, as opposed to actually adopting the principles of community policing into the core practices and culture of the police agency, then you’re not going to actually change the practices that need to be changed.”

Wallace talks with an Albany resident as part of his duty on the city's neighborhood engagement unit. (Heather Ainsworth)

Just a few days after taking his position as the Chief of the Albany Police Department Brendan Cox had a crisis on his hands.

Albany officers had tased Dontay Ivy, an African American Arbor Hill resident who suffered from schizophrenia. He was well known to residents and would sometimes do peculiar things, which went largely ignored. But in April 2015, the officers who approached Ivy did not know him. He continuously pulled his sleeves down over his hands and refused to let the officers touch him when they decided they wanted to search him. They tackled him and administered electric shocks through a taser at least three times. Ivy died before reaching the hospital.

The situation had the potential to explode, but Cox had built bridges that helped him keep things under control as he worked to figure out what had gone wrong. For the previous six years he had been part of a departmental leadership that had aggressively moved to completely change the philosophy of the force. He reached out to the network of people in the neighborhood that had been built up during the process and his community liaisons worked diligently to dispel rumors and to disseminate information as it became available to him. There were protests, but things remained largely peaceful. The officers were ultimately cleared of any criminality in the incident, but police also held extensive sessions where they explained their decision in great detail, let people vent and took input that led to changes in departmental policy.

Without the people on the ground making sure that rumors and presumptions did not take over the narrative, the potential for further violence would have been far greater, Cox said.

“If you try to build that bridge in the middle of a crisis, there’s no way to do it,” he said. “You have to have those relationships.”

And building those relationships, as well as increasing training, creating opportunities for interactions with citizens and consistently working to change the philosophy and policy of the department from the top down is exactly what’s been going on since 2009 when Cox’s predecessor, former Chief Steven Krokoff, stepped in and committed to sweeping changes.

Unlike many other departments across the state, the Albany Police Department got serious about dedicating resources to better build those crucial connections, with 50 of the city’s 350 sworn officers, about 14 percent of the entire force, on the neighborhood engagement unit. In Buffalo only 1.4 percent of the officers are dedicated to community engagement. In Rochester no police are dedicated to that single purpose, though all officers receive training and are expected to spend part of their day away from the radio doing that work. Syracuse’s long-standing unit has 20 officers, about 5 percent of the force. In New York City just 1.3 percent of the force is assigned to the neighborhood policing program, though that number is expected to grow as the program moves into more precincts. 

One way that Albany has moved toward a true shift in philosophy is that they broke away from the regional academy training used by most departments, where many agencies train together, and established their own academy.

The idea, Cox said, is to have the flexibility to introduce the mantra behind community policing to cadets immediately. Part of their training involves going to coffee with a cop events or block club meetings.

The first time Cox interacted with the community in an official police capacity, he was responding to a call for a fistfight in the street. He wants that initial experience to be different for his cadets, he said.

“I want them to have those positive introductions long before they have that first negative one,” Cox said.

Beverly Padgett, who is African American, has been on the front lines of these tensions in Albany for three decades. A longtime Arbor Hill resident and two-time chair of the Albany Community Policing Advisory Committee – a board on which she still sits – she has seen the shift from the beginning.

The distrust between police and Albany residents had been building for decades, and was to a point that both she and Cox described the police as an “occupying force” in some neighborhoods. That perception had them up against long odds, she said.

“We had wounded communities, but that’s on both sides,” Padgett said.

The board, known as ACPAC, is a perfect example of why things have improved. The advisory council’s input is taken seriously and the people on the board, Padgett said, are for the most part heavily involved with their communities at an organic level, not political acolytes, and take their work to heart.

“I seriously believe that if we can keep the politics out of it, we can get somewhere,” Padgett said.

With that shift in philosophy, respect has been earned on both sides, Cox said.

“If people believe that we’re acting in a fair and balanced manner, and that we’re applying the law in that same manner, that we’re being fair and just, then more people are going to follow the law,” Cox said. 

And indeed, the numbers show progress, particularly in the last few years. Use of force incidents dropped from 397 in 2010 to 243 in 2015. The number of citizen complaints against officers has fallen from 151 in 2010 to 67 last year. 

Padgett, who has walked into a community fundraiser for the victims of a housefire to see Cox elbow deep in dishes, said it all boils down to signals of respect.

