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New Police Liaisons Might Bring Light, Save Lives

Earlier this fall, I was biking down Broadway in New York City, on my way back to work after running an errand. I noticed a large number of police barricades and I saw that all cars and trucks were being blocked access to Broadway, and made to turn either left or right at Liberty Street. I asked one of the officers who was directing traffic if it was all right if I continued on, and I got no answer—he turned his back on me. I passed by a couple of uniformed policemen a half a block later. “Can I ride this way?” One of them shrugged; the other looked away. After another block, I asked another cop, who also wouldn’t look at me or answer.

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Wall Street protest in September.

Police on motorcycles began to speed past me. No one told me anything, so I kept going. At Wall Street, I suddenly found myself heading straight into a street protest. Before I could turn around, I was in the crowd, trapped. There were police barricades blocking access to the sidewalk from the street. I was infuriated that not a single officer would simply let me know what was going on, so that I could have avoided this situation. But I knew better than to let this anger show, because cops have been known to reward anger with arrest or worse.

I told a friend about this, and he reminded me that his boyfriend Tony was, in fact, arrested over something similar. Tony was heading toward his apartment on 14th Street one day when he discovered that the police had blocked off the entire street – no one could enter or leave. Tony asked what was going on, and received no answer. He asked when he would be able to enter his home, and again received no response. The situation quickly escalated and Tony was arrested, basically for being angry and frustrated over non-responsive cops. He will be compensated, of course—the NYPD settles out of court over this kind of thing routinely. But that too, is part of the problem.

Let’s accept for a moment that police officers can never be 100% sure about any citizen they encounter when they are on the job. Perhaps part of what they are trained to do is to consider anyone a potential threat and behave accordingly, with care and silence. Cops, perhaps, must be on high alert in situations involving crowds, even in situations that are ostensibly benign, such as a parade or a marathon run.

But as a recent report published by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) noted: “People are sensitive to whether they are treated with dignity and politeness, and to whether their rights are respected. The issue of interpersonal treatment consistently emerges as a key factor in reactions to dealings with legal authorities. People believe that they are entitled to treatment with respect and react very negatively to dismissive or demeaning interpersonal treatment.”

How then, to address the competing needs of local police to maintain order and build trust and legitimacy? The same PERF report noted that despite reductions in national violent crime rates, public support for police, as measured by trust and confidence in police, has remained flat.

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Civilian liaison (left) and police superintendent in Philadelphia.

One solution could be to employ a liaison system of some sort: A liaison or liaisons could be dispatched every time some threshold number of cops (say, 20) are dispatched to a crime scene or protest. A liaison program should not be a branch of the police force itself, as part of the point would be to monitor police behavior–to make sure the rights of suspected criminals, protestors, bystanders, and neighbors are not violated. Liaisons could and would answer the questions that cops can’t or won’t. Cops could direct anyone asking a question to a liaison officer, and soon, people would learn to seek these people out in tense and crowded situations.

To emphasize, this role cannot be served by a separate branch of the police force, such as the New York City Police’s Community Affairs Bureau, which has been in place for decades but cannot do the job I have in mind. The PERF report cited above distinguished between so-called “community policing” and the need for new programs that would better engender police legitimacy and trust.

I believe an independent government or judicial agency is required, one that is not only not related to a police force but one that is also not perceived as being in bed with the cops. Rather, this agency should be about getting information to the people and protecting our rights.

To those who would say that state and local budgets are already stretched thin, I would note that this could end up saving money in the long run, because keeping people cool in tense situations will lead to fewer unnecessary arrests that clog up the system and cost money to process, prosecute and/or settle. Liaisons could also, in some circumstances, prevent unnecessary deaths.

Certainly this is not a cure-all. But as police forces across the nation become equipped with more and more heavy artillery, the threat to citizens will only increase. Mistakes will be made. People will be arrested and injured and killed. A little communication and oversight could do a great deal of good.

 

John S. Hall

John S. Hall is the author of a book of poetry (Jesus Was Way Cool, 1997) and a self-help parody (Daily Negations, 2007) both from Soft Skull Press. He has released two solo CDs and seven CDs with various incarnations of his spoken-word-with-music-band. The latest incarnation of that band, King Missile IV, will tour New Zealand. John works as an intellectual property analyst at a major law firm. He lives in New York City.

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