Police Accountability Series Part Five: Two Cities, Two Approaches To Community Policing

Dec 14, 2018

Several police departments in the Hudson Valley are embarking on ways to improve community relations. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne spoke with police chiefs from two cities on each side of the Hudson River that have different approaches but the same goal.

Transparency. It’s something police chiefs of both Kingston and Poughkeepsie say is needed to better police/community relations. And there’s more. Poughkeepsie Police Chief Thomas Pape:

“Listen to what your community has to say, and try to police the community the way they want to be policed,” says Pape.

He and Republican Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison intend to listen. In September, Rolison announced that some 3,000 randomly selected households would receive surveys, in both English and Spanish, developed by Poughkeepsie police officers and Marist College, to gauge how people feel about police and community relations. Rolison, a former police officer, said this at the time.

“Well, we believe we are the first department in the state to do the external survey of 3,000 households, do the internal anonymous survey of our own City of Poughkeepsie police officers and then adjust training,” Rolison says. “There are some departments adjust training, if needed. And there will be an adjustment. There has to be. There are some departments, a handful, I understand, have done the training, they’ve taken the procedural justice training, but they haven’t done the survey. To me, you’ve got to do the survey.”

Residents were to have filled out the surveys anonymously and send them back to Marist to be tabulated. Pape says responses were thin from a few wards, so another 800 surveys were mailed to random addresses. Pape says responses are back and Marist is working on them. However, there are responses from another direction.

“We got 100 percent back from the internal survey,” Pape says. “There’s some eye-opening things there, as an administrator.”

“Like what?” Dunne asks.

“That I don’t do everything perfect,” says Pape.

Pape says he appreciates the direct, honest answers.

“Based on those answers, we’ll probably change how we do business internally,” Pape says.

Pape says there were certain refrains.

“There’s some overarching themes, if you will. One of them is in how we handle internal promotions. And not so much, well, that guy got it and I should have or, why did that girl get it and this one didn’t,” says Pape. “More so, we give, I give the appearance that a lot of promotions are done in a vacuum. It’s the perception that they are. They’re not.”

He says his department has to walk the walk, so to speak.

“And the public expects us to be transparent in our actions out in the street,” Pape says. “We should be transparent in our actions inside the police station.”

Pape speaks to another outcome of the internal survey.

“The officers perceive themselves as being accepted and liked, if you will, out in the community, which, I got to be honest with you, I was kind of confident that was going to come through but, the officers themselves, for the most part, feel appreciated out in the community,” Pape says.

“Can I just jump in here for a second, Allison?” Rolison asks.

“Of course, mayor,” says Dunne.

“So, I really, this is the first time I’ve heard this. We have not talked about anything either sides of the survey. And I’ll tell you an interesting story. So, I was a cop for 26 years. We never did that. There was never a survey internally of how we felt about really anything, survey-wise. We’d have squad meetings and you’d be able to get things off your chest, but not done in a department-wide manner,” Rolison says. “I had a conversation with one of our officers one day, not too long after the survey internally and externally was announced in September, and this officer said to me, skeptically, right, I’m looking, and he said this, this was not skeptically, I’m looking forward to filling it out. My worry is is you’re not going to take it seriously. And I told this officer, I said, let me tell you right now, we wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t going to take it seriously. So the fact that the chief, first time I’ve heard this, has already mentioned some of the things, even about himself, now publicly, means that this guy is taking this seriously, not that I wouldn’t expect to hear that from him.”

That day in early December when Rolison said it was the first time he was hearing from Pape on the internal results, was also the first day of procedural justice training for the officers, with implicit bias training to follow. Pape describes procedural justice.

“It’s real simple. It’s everything you learned in kindergarten. Do, just be fair to everyone and treat everyone equal. Everybody gets a fair shot,” Pape says. “Look, I can lock you up for a homicide, but that doesn’t mean I have to be nasty about it.”

“I have a vision of everybody at some point in their 8-hour day employing the principles of procedural justice,” Pape says.

And better communication is part of it.

“As we all know, there’s times out there that there’s a foot chase or the officers have to fight with somebody or recover a gun and, as you know, with cell phones and people just being people, everybody wants to see what’s going on. So they might be told, in a stern manner, by the officers, I need you to get back, I need you to go back in your house, whatever, which is fine.  I’m good with that, in that moment. We need to keep everybody safe,” Pape says. “What we can do better ourselves is, and maybe it doesn’t have to be done right this second, once the situation is under control but, at some point in time, maybe we can go back to that person that we were a little curt with, and it doesn’t even have to be us, it could be another officer, and just explain to that person, look, this was a tense situation. We recovered a knife, a gun, we didn’t know what we had, we needed to keep everybody safe. Sorry for that but, it happened. So, it’s little things like that that I feel we could probably do better.”

Rolison says a community policing unit, with up to 10 officers, was disbanded for budgetary reasons around the mid-2000s, sending officers back into the general ranks. Rolison says community policing is now back, in a different way, with across-the-board training and the expectation that each officer plays a role.

Like Poughkeepsie, there is no formal community policing division across the river in Kingston.

“It relies on every officer. Instead of pulling four or five out and setting up a community policing unit, which has been the answer in the past, now we’re trying to train every officer to do a small part of their day towards community policing,” says Tinti.

That’s Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti, who talks about one facet of his city’s community policing.

