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The police chief is not your bitch.
Forgive my French, but you get my point.
The police chief is not your bitch, and the police department is not your door mat.
It’s beginning to look like the people of Rochester need to be reminded. It seems that “policing in the spirit of service” has been interpreted to mean the cops are supposed to bend over and grab their ankles. Kindness has been interpreted as weakness, and efforts to win respect seem instead to have led to contempt.
We need a course correction.
That was evidenced in a couple of unconnected crime stories over the last week.
The first involved a video recording of Rochester Police Department officers taking a brother and sister pair into custody. Called to break up a domestic disturbance, officers met a 16-year-old male who haughtily ordered them off “his” property and his 21-year-old sister who came after the cops with a can of pepper spray.
The caterwauling and f-bombing were classic as the two of them resisted officers for all they were worth. The female shouted that she was pregnant as she tried to break free from an officer. Eventually, he slapped her in the head – in a diversionary tactic he had been trained to use – and immediately took her to the ground.
The caterwauling and f-bombing only grew more intense.
And as the siblings were dragged to the police car, another female walked into the video shouting about the injustice and the racism and how the chief better get down there right now to fix this.
She wasn’t happy and she wanted the chief to make her happy and she wanted it right then.
That was last week.
This week, there was a terrible attempted mass murder, in which a repeat ex-con out on bail for allegedly raping a 12-year-old girl shot up the little girl’s family, killing one and gravely wounding another and chasing others through the street and into a house – all before fleeing and leading police on a 24-hour manhunt that left schools and a justice building on lockdown.
That was a big deal.
And the neighbors were ticked off at the cops.
The response time was four minutes and that wasn’t good enough and, while the neighborhood was still strung with crime-scene tape, people complained angrily about the police.
Not the killer, the police.
One haughtily told the television cameras that she wanted the police chief to come and explain to her exactly where his officers had been and why they hadn’t gotten there sooner.
This gets back to the police chief not being your bitch.
Or your waiter or your customer-service representative or your concierge.
His job is not ombudsman-in-chief.
Inherent in the two references to the chief of police was a dismissive condescension, a disrespect for him and his position. As if he was a servant being summoned for a scolding.
Yes, his job is customer satisfaction. Yes, he should be available to residents to hear their complaints and concerns.
But he’s not a flunky and he’s not a peon.
He holds an important and powerful position which he has earned by virtue of professional competence and mayoral support. He commands a force of hundreds and makes life-and-death decisions. The stars on his collar are excessive, but they do make a point.
Police chief is a big deal.
But perhaps this administration’s spirit of outreach and community-relations building has led to a misunderstanding. Sometimes extending the hand of friendship can be misinterpreted as butt kissing.
Sometimes kindness can be seen as obsequiousness. Sometimes gestures of generosity can be seen as signs of weakness.
And perhaps chasing the elusive specter of “police-community relations” can get a department or an administration off course. Being a public servant is not exactly the same as being a servant, and too much currying favor with neighborhood people leaves them feeling not respected but entitled.
Sometimes, the community half of the equation can be unreasonably and immaturely demanding. Sometimes, the community half of the equation can resemble a difficult child, making demands and expressing whims that the police foolishly kowtow to.
Sometimes the community can be a spoiled brat.
And sometimes that imbalance in the relationship can result in a loss of respect for the police department.
I think I saw that demonstrated recently.
When President Obama was in town, his big bus idling on Park Avenue, several hundred people gathered along the street to get a glimpse of him or his motorcade.
Keeping them up on the sidewalks and out of the street was the responsibility of law enforcement.
In my stretch of sidewalk, that was the Rochester Police Department. For the 45 minutes we waited, the officer walked back and forth, from one side of the street to the other, up the block and down, shagging people back up onto the curb. It was clear where people were supposed to stand and where they weren’t supposed to stand, it was clear the officer was asking people to get back up on the curb, and it was also clear most people were blowing him off. Many people, for example, had to be told over and over, each time he made his circuit.
It was clear they didn’t respect him or fear the consequences of blatantly disobeying him.
Then a state trooper walked down the block.
He walked different, he looked different, and people reacted different.
Without him saying a word, people hurried back up onto the curb. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea. They got on the curb and they stayed on the curb. When one laggard was slow in doing so, from a quarter of a block away the trooper raised his arm and pointed his finger at the man and, without having to say a word, the man literally leapt up on the curb.
Same people, same situation, different police agencies, completely different reaction.
They respected the trooper, they didn’t respect the city cop.
They clearly didn’t know the men as individuals, but they had obviously formed different impressions of their respective agencies.
This isn’t a slam on the Rochester Police Department, it’s just an observation.
But it’s an observation of something important.
Respect for a law-enforcement agency and its officers isn’t optional, it’s essential. It’s a key part of public safety. A department that is respected – even feared – is a safer department.
Here’s how that works.
When the presence of an officer commands respect, people – good people or bad people – toe the line. Bad guys are less prone to try something with the cops and good guys are put at ease. When bad guys don’t respect the cops, when they think the cops are punks, they are more prone to be violent toward officers. That leads to injured officers and injured bad guys.
Further, respect is a force multiplier.
If a respected officer tells a crowd to back off, it backs off. If a dozen disrespected officers try to control the same crowd, they may not be able to.
The Rochester Police Department is an outstanding agency. But it is not always respected. Some of that is because of an urban culture that hates the police. Some of it is because of grandstanding “ministers” who preach an anti-police gospel. Some of it is because of politicians who bash police and incite racial insecurities for their own aggrandizement.
But some of it may come from an administrative attitude that comes off as butt kissing.
Somehow, it’s got to be fixed.
Because the chief of police is not your bitch.
Neither is his department.
And it’s important for people on both sides of that equation to understand that.
Public safety depends on it.