As a newly promoted patrol supervisor in Manhattan, I learned a lesson that stuck with me for the rest of my thirty-five years in policing. An inspector (a God-like rank to a sergeant) took me to a meeting with citizens angry at cops.
The confrontation took place with a group of reform Democrats on upper Broadway near Columbia University. The crowd was largely, if not exclusively, Jewish. The big, ruddy-faced Irish inspector in a rumpled suit was known for his curt manner, but he listened patiently to complaints about how cops were rude and indifferent to citizens' problems, spending more time sitting around restaurants having free coffee and meals than on assigned foot patrol.
Baby faced and with a crisp new uniform, I silently conceded that many of the criticisms were justified. But the charges got more serious. Cops were unnecessarily rough, outright brutal, racist, and fascist and pushed people around at whim.
People of the Jewish faith were, in fact, underrepresented on the force. It was a safe guess that none of the people present were acquainted with a cop or had a relative in the department. The more grievous charges stemmed from the common misconception that the police were the beginning and end of the criminal justice system. Cops were expected to stop crime and to subdue potentially lethal people with the magical judo often seen in television shows and movies.
Finally, the inspector said: "Ladies and gentlemen, just remember one thing. If it weren't for us cops, you'd have to do what we do!"
A silence fell. I could picture people's imaginations at work, conjuring up images of dangerous criminals, drunks, or deranged individuals threatening them, without a cop arriving to protect the innocent by putting themselves in harm's way. People also envisioned gory accidents, dealing with suicides or the bodies of elderly people found alone in their apartments weeks after their deaths, and the myriad of other unpleasant duties shouldered by the police.
The tone of the meeting abruptly changed. People assured us that they weren't anti-cop. They had reasonable complaints, but the main purpose of the meeting was to see how they could help the police do their jobs.
I took away from the meeting the conviction that, to be effective, cops and communities need frank discussions. Rank-and-file cops improve their behavior when exposed to public opinion. In turn, when citizens learn the complexities of the police job, they are more inclined to form partnerships with the police to keep their neighborhoods safe. Cops learn that support from law-abiding citizens is their best asset. It is the civilian who dials 911 to report a crime, who helps police gather evidence, who volunteers to testify, and, as a juror, believes police testimony.
I served as police chief for two large cities after retiring from the NYPD with the rank of inspector. During those eighteen years, I found that frequent, candid discussions between beat cops and citizens weren't mushy, feel-good public relations. Meetings like the one on Broadway, and those I instituted in Kansas City, Missouri, and San Jose, California, reduce crime, increase cops' job satisfaction, and improve people's quality of life.