“We set up what’s called a COP car in Kingston, C-O-P, the COP car. So every shift, except for the midnight shift, has a COP car assigned,” Tinti says. “And that officer, or officers, depending on how many we have working, is assigned to the Community Oriented Policing car, the COP car.”

Tinti gives an example of furthering police/community relations through a meeting that he believes arose from recent violent incidents at houses of worship across the country, along with a rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitism in the region.

“Recently we had a meeting at the Kingston Center here, the old Sophie Finn School and, at that meeting, we addressed concerns of the religious communities in Kingston, whether they had issues with violence, or acts or threats or just the mere opening of communications between law enforcement and the leaders of those religious communities,” Tinti says.

He says the fact there was a dialogue at all points to the significance of police-community relations.

“How do we help all the different organizations, all the different religions, all the different people in Kingston. How do we serve them best, because how we treat one community may not be the same as how we treat another. They may have different values that our officers have to be aware,” Tinti says. “And it’s, just recently there was discussion about how to serve the Hispanic or Latino community better. And, for us, there’s been discussions about having officers trained or possibly pick up a second language, learn Spanish to some degree, availability for translators, on getting them within a moment’s notice for emergency services.

The budgeted police force of 71 has two vacancies. Tinti says this is one reason why community policing is spread across the board.

“Today, we try to incorporate the bikes. We have a bike unit that we use. We put them out as often as we can, again, resources being tight, we put them out as often as they can possibly go out, but they’re a great resource to have,” Tinti says. “They combine both the community policing face-to-face effort, but the mechanized capability get the calls when you need to, especially in a small area.” 

And his hope for community policing rests on two wheels.

“I would like to see on a regular basis, on the two shifts, day shift and afternoon shift, I would like to see us have two officers on bikes all the time,” says Tinti.

Ironically, he says he first heard of a bike unit from the City of Poughkeepsie years ago.

In March, Kingston Democratic Mayor Steve Noble hosted a forum on policing and community relations. During the session, he spoke about readying the Right to Know Act as one example of being proactive in these relations. Since, says Tinti, the Act has been implemented and officers have business cards.

“English on one side, Spanish on the other, so they’re easy to hand out. Any time there’s no formal record of the encounter, an individual’s given a card by the officer. If it’s just a, an officer stops someone to ask a question or to talk, they hand them a card during that interaction. Normally, any other time, it’s documented,” says Tinti. “So, the Right to Know isn’t so much to force an officer to give information, it’s to make the person aware that information’s available should they need it.”

Also during the March meeting, Tinti talked about the use of body cameras, saying, at that time, there weren’t enough cameras for each shift and police were operating under a draft policy and pilot program. Now, there is a formal policy. Tinti says all officers have the cameras.

“Ideally, they should be on when there’s any public-to-police officer interaction. It’s almost impossible when they’re in that role to do so, and I’ll say why. Is the camera on eight hours a day. It’s not. But, if I’m walking the beat up and down North Front Street, and that’s my assignment or that’s what I want to do, am I going to walk around with this camera on all the time,” says Tinti. “There’s officers that would prefer to keep it on, this way there’s no allegations that can’t be substantiated through the video, and there’s others that find that it’s a distraction. Someone comes up, hey, officer, how you doing, I don’t know you and now, hold on a second, I got to turn this thing on, it distracts from the conversation. If they feel that there’s, if it’s beyond a meet and greet, then they’ll turn the camera on.”

He says that officers wearing body cameras helps with accountability and transparency, which he believes plays a role in building trust which, in turn, betters community relations. Tinti defines procedural justice.

“The mechanism in which officers are trained, or the method of how they’re meant to approach the public to be fair, understanding and to communicate that to the public. I think that, if I had off the cuff, that’s what I would say is is to treat people fairly. You can’t treat people equally,” Tinti says. “The example that’s given to us in our procedural justice for executives is, I have two officers. One is late three days a week. The other one has never been late in his or her career. The punishment is that if that officer continues to be late should be treated more harshly than the one that calls in late for the first time in his or her career.”

And here’s an example of fair but unequal treatment during community policing.

“You had this guy numerous times for littering, right, let’s make it real basic, right. Is it enforced? When we can, a lot of times, a slap on the wrist, but we’ll say, listen what are you doing. This is the third time this week I’ve been telling you not to drink out in the open or not to leave the bottle,” Tinti says. “But the first time you see a kid do it, you pull him aside and say, listen, we’re trying to clean up Kingston, we’re trying to do this, we’re trying to do that, be part of it. There’s the garbage can, kid. Come on, let’s go, let’s walk together.”

Tinti’s view of community policing comes full circle.

“What I would want, what I would hope for is that our interaction, going back to that littering example, and I know it’s a simple one and, but now, the way that officer treats that child for the first time he sees her litter or he’s littering, is that the child will say, ok, I get it. So when he sees his friend litter, that the kid says, hey, hey, hey, don’t do that, the cops don’t like it, it’s not right, put it in the garbage,” says Tinti. “The cop doesn’t have to do the work anymore. The child now sees how the community is, how the police treated them and treats someone else that way. That’s the whole principle behind it so that the community then polices itself.”

Tinti and Pape both believe that effective community policing entails getting cops out of their cars and onto the street, either by foot or on bike, and maintaining open lines of courteous communication. And they say, fair treatment within their departments will spill over into the community.