The Brief: Law School News and Events

Top Cops Say Police Need to Reconnect with the Community

Last March we marked the 20th anniversary of the Public Service program with a birthday party of sorts.
We called it Public Interest Week.

In 2008, Kanter released the documentary New Cops, which follows a class of Philadelphia Police Academy recruits as they make the transition from citizen to professional police officers and then returns five years later to shadow them.

Kanter showed an excerpt of the film to initiate a panel discussion during Public Interest week on whether communities and police departments can work together to achieve justice.

The excerpt featured an experienced officer and a rookie driving through a Philadelphia neighborhood, questioning a man standing on a street corner and then arresting him even though he has not committed a crime.

The arrest “was a bad one,” said Charles Ramsey, the police commissioner of Philadelphia. For Ramsey, there is a delicate balance between safety and civil rights; individuals have civil rights, but communities also expect police to be proactive on crime. The key to achieving this balance is to deal with a situation without overreacting, he said, and to reinforce that most people are not violent criminals.

“The police have autonomy to act and that’s where training and judgment come in,” he said. For Ramsey, the ideal relationship is based on mutual respect, but violence against police, such as the recent killings of five police officers in California, cause paranoia. Further complicating the situation is that the neighborhoods that need the most policing are the ones where the relationships are the most strained, he said.

Dean Esserman, chief of the police department in Providence, RI, agreed with Ramsey that the officers in New Cops behaved inappropriately. They “would have handled the situation differently if they had known the man they arrested,” he said. Police departments today have lost touch with the community, and the “best way to police a community is to be a part of it,” said Esserman.

To illustrate how anonymous police have become in their communities, Esserman recalled how his son called him instead of the police department when his bicycle was stolen. “Even the son of the police chief doesn’t know to call 911,” he said. Esserman envisioned a day when every family has a police officer that they call in times of trouble much like a family doctor.

Penn Law Professor David Rudovsky identified several practices that undermine the legitimacy of the police and destroy relationships with the community. Foremost is the “stop and frisk” policy, which is problematic because there is no data on how often it occurs and to whom, he said. Perceived racial disparities in stop and frisk can lead communities to feel that it is random and unwarranted. The deadly use of force, despite its decline in use, is also a practice that needs to be analyzed further, said Rudovsky, referring to a spate of killings in 2002 of mentally disturbed persons.