“The culture of the police department has changed, too,” Padgett said. “They talk to us.”

And that, Padgett said, gives her some hope. The grandmother of 17’s efforts over the years have been carried out with all her children, and her children’s children, in mind. Perhaps soon her family – particularly the men – will be able to go about their business without being afraid something might happen if they have a chance interaction with police. 

“I want my son and my grandson to be able to come to my house whenever they feel like it.”

Bratton has worked for decades to promote his brand of law enforcement leadership, flying around the world to talk about his system and the decline of crime in New York City. Gaining a certain celebrity in the process the longtime police chief, who served under mayors Rudy Giuliani and Bill de Blasio, was a driving force in the proliferation of his method to nearly every local police agency across the country. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1996 behind the headline, ”Finally we’re winning the war against crime. Here’s why.”

And now, after retiring in September, he will continue to consult on law enforcement issues in his role with the global advisory firm Teneo Holdings.

The key to the method Bratton popularized: use statistics to track where crimes are being committed and send targeted pushes to tamp down on specific categories of crime in those areas. At the same time, at the urging of Giuliani, his officers were out writing a barrage of tickets for loitering and other minor crimes, part of their “broken windows” philosophy, a no-tolerance method of policing that relies on the notion that the allowance of minor crimes leads citizens to feel emboldened to commit more serious offenses. 

Terry O’Neill, who has attended National Association of Chiefs of Police conferences since the early 1990’s, recalled the 1995 gathering, where Bratton and Giuliani sent an NYPD representative to present a “high powered dog and pony show,” extolling the efficacy of data-driven policing. Conference attendees ate it up. They had to schedule a second presentation, he said.

“It was like catnip to them,” O’Neill said.

Government executives and police officials salivated at the chance to distill crime into neatly packaged numbers for the public to consume. The politicians could use them to sell their public safety platforms and that can be good for the incumbent or the challenger, depending on where things stand. 

And so, no matter who won an election, the pressure would begin. City executives are left breathing down the neck of their police commissioner, who leans on his deputy, who lets the chiefs know just how important it is that the numbers come back lower than before. 

Indeed, statistics show that crime has fallen drastically across the country over the last 20 years. In New York City in particular “lowest crime in decades” type headlines have splashed across the front pages of city papers with regularity over the last year. But many critics wonder whether data manipulation and coincidence have as much to do with the trend as police tactics.

John Eterno, a professor of criminal justice at Molloy College and former NYPD officer for two decades, said that the pressure rolling downhill often causes officers to downgrade or even fail to report crimes.

And some officers feel satisfied to get their quotas through low-level ticket writing and take it easy for the rest of the day. He had NYPD colleagues who would run around in the morning citing people for loitering or playing chess in the park, and then would be next to impossible to find, he said. 

“Everything becomes a numbers game,” Eterno said. “Officers are put under tremendous pressure to make sure that the numbers look good.” 

In turn, the politicians aren’t concerned about the veracity of the statistics, so long as they’re improving. There is even a term for this practice, garbage in garbage out, sometimes expressed in more crass terms.

“You may be looking at the numbers, but the numbers aren’t revealing what’s actually happening out on the streets, because you’re playing with them to try to make sure that your area of responsibility looks good,” Eterno said.

With police chiefs and politicians constantly under public pressure to do better, especially given the short term outlook so often inspired by election cycles, there is little incentive to consider the long view in placing that pressure on officers and their lieutenants, Eterno said.

“I think politics can be part of the problem, where a mayor or a county executive is unwilling to let those numbers go up at all,” he said. “I think that it truly takes a brave politician to work with the community and the police department to make sure those numbers are accurate.”

And while all experts agree that data is a vital part of policing, being overly reliant on numbers can bring more harm than good. Stoughton said that not only is a lot of the data faulty because of those pressures, but major indicators, like community satisfaction with the performance of the department, are not often considered.

“You can focus on data, but if you focus on the wrong kind of data, your system is going to be skewed,” Stoughton said. 

Very few police departments measure satisfaction with the police in real time, getting the data months later, if at all, when the situation from neighborhood to neighborhood may have already changed. 

And when they do, the numbers usually are not flattering, especially in relation to how they treat communities of color. A recent survey conducted by advocacy groups in Buffalo found that 57 percent of respondents did not believe that the police treat people of color with respect. 

