Defining the Role of the Police in the Community

The Cities for Tomorrow Conference, hosted by The New York Times, was Monday and Tuesday at The TimesCenter.

Balancing more compassionate policing with more effective law enforcement is one of the great challenges facing a nation traumatized and divided by multiple deadly episodes between the police and black men and the killings of police officers in cities large and small.

That was one of the major themes of a panel at Cities for Tomorrow, a conference held Monday and Tuesday hosted by The New York Times.

In many poorer African-American neighborhoods, “there are two complaints — one that the cops are brutal and rude and the other that they don’t do enough to stop crime,” said Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at Marron Institute, part of New York University. “We have to learn to address both those issues.”

But Professor Kleiman, a crime reduction and drug policy expert, told audience members that creating safer communities does not call for less humane policing.

“Those who are the best in crime control are also the best in controlling excesses,” he said. “There is no trade off.”

But there is no question that although homicide rates nationwide have gone down significantly over the last two decades, many Americans have become more and more polarized over the role of the police.

That is especially true in what has been particularly bloody month — killings of five police officers in Dallas, three in Baton Rouge, La., and the two killings of black men by officers in Baton Rouge and a suburb of St. Paul.

New responses have to be found to address the turmoil, said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York, who also spoke on the panel.

“There’s been a lot of tragedy, trauma and pain,” he said. “We could all retreat into our ideological corners, or we could work together to address a very complex problem.”

So instead of a traditional congressional hearing on the matter, that will most likely end up as confrontational, he said, the House of Representatives has formed a working group made up of “six serious members from both parties who will spend the recess talking to all sides.”

“We will have to speak to people who might make us uncomfortable,” he said, including members of the activist group Black Lives Matter, high-level police officials and rank-and-file officers.

The hope, Mr. Jeffries said, is that the information gathered by the working group will help develop a piece of legislation “that does something about the strained relations between the community and the police.” Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, and John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, will lead the group.

Both Mr. Jeffries and Professor Kleiman agreed that too often the young police officers who are walking the beat are being asked to address issues that arise from a multitude of causes, such as poverty, poor education, lack of jobs and housing, and isolation.

But they also agreed that such officers are not being given the tools to work within those communities.

“If you spend a lot of time training officers about where they might get shot, it might make them trigger-happy,” Professor Kleiman said. “If I were going to train someone to go on the streets of New York, I would want to do a lot of mindfulness training first. It would teach them not to respond to affronts as male primate dominance challenges.”

Richard Price, the author of numerous novels portraying urban America, including “The Whites,” “Clockers” and “Lush Life” and a writer for the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” said of community policing, “it’s a lot harder to overreact when you know someone’s name.” Mr. Price, who also spoke at the conference, cited his major concerns about the effect of the latest killings of both black citizens and police.

“My fear is that police will close ranks — it’s us against the world,” Mr. Price said in an interview. “My other fear is that they’re going to get paralyzed and not do any policing. My third fear is that it won’t change anything.

“I’m not anti-police or pro-police,” he said. “I’m anti-police overreacting, but police got to police.”

And they also need to have zero tolerance not just for overreaction, but also for the cover-up of incidents that get out of control.

“One kind of police conduct all police don’t tolerate is corruption,” Professor Kleiman said. “We need to make police as intolerant of abuse and false reporting as corruption.”

We also need to think beyond crime as simply the concern of the criminal justice system, he said, noting that “if there is a single thing Congress could do to control crime, it would be to triple the federal alcohol tax.”

There was general agreement that, while too many Americans — especially white Americans — believe that police brutality has increased against black men and women, the reality is that what has changed is the ability to easily record and display it.

“In the African-American community, we’ve known about the problems of police brutality for decades,” Mr. Jeffries said. “It’s finally been brought to light for the majority of Americans.”

During a panel about his writing, Mr. Price, who lives in Harlem, discussed the complex impact of the area’s gentrification.

“They’re cleaning out some very good and decent people. Whatever is exciting and new is a little bit of a death knell.”

When asked by an audience member what role white people have in Harlem, he answered, “Be a good neighbor. Say hello.” After taking a few shots at the upscale market Whole Foods, which is scheduled to open a store in Harlem this year (“you need to save up to buy a banana”), he also urged the questioner to patronize the businesses that “have been there a hell of a lot longer than you have. Don’t put all of your money into businesses targeted for you.”

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