Giving policing the touch of humanity it needs

December 1, 2020 - 12:00am -- Chiara Catipon

Giving policing the touch of humanity it needs
Amid the fray, how can law enforcement work through the challenges of peacekeeping?

By Chiara Catipon

Law and order. Peace through justice. Big concepts so politicized, they begin to lose their meaning. And with conflicting news coverage of current events, most citizens are left feeling confused, enraged or powerless in the face of reports of botched police encounters.

How are law enforcement officers living these tensions caused by the violent deaths of African Americans in the U.S. and protests against police brutality in the country? Two policemen offer their perspective and personal experiences.

Why be a cop?

John Scianimanico, a retired detective who worked for nearly 30 years in the New York Police Department, explained: “I had wanted to make society a better place to live in, especially since New York in the late seventies had such high crime rates. Plus, it was a steady job.”

With such a long span of work history, Scianimanico has seen alternating rates of success and failure in crime control, as well as generational shifts in attitudes and policies that attempted to curb criminality. He notes how the complex interplay of local politics, demographics, poverty, lack of father figures, education, mental issues and drug abuse continues to make law enforcement a profession in need of an ever wider public support and collective engagement.

Noé Gonzalez, instead, has been working for three years with the California Highway Patrol in Oakland. His motivation for this career choice is similar. “That feeling you get from helping others caught in an accident … it’s like no other,” said Gonzalez, who began his public service as a fireman and paramedic. He felt that responding to such emergencies was much more rewarding than getting a job with “good benefits,” as his family friends had prodded him to do. He later became interested in the helicopter patrol but needed to train first in highway patrol, which he is currently concluding.

George Floyd and others

Both Scinimanico and Gonzalez agree that excessive force was used by the police officers in the case of Floyd. In their subsequent conversations with colleagues, there was not one who would disagree. Once restrained on the floor and handcuffed, there was no need to keep him choked down. “It was horrible,” said Gonzalez.

The manner and use of choke holds have actually been a contentious issue for years. Scianimanico feels that “replacing the use of the baton with the arm around the neck is now actually less dangerous for the person being restrained.” This becomes more challenging, however, if the person arrested is bigger than the officer.

When gunfire is involved, the situation becomes even murkier. Both Scinimanico and Gonzalez emphasize the need to keep in consideration the split-second decisions that police officers are constantly forced to make when making arrests of individuals who resist, flee, shoot, or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. “It’s such a quick judgement call,” Scianimanico explains, “you have no time to stop, ponder your option, not even to aim for the foot, for example.”

The ensuing protests

“I had never seen anything like it,” Gonzalez recalls of the protests in Oakland. “I totally believe in people’s right to peacefully protest,” he begins, but “there was so much hate.” Driving on the highways, his patrol car got hit with bricks, shoes, frozen water bottles and high-powered lasers.For 19 straight nights, looting took place, block after block.

“I was really taken aback. You just don’t expect a whole population, running around, yelling, ‘Kill the cops!’” While wearing his uniform, he was barred from coffee shops and certain stores, while obscenities were hurled at him at traffic stops. It definitely affected the psyche of his younger colleagues who asked him, “How can we go back and protect the same people who wish us dead?” Gonzalez himself felt that the upbringing he had from his family and Focolare helped in those moments to refocus on the essential: a call to serve no matter what. 

The worst part, however, according to him, was the condemnation of police officers by his friends on social media. “I read some pretty hateful things put online about my profession. Nobody, if they have never done this job, understands ...” Scianimanico agrees that morale among his ex-colleagues has gone down as they fall under greater scrutiny and pressure with ever decreasing support.

Training to control adrenaline

In fact today, when an arrest turns deadly, people often question police training and the state of the officer’s mental health. Prior to the 5-to-7 months-long “boot-camp” training, a rigorous application process vouches for officers’ physical agility, mental acuity and moral standing. The rest is on-the-job training, as a rookie is paired with a veteran officer to go through the real-life applications of their training.

It’s interesting to note that the prevalent use of firearms as depicted by media is misleading. Scianimanico personally recalls minimal gun use and knows other officers who had never fired theirs in their entire career. They are trained for self-defense and effective ways to confront resistance.

There are various sessions offered, as well, for police officers struggling with the stress of the job or following a traumatic experience. A trauma officer is always on hand for immediate support. For Gonzalez, relationships among officers are crucial to be able to bear the burden — to even see the more humorous side of this job. 

Moreover, Covid-19 has become an unexpected weapon against officers. Gonzalez describes a physical confrontation he recently had with a driver. He stopped a car for speeding; the suspect appeared to be reaching down for something. Fear mounted. Gonzalez approached cautiously and calmly asked for documents. The driver suddenly sped off.

Once the car pursuit ended, the driver ran away on foot. Gonzalez reached him and grabbed his arm, but the suspect spit on his face. The fear of contagion was palpable. Before attempting a second time, Gonzalez dealt him a blow and managed to handcuff him and get him in the back of the patrol car. Throughout the ordeal, Gonzalez’s one objective was to put the suspect in custody, never intending to disrespect. In fact, the suspect asked him from behind, “Why you bein’ nice now?”

Beginning to heal

One key would be to learn when police brutality is a race issue and when it is not. “If people want to protest against police brutality, I am all for it,” Gonzalez affirms, “but in my three years on the force, I have not seen or heard my colleagues go out to specifically target a particular race.”

Scianimanico agrees, even while admitting that racial bias exists within him, saying, “Working in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn for years, we had these encounters on a daily basis. When you deal with one population regularly, it is inevitable that your suspicion builds.” Yet he feels that once those internal biases are healthily acknowledged, interactions can be guided by an objective view of the arrest to be made, regardless of race.

He also recalls an earlier period when communities and law enforcement collaborated. The Neighborhood Police Team provided monthly meetings between citizens and police supervisors where they discussed safety needs or crime trends happening in that community. The police also offered in-depth explanations of their course of action regarding particular local incidents.

While initially successful in lowering crime rate, such initiatives fizzled out due to a policy change, which raised fear among residents of backlash from individuals they would be reporting on. Scianimanico observes nonetheless that there is an attempt to reinstate a modified version of this initiative because its original effectiveness would fill an urgent need today.

As for Gonzalez, he feels that he can help rebuild the rapport with his community by “giving a touch of humanity to my job, through simple acts of kindness.” This could be by making small talk before he asks for documents from drivers he stops on the highway, or greeting the shop owners with respect even when he is denied service.

In the months since the riots, he has noticed that these little things are indeed making a difference. He has even had citizens ask him to “be around more.” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” These are certainly steps towards that light.

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