NYPD as lab for reducing police brutality

City's Police Academy redoubles cultural-diversity training for

On a training video tape, a cop from Brooklyn explains the situation:

Somebody came in the bodega and robbed the bodega. The owner chased the 'perp' - the perpetrator - outside with a knife. He got into a tussle with the guy, and all of a sudden the cops come over. They see this guy get up with a knife in his hand, and the other one lying on the floor. The cops tell him to 'drop the knife, drop the knife!' The problem is the guy doesn't understand English, so when he keeps going toward the cops with the knife, fearing for their safety, they shot him.

A case of police brutality or a tragic cultural misunderstanding?

The true story is part of New York City Police Academy's newly expanded cultural-diversity and language training. Called "Streetwise," it's designed for new cops on America's largest force - the latest in a series of initiatives around the US to address the problem of police brutality.

New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir insists this program is about respect - not excessive use of force. But he rolled it out last week as Haitian immigrant Abner Louima sat on the witness stand and recounted his charges that a city cop tortured him in a stationhouse bathroom.

Concern about police behavior is on the rise - from New York to Riverside, Calif., where hundreds pro-tested the shooting death of a teenage girl by four police officers, to Louisville, Ky., where activists want the mayor to address a "crisis" of police violence.

It's sparking calls for reform, improved police training, and more aggressive federal oversight and data collection. On Monday, the Congressional Black Caucus held the first of a series of hearings to determine whether recent deaths of young blacks at the hands of police are terrible errors or an outgrowth of the tougher policing practices that have helped to reduce crime nationwide.

Not since the 1992 beating of Rodney King has the issue of police brutality gained so much national attention.

"There is still enormous support for heavy-handed policing in most places," says police expert James Fyfe of Temple University in Philadelphia. "But being oppressive is no way to police; the best way is to build a relationship with the community."

Real test of success

Experts say the true test of the success for programs like New York's Streetwise is whether they're still around after the media spotlight fades. Just as important, they add, is whether such efforts can change a police culture that critics say doesn't properly restrain or penalize violators and is even hesitant to keep records on police misconduct.

"In 1994, Congress mandated the Justice Department to begin collecting ... statistics on excessive force, and five years later we still don't have that data," says John Crew of the American Civil Liberty Union's Police Practices Unit in San Francisco.

The New York Police Department, with more than 40,000 cops, is three times larger than Chicago's force, the next largest. The city presents difficult policing challenges: It has 76 precincts, each one larger than 95 percent of the police departments in the US, and five boroughs where 170 different languages are spoken. But those same challenges, experts say, make it the best laboratory to develop new policing solutions.

"There's no other department in the country that's quite the size of ours, but they've got the same issues to deal with," says Richard Green of the Crown Heights Youth Collective.

He's part of the Police Academy's new Board of Visitors. Appointees are community activists, leaders, and educational experts. The board will oversee the academy's cultural-diversity training and help recruit minorities to the predominantly white force.

Its goal is to make the New York Police Department a national model.

"There's only one lesson here for the rest of the country - and that's that high-quality policy will bring about high-quality results," says Stanley Crouch, a New York Daily News columnist and a member of the new board.

Yesterday, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone also proposed reforms designed to increase the number of police officers who live in the city and to boost their educational opportunities. "A police department that's made of people who live in the city makes for better cops, cops that understand the diversity of the city, know the streets, have an investment in the city that they serve," says Jordan Barowitz, Mr. Vallone's spokesman.

Recently, the New York Police Department has gained more notoriety for its problems than its successes, primarily because of the Louima brutality case and the February shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo. But Mr. Fyfe and other experts say that, while problems persist, city cops on the whole are getting a bad rap.

"It is the most restrained of all the big-city police departments," says Fyfe, himself a former New York cop. "It shoots fewer people per capita and uses force less. And it disciplines officers very stringently."

But a disconnect remains between the police and the people, particularly in minority communities. Since 1994, when the city instituted the tough new policing practices that are credited with bringing the crime rate to a 30-year low, citizen complaints have risen as much as 40 percent.

Cutting crime and respecting citizens

A recent study of two precincts in the Bronx shows that tough policing and increased complaints don't have to go hand in hand. Rob Davis and a colleague at the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal-justice think tank, studied the 42nd and 44th precincts. Both experienced the same dramatic drop in crime as the rest of the city did, but saw a drop, instead of an increase, in citizen complaints. Researchers concluded the key reason was the two precinct commanders, who put a premium on respecting the community and took complaints seriously enough to discipline officers.

That's a contrast with the force in general, says Mr. Davis. "Police in New York aren't too worried about getting a complaint because 96 percent are not substantiated - so they go unpunished."

Mr. Crew says training programs such as Streetwise can help, but accountability is what matters most. Citing the Louima case, he says that when severe incidents of police brutality occur, it's not because the officer doesn't know it is wrong. "It's that they [thought] they could get away with it."

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