Op-ed column: Changing the way we police cities can restore trust

The most serious public safety problem we have in all of our upstate cities is the wedge of distrust

The most serious public safety problem we have in all of our upstate cities is the wedge of distrust that has been driven between the police and those segments of the community who most need to be able to trust and rely on them.

I mean the people who live in neighborhoods wracked by crime and blight. The neighborhoods that have been carved out and stigmatized by the state’s Operation IMPACT, where the only investment of public funding is spent on crime suppression, not community development.

Last summer in Buffalo, there was a horrific mass murder — the City Grill massacre — that took place before well over a hundred witnesses. Eight people were shot during a melee just outside of a downtown nightclub. Four died. One remains in the hospital in a comatose condition.

For more than two weeks, the Buffalo Police Department could get no one to come forward.

Depth of distrust

Such is the depth of distrust that has come of criminal justice policies in recent decades that have emphasized tough laws, aggressive enforcement, imprisonment and, increasingly, statistics and technology. The Buffalo Police Department did not invent these policies. The state did. And the state needs to do something about this.

The way to address the problem is community policing — a commitment to rebuilding bonds of trust and partnership between the police and communities largely of color. In fact, in Buffalo, the Common Council by resolution has empanelled a joint commission to examine police reorganization. An essential component of that commission’s charge is to develop recommendations for the implementation of community policing in Buffalo. I have the honor of chairing the commission’s committee on community policing.

There is today no program in place at the state level that encourages community policing. There was none during Mario Cuomo’s administration; none during the Pataki administration; and certainly none during the chaotic interregnum of the past four years.

And sadly, as I studied Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s public protection budget proposal earlier this year, I found that there is such a continued reliance on statistics and technology-driven policing (i.e., Operating IMPACT) one would think that Rudy Giuliani, who credits himself with the invention of statistics-driving policing, had won the last election.

I firmly believe that community policing is the sine qua non for the success of the economic development task that the governor has handed to Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy. Having governed and policed a major city, he of all people must know that we must address the public safety needs of our distressed and beleaguered inner cities if we are to create the environment in which business may thrive and quality of life improve.

If we are to bring law and order to our violent streets, we must have a policy that emphasizes building bonds of trust and partnership between the police and the community. We need community policing.

In the city of Albany, a five-year community-based effort, sparked by a number of homicides involving perpetrators as young as 15 and victims as young as 10, has led to Albany’s becoming New York’s first community-policed city. The result has been that the level of public satisfaction with the performance of the Albany Police Department under the leadership of Chief Steve Krokoff and his management team is at an all-time high. We need to follow this example and set as our goal the creation of a community policing movement here in the state of New York of which all New Yorkers can be proud.

Gov. Cuomo must make a priority of using what local assistance funding may be available to encourage county and municipal police agencies to adopt community policing. We can do this by developing and delivering training programs throughout the network of law enforcement training academies and the various conferences that law-enforcement groups conduct during the course of the year.

I would also call attention to a piece of legislation I drafted a few years ago for Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Utica. Assembly Bill 2397 would create local community justice councils charged with drawing up public safety plans establishing priorities, goals and objectives. These plans would be filed with the Division of Criminal Justice Services, the state agency that administers local assistance grants to law enforcement.

In evaluating any proposed grant of state money for local public safety services, Division of Criminal Justice Services would have to certify that the proposal is consistent with or advances the goals and priorities articulated in the plan. This system would promote a community-justice approach to public safety planning; it would certainly promote community policing.

No exit strategy

In the field of criminal justice, we have the term “million dollar block.” A million dollar block is a perennially distressed neighborhood where the only investment we ever make is for crime suppression. We go into these neighborhoods with no exit strategy. They never get taken off the community sick list. That is not a prescription for healthy and vibrant communities. We can and must do better. Community policing is the way.

Terry O’Neill lives in Albany and is director of the Constantine Institute.

Categories: Opinion

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