Democracy At 5 P.M.

Note to self: Don’t write off those little advertised and poorly attended committee meetings of the Syracuse Common Council. I attended a Public Safety committee meeting on Monday and it was incredible. Now I may be a policy nerd, but I believe that even real people would have gotten a lot out of this meeting.

Ostensibly called to see how the police department was managing its overtime budget six months into its fiscal year, the Police Chief and the Council actually discussed two of the most intractable problems facing the Syracuse Police Department: 1) How do you aggressively police high-crime neighborhoods without disrespecting innocent residents? 2) How do you diversify the police department so that the force doesn’t resemble a white, male and suburban occupying force?

The meeting morphed into a useful discussion when the Police Chief was asked about Operation Impact, a collaborative effort of the police, sheriff and state police. One aspect is an aggressive effort to pull over all drivers in high crime areas for any obvious traffic infraction. The theory is that the police will uncover other, more serious crimes. While this is true, you also run the risk of alienating law-abiding residents of these neighborhoods. Reports of overzealous and rude behavior have come out in public meetings in our Southside neighborhoods and heard by several councilors.

In their interactions, the Councilors and the police illustrated the divide that is acutely felt in our neighborhoods. The police wonder why complaints aren’t made through proper channels. Residents, seeing no results from prior complaints, wonder why they should waste their time. The police condescendingly lecture the neighborhood on what they should do, oblivious to the damage the flaws in their procedures have done to police/community relations. Residents throw up their hands and believe the worst of the police force–corruption, incompetence and racism.

The meeting featured a fired-up and angry Tom Seals, a 30-year veteran of the police department, but a man with severe doubts about the ability of the police to respectfully deal with his constituents in the largely African-American 4th District on the Southside. His performance was as surprising as it was heartening, given Councilor Seals was largely invisible during his first two years on the Council. The cops pissed off the wrong guy.

Everyone agrees that making the police department more representative of the neighborhoods they serve is the best way to improve police/community relations. Recruiting minority officers has been a priority of the past two Police Chiefs that haven’t been convicted of D.W.I. However, the problem isn’t getting much better. The Driscoll administration has made a big point of hiring 50 additional police officers. The two classes of police academy graduates that filled these new spots included only 5 African-Americans.

The lack of minority officers contributes to the lack of minority promotions–if you aren’t in a position to take the civil service exam, how can you be promoted? The police did point out that 80% of the folks passing the written exam, failed the physical exam. Recruiting police officers from the city should not be this difficult. This is a well-paying, unionized job. The city should hire full-time support staff to assist potential recruits through the hiring process.

Syracuse needs to continue this discussion, next time in a forum where the whole community can participate.

  

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