Police Now Often Denied Once-Pervasive Respect
Especially in large cities, they are increasingly targets of citizen ire
NEW YORK — MANY police officers these days sympathize with actor Rodney Dangerfield's cry that he gets no respect. Although they are still viewed as protectors and heroes in many small towns and suburbs, the police increasingly are targets of citizen anger, suspicion, and even violence in inner cities from Los Angeles to Newark.
Charges of police misconduct are at the center of much of the unrest. The fatal shooting by a police officer of a Dominican immigrant July 3 in Manhattan's Washington Heights set off several days of violence here. Protests over shooting
Across the Hudson River in Newark, N.J., protests erupted for several days last month after a 17-year-old alleged to have stolen a car was shot during a struggle with police. Three Newark police officers have been charged with a cover-up.
Yet some of the antipolice unrest has no specific basis. On Chicago's West Side, after the Bulls professional basketball team won the National Basketball Association championship, a looting spree left 61 police cars damaged. Most of those injured in the melee were police officers.
In Newark, teens in stolen cars regularly taunt police by racing the cars at high speeds. One 13-year-old driver has been arrested three times.
To counter such outbreaks, say some professionals, a full probe of every charge of police misconduct or corruption must be conducted. Also recommended: much more diverse police department staffing, a closer working relationship with neighborhood residents to prevent more crime, and stronger leadership at the top.
Hubert Williams, president of the Washington-based Police Foundation and deputy director of a commission looking into how Los Angeles police handled the riots there, stresses that it was not the police beating of Rodney King but the perceived inequity of the verdict a year later that led to the rioting. People at first were willing to trust the judicial system, he says.
The former Newark police chief says that same sense of inequality, and the desire to rebel against police as the most visible agent of the government, has been the steady cause of social unrest in the US since the 1960s. Yet, instead of blacks rebelling against whites, he says, the underclass protesting unequal treatment now is a broad mix of Hispanics, blacks, Asians, Indians, and whites.
Most of those arrested in the Los Angeles unrest were not black, he says. "It was clearly a multicultural riot."
Many experts say that more ethnically diverse police departments are needed to match the range of those they serve. In New York, for instance, blacks and Hispanics together account for over half the population but only one-fourth of the police force.
A more diverse force, says Mr. Williams, makes the policing easier and more credible. He says standards need not be changed - that a more "job relevant" test would help to attract a wider range of candidates. Just coaching recruits on test-taking techniques could be an effective interim tool.
"I think you have to have sensitive police who recognize cultural differences and don't have deep prejudices," notes Barbara Price, dean of the graduate program of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Yet she says she is not convinced that assigning blacks or Hispanics to patrol like neighborhoods is the answer. "It feels to me almost anti-American," she says.
"The real key is people, regardless of race and religion, relating to each other," says Robert Trojanowicz, director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University.
Another trend that should reduce some of the antipolice hostility, he says, is the growth of community policing. Officers are assigned to certain neighborhoods so that police and residents get to know and help each other. Professor Trojanowicz says that almost two-thirds of all large cities now have community- policing programs.
The Newark, N.J., police department is placing two community-relations officers in each precinct this summer and stepping up the number of officers on foot patrol. In New York City, where Mayor David Dinkins recently tapped a five-member independent panel to investigate police corruption, Police Commissioner Lee Brown plans to increase sensitivity training in the predominantly Hispanic Washington Heights precinct.
Several hundred police departments are currently experimenting with bicycle patrols to make officers more accessible to residents and get them more speedily to back alleys and other small spaces.
Curtailing police abuse of power and excessive use of force also depends in part on high-quality leadership, says Ms. Price. In her view, the Rodney King beating occurred because officers sensed that "certain kinds of behavior against certain types of people were really winked at."
William Greenhalgh, director of the criminal justice clinic and professor of law at George Washington University, agrees that aware and capable leadership at the top is crucial. He notes that new Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams has already shut down the police counterintelligence group that his predecessor was apparently using to spy on celebrities and politicians.
Police morale has taken a decided dip in some of the cities most affected by recent unrest. Some police complain that it is no longer worth their while to pursue criminals aggressively. Yet, in the current tight economic climate, few police departments report any recruitment problems. Police image improved
John Jay College's Dean Price says she thinks the image of the police has actually improved in recent decades. When police were first recruited in the 1850s, she says, "brawn and brute force" were the criteria. Police often refused to wear their uniforms to work and were the targets of thrown eggs and other objects.
"There was no respect at all for the police," says Ms. Price. Thus, she says she doesn't find the current spate of antipolice incidents alarming. "When you give people the power to use force, in extreme cases deadly force ... then you're going to have incidents, no matter how professional we make the training and how stringent the standards. That's the price of having police in any society."