"Blue wall" was built by the public
The blue wall of silence has been pierced, at least in New York City. So says the media that covered the trial of Officer Justin Volpe, accused of sodomizing a suspect in custody. Fellow officers have stepped forward in court to testify to Volpe's alleged inhuman acts.
But who built that wall? And how?
The cops didn't. We did.
And, sensational cases such as the New York episode aside, that wall will remain impenetrable until we look at how we built it, and how we can truly tear it down.
We built it by asking police to do the impossible. In consort with pandering politicians and police chiefs, we have unleashed cops as an occupying force in a war on citizens. They can't do their jobs well, or safely, that way.
I'm hardly making excuses for Justin Volpe, who has now decided to plead guilty, or for the three white officers in Connecticut who have killed unarmed black citizens during the past two years. I'm hardly making excuses for officers who watch their brothers in blue brutalize citizens in defiance of law, and clam up about it.
But look at how we've sent cops onto the streets in the modern age. Increasingly communities throughout the countrynot just big cities, but small citieshave formed SWAT teams, cops dressed up as soldiers to bust down doors and fly into housing projects in search of drugs. We've armed them more heavily than ever. We've taken the original concept of community policingleaving the cop cars to get to know people on the streetand deformed it into a pretext for spying on and harassing people whose looks we distrust. We have identified drugs and drug-users as enemies in war, locking them up as though we can lock up a health problem and social problem that courses through the arteries of every stratum of our body politic. We even lock up the violently mentally ill in jails instead of steering them to mental hospitals.
These "get-tough" measures play well at the polls. They don't cut crime, especially not in the long run. Instead they dump social problems in the laps of cops trained to shoot, not heal; trained to arrest, not to find places people in trouble can go for help before causing bigger trouble.
Let me give you an example of how we built this wall: I saw it when I was New Haven's police chief a few years back.
I was speaking at a neighborhood meeting about constitutional rights. A man raised his hand and interrupted me in front of a hundred of his neighbors and numerous public officials.
"Chief," he said. "We don't care about constitutional rights. Take them in the back room and shoot them. We'll support you."
My answer was, "Today we'll shoot them. Tomorrow we'll come back for you. You don't want your police in that role of being judge and executioner."
Despite the occasional frustrations of some of our citizens, we want well-trained police officers, not military troops, in our streets.
Instead of training and hyper-arming soldiers, we can prepare our officers for a job they can doa job that will truly make our communities safer for all.
They can train to deal with all sorts of people, not just people who think or look like them. They can be put on street patrol for longer periods of time, go into schools, meet the kids, the merchants, the hangers-out. They can work alongside teachers, guidance counselors, clinicians, probation officers, to keep tabs on potential trouble. They can gain the trust of people in the community, rather than their fear. They can become family police officers, the way we have family doctors or teachers.
Then officers can feel safer, less prone to react violently. Policing has become a hostile job. We've created that environment. Calling off the drug war, training cops differently, changing their beats to the street, linking them up with caregivers and professionals in the communityif we want to dismantle blue walls, that's where to start.