Two years after a police shooting and subsequent violent protests in Ferguson, Mo. led to the creation of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and sparked a nationwide conversation about policing and race, Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said his department is working to come to terms with the issues and forge a stronger bond with the city’s African-American community.
But Tinti and other community leaders concede that those issues are complex and progress will come slowly.
“I tell my officers, we serve the public and this is the way the public wants to be served,” said Tinti of his focus on community policing. “Sometimes that requires a little bit of a shift in how we do our jobs.”
Some of that shift has been informed by Tinti’s attendance at a series of community forums at New Progressive Baptist Church, a historically black congregation in the city’s Rondout neighborhood. The forums began in August 2014 following the unrest in Ferguson and have continued quarterly ever since. Tinti has attended all of them, usually accompanied by a few fellow cops. New Progressive pastor the Rev. G. Modele Clarke said that the first few forums were tense, as black Kingstonians aired their grievances over racial profiling and leveled allegations of corruption and abuse at some city cops.
“Some people came for a showdown,” said Clarke. “But the end game was not to get people to vent their emotions, but to come to a place in the dialogue where those tensions would ease.”
Clarke said the forums became progressively less combative and more productive as regular attendees formed relationships with the chief and his officers and had a chance to engage in extended discussions about department policies and procedures. Two years later, Clarke expressed cautious optimism that the forums at New Progressive had, at the very least, opened lines of communication between police and the city’s black community.
“There’s a less tense relationship between the people who attend these forums and the KPD,” said Clarke. They’ve come to know Chief Tinti quite well and that’s a great plus.”
Tinti, meanwhile, said that he’d used some of what he’d heard in the forums to guide the department’s efforts to become more engaged with the community. After forum participants expressed concern about the conduct of members of the department’s Special Investigations Unit, Tinti decided that the unit, which handles some of the agency’s most sensitive investigations, would be the first city cops outfitted with body cameras. When attendees told Tinti that the department’s system for logging complaints about officer conduct — complaints had to be filed in person at police headquarters — deterred people from reporting misconduct, Tinti changed the complaint process. Now, citizens can file grievances online or submit complaints directly to the city’s civilian police commission or through a trusted third party.
Tinti said that he had also stepped up efforts to get city cops out of their patrol cars and into the community. Over the past few years, the department has used state funding to introduce detailed crime analysis data. The data has allowed the department to focus patrol resources in areas and at times where crimes are most likely to occur. More efficient patrolling, Tinti said, had freed up resources in the uniformed division to allow officers to walk foot posts, mingle at community events and get to know residents on an informal one-on-one basis.
“We want cops to be more approachable,” said Tinti. “We want people to get to know the individual, not the uniform.”
Harry Woltman is a 29-year veteran of the KPD who’s devoted a good portion of his career to making cops more approachable. During the school year “Officer Harry” — as he’s known to generations of Kingston school kids — works as a school resource officer at Bailey Middle School. In the summer he heads up the department’s Youth Bureau. The job involves mixing with kids at neighborhood centers and summer recreation programs and putting on presentations for incoming ninth-graders at Kingston High School. One of the exercises Woltman uses is a simulated traffic stop with teens playing the role of a cop and a cop, sometimes “armed” with a plastic knife or gun, in the driver’s seat. The idea, Woltman said is to teach kids about the very real dangers officers face in the field.
“As much as a kid [pulled over by police] might be scared, sometimes that police officer approaching the vehicle is scared,” said Woltman. “He wants to go home too.”
Tinti said his community policing efforts would also include training officers in “procedural justice.” The term refers to policing practices that emphasize fairness and discourage arbitrary actions by cops when dealing with the public. Procedural justice, also known as procedural fairness, is backed by a number of law enforcement professionals who say that public perception of police improves when cops incorporate its principles in their daily operations. For cops on the beat, that may mean taking a moment to explain why you want a citizen to step out of their car or submit to a pat-down search, rather than the traditional law enforcement model which emphasizes using verbal commands to swiftly take control of situations.
“The public has an expectation of being treated fairly,” said Tinti. “Times have changed from the days of cops just saying, ‘Get on the sidewalk!’ without any explanation. People expect more.”
But Tinti conceded that the focus on building a kinder, gentler police force had to be balanced with the need for officers to do their job and stay safe. That balance was highlighted by ambush attacks on cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge that left eight officers dead nine wounded. KPD Detective Sgt. Brian Robertson said that the attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, both of which came in the wake of controversial police shootings of black men, had put officers on edge just as the department was taking steps to ease tensions with minority communities.
“It’s a very delicate balance,” said Robertson, who praised Tinti’s efforts to improve community relations. “Nobody wants to be paramilitary but [ambush attacks on police] make it very hard not to be hyper-vigilant.”
The question of whether the department’s outreach efforts are paying off remains vexingly difficult to answer. Tinti, a self-described “numbers guy,” acknowledges that there are no metrics to gauge whether the public in general — and the black community in particular — is feeling better about their police force. Instead, Tinti relies on anecdotes from officers about positive interactions on the street and feedback from attendees at the New Progressive forums. At the last one, held last month just days after the Dallas massacre, Tinti said about 70 people showed up to hear Tinti convey a personal appeal for public trust.
“I tell people, if you trust me, trust that I’ll do my job to make sure our police department does the right thing.”