“If a community is afraid of or has an antagonistic relationship with the police department, there is going to be a lower sense of security, even if there’s a relatively low amount of crime,” Stoughton said.

That many departments don’t track or highlight those statistics can send a message to the community that the department isn’t concerned with their satisfaction, Terry O’Neill said.

“(Crime) may be going down, but we see that there are an awful lot of people whose dissatisfaction is skyrocketing upward,” he said.

For Wallace, his unit's role is less about talking to every person they see and more about being a constant presence in the neighborhood. "A lot of people don’t want to be engaged at all, they just want to see me ride by. They just want to see me." (Heather Ainsworth)

Stoughton has been watching the relationship between police and citizens for years. 

While many incidents in the past have drawn attention to the often fraught relationship – the Rodney King beating, the NYPD shooting of an unarmed Amadou Diallo – there has never been such a sustained conversation and unyielding scrutiny, Stoughton said, a development he attributes to the proliferation of cameras and the connectivity created by social media.

“This is the first time I can identify, now, we’ve seen more than two years of attention to policing,” he said.

While many departments have at least adopted modest measures to address citizen concerns in recent years, it remains to be seen where this conversation will go, given President-elect Donald Trump’s “law and order” tough talk on the campaign trail. 

Police departments operate with relative autonomy, but federal authorities provide funding, can drive the direction of the public conversation and lend support to local authorities. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have been aggressive in their investigation of police shootings under President Barack Obama, but it is unlikely that U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Justice, will continue down the same path given Trump’s campaign promises and Sessions’s own record as Alabama’s attorney general and U.S. Senator. 

Still, the shift that has begun in Albany and other departments will not be easily reversed.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we are seeing broad recognition among communities and police leaders and police officers that the status quo is not serving the interest of a modern democracy,” Stoughton said.

Back in Albany, officer Wallace is chatting up a laundromat owner, whose corner in Arbor Hill is sometimes crowded with young men, some of whom are up to no good.

Lindbert Johnson, an older African-American man who has long lived in the community, said that he can tell Wallace is from the city. Some officers are not comfortable being outside of a squad car in the neighborhood, as they’ll stand silently, halfway down the block while he and Wallace have their regular conversations. 

“He will stand and talk to you and relate to you. Real talk,” Johnson said. “Which, some of these officers from up in the mountains, if he’s patrolling with one of the officers from up in the mountains and he’s standing here talking to me, the other officer will stand way over there. They don’t want to talk.” 

For Wallace, knowing the neighborhoods is vital to doing the job, and harassing people who are just going about their business on their own block does little to advance the mission of the police department: making the community safer. So when he sees someone he could justify putting up against a wall because he smells some weed, or he can see the beer can they are handling, lightly concealed beneath brown paper, so long as he doesn’t feel that there is any real danger, he’d rather attempt to start a conversation than lock somebody up, he said.

“A lot of times I might walk by a corner, I might smell weed, but I’m not stopping,” Wallace said. “Because everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing. No one’s causing a big problem. No one from the community is telling me to come here and stop this, so there’s just different levels to it and different areas that you have to be aware of and respect. Pick your own battles.”

Walking down the street Wallace comes upon a group of men. They ask where his bike is and start discussing the different kinds they’ve owned, ones they wish they’d owned. One man isn’t attempting to hide his open container. Drinking is a common occurrence at this spot. 

But, Wallace never even mentions it during the conversation. After leaving, he says he has never heard of anything worse than a drunken disturbance happening there. He doesn’t hassle them, and when he rides by on his bike, they wave. 

“I treat everyone out here the way I’d want to be treated on my own block,” Wallace said. “And if I’m coming to arrest you – I’m coming to arrest you. They know they’ve done something so bad that they know I’m coming to punish them.”

But the question remains: will the major shift in philosophy that has been seen in Albany be replicated around the state? 

Terry O’Neill will continue to push his proposed legislation while advocates from Buffalo to Brooklyn will continue to push for reforms. 

Still, those people should not expect change to come quickly, even if the state’s political leadership does get on board, Padgett said. 

“It’s hard work, she said. “You can’t do it overnight.” 

City & State Albany reporter Ashley Hupfl contributed to this report.

Justin Sondel