It’s been a tough year in New York City and nationwide for police-community relations. In the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island and several other high profile controversies, there has been an ongoing discussion about police training, community building and law enforcement tactics. This week that conversation came to the Lower East Side.
At the Manny Cantor Center Tuesday evening, local residents, representatives from local non-profits and police officers came together to talk about the road ahead. It was the third and final forum coordinated by the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Earlier sessions were held in Washington Heights and East Harlem. Norman Siegel, the well-known civil rights attorney, helped moderate. Feedback from the events will be used to prepare a report and to come up with specific proposals for improving understanding between the NYPD and local communities.
Participants broke up into small groups. Seated at most tables was at least one young person. Organizers said a big effort was made to draw them into the conversation, since so many of the conflicts that have occurred over the years involved young men of color. There was also a police officer at almost every table. The 7th, 5th and 9th precincts all took part in the dialogue.
Many of those in attendance expressed the view that officers all too often jump to faulty conclusions about people in ethnic communities. Before the conversations got underway, Siegel posed a number of questions. He asked each group to consider whether the NYPD’s “broken windows” tactics, in which officers crack down on small offenses as a way of preventing big crimes, is ultimately effective. He encouraged a discussion about secret grand juries, as opposed to a more transparent legal process in open court. Siegel also raised the issue of a special prosecutor to look into civilian deaths involving police.
The groups were tasked with coming up with “big ideas” for increasing understanding and easing tensions between cops and local residents. In one way or another, almost every table stood up in favor of more opportunities for the two sides to get together in non-confrontational situations. People suggested sports events and volunteer opportunities within communities. There was a strong sentiment for de-emphasizing enforcement of “quality-of-life” offenses and for increasing the amount of training officers receive. It was apparent that the conversations taking place Tuesday night increased understanding. Officers described the challenges they faced. Residents sounded off about their frustrations.
In the end, Borough President Brewer noted that Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton have already committed to reforms. She expressed the hope that the report her office prepares will bolster those reforms, offering concrete ideas for the future of NYPD-community relations.