Cops and Citizens: A New York Conversation

The deaths of two unarmed black men last year—Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island— sparked a national discussion about police behavior. The grand juries’ decisions not to indict the officers involved in those incidents came a week apart in December, and some New Yorkers took to the streets in protest, shutting down major highways, chanting Garner’s chilling last words, “I can’t breathe.”

Weeks later, two New York police officers were shot and killed by a lone gunman. The president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, stood outside the hospital where the bodies of the police officers were taken and said the mayor had “blood on his hands.” Later, some officers turned their backs on de Blasio while he delivered a eulogy at one of the officers’ funeral.

It’s no surprise then that tension between the cops, civilians, and the mayor has endured into the new year. Our reporters took to the streets across the city to ask New Yorkers what they thought could be done to improve these fraught relationships. Their answers may surprise you.

THE BRONX

At the Jackson Avenue train stop on Thursday afternoon, two police officers were arresting a young man, as a crowd of onlookers watched. Some said that he had tried to hop on the train illegally. The officers grappled with him and sprayed him with mace at least three times as he tried to fight them off. A few people taped the struggle on their phones. “Call my mom!” the young man shouted over and over again, and he screamed out her phone number as a train went by. A few minutes later, backup arrived, and the young man was led away.

Herman Miranda, 50, has lived in New York City all his life, and witnessed the fight at the Jackson stop. “I’ve got mixed emotions,” he said.

Wardell Alexander

Wardell Alexander

“You got to know how to talk to people. This area here, you gotta understand, I’m not saying that it’s easy or nothing like that, but police gotta know how to relate to wherever they stationed at. They gotta relate to the people who they deal with. If you can relate to people a little bit better, a lot of things would be a lot easier.

“But now,” he continued, “you got a lot of these incidents where everybody freaks out when they see police, they don’t want to hear it from the police around here no more, you know? That’s a problem, because when we resist, then things get worse.”

Maria Cruz and Andrea Richardson were sitting outside at the bottom of the elevated train platform. Richardson, who sells clothing and shoes from tables in the station, says that young people will steal things sometimes, and the most dangerous time is between 3 and 5 p.m.—when school lets out. “People break the law,” said Cruz, “and then when they do make mistakes, they accuse the police, and that’s not right. That’s what happened here in the train station. He passed the toll there, and the police spoke with the guy, the guy start fighting with them and cursing and stuff, that’s what the people say. And they want to put the handcuffs on and he don’t want it.”

Wardell Alexander was sitting on a milk crate outside of the Sanchez Family Deli Grocery, a few blocks away on the corner of Prospect Avenue and Dawson Street. “I think there should be more minority police officers in minority neighborhoods,” he said.

Steve Marrone, standing near the corner of 163rd and Prospect Avenue, has several police officers in his family. They all tell him, he said, that they don’t have the same latitude that they used to. “You know, honest to God, I don’t think the mayor and his advisers around him are very friendly toward the police department in general,” he said. “On the flip side of it, cops get way too aggressive. They want to wake up in the morning and they want to come home to their kids. And they have a tendency, like all the cops in the rest of the country, of just getting way too overaggressive.” — Azure Gilman

Genesis Nunez, Jasmine Gileens

Genesis Nunez, Jasmine Gileens

Genesis Nunez, 22, sat with her arm around Jasmine Gileens, 23, on a bench on Broadway between 232nd and 233rd Streets. The two, who live on the Grand Concourse but work in Riverdale, said they have witnessed the relationship between citizens and the NYPD sour over the last several years. “For some reason, now it feels like we’re going back to where it’s us against them,” Nunez said.

The best way to amend and improve on the relationship, according to Nunez, is to “approach people as human beings. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t catch an attitude. Just talk. And maybe with that, they might actually get somewhere instead of all the conflict that’s going on between them and us.” — Jaclyn Peiser

Tashelle Cooper lives in the Bronx and studies at Bronx Community College. She thinks there is a lack of communication between the police and the public. “I think cops need more interpersonal skills,” she said. “They are humans as we are. They have feelings like we do. I think they need a class to teach them how to deal with the public.”

Cliff Graham, 64, a retired engineer who also lives in Bronx, said that the police and citizens need mutual trust. “I think if we can have a community meeting each month in every borough and every section with cops,” he said, “we can work something out.” — Siyu Qian

Waiting for a bus on on Broadway by 234th Street, Ileana Hallinan, 50, also believes that Mayor de Blasio and representatives of the NYPD should sit down and talk about their issues. The mayor, she said, “could apologize for what he said and agree to sit down and talk to police officers—and vice versa.” The police commissioner should be present, she added, as well as police officers of different ethnic backgrounds.

Susan Bazik, 18, near a Shop Rite on 236th, said that Mayor de Blasio is acting like there is nothing going on between him and NYPD officers. “He definitely needs to address it,” Bazik said.

And outside the Broadway Plaza Mall in Kingsbridge, Miguel DeJesus, a teacher at P.S. 132/Juan Pablo Duarte Elementary School in Washington Heights, said that Mayor de Blasio should apologize to NYPD officers for not backing them up when they needed his support. But at the same time: “Cops also need to realize that Mayor de Blasio is the commander in chief of New York City,” he said. “He’s the boss. They cannot be insubordinate.” — Ayana Osson

MANHATTAN

Anna Estrada, 52, was standing on the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd, waiting for her bus. She has lived in Harlem her entire life and comes from a family of police officers and lawyers.

“It’s all about communication,” she said. “People used to get to know the cops. Police officers don’t say hello or good morning anymore. In my day, we knew them all.”

Estrada also believes the police could train their officers differently. “A lot of the cops come from the suburbs to the city and they don’t see crimes where they’re born and raised. Here there’s crime every five minutes and they fight right away,” she said. “That’s why training is so important.”

Keith Veltri, 42, was walking by the vendors on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, swinging his office ID back and forth. He takes a different approach: “The press is antagonizing the situation and purposefully fueling the fire,” he said. “The protests also aren’t helping. The mayor’s not helping either.” — Ellen Brait

Lymique

“Everyone’s looking at the mayor like he’s a villain. He can’t protect everyone. How can you blame the mayor for the two police officers who got killed? I think that’s unfair.” — Lymique

New Yorkers have a right to be angry with police, said Joseph Diaz, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College in Manhattan, who believes that the verdict in the Eric Garner case was unfair. “The mayor is flopping around between supporting cops and the people. People are confused and they don’t know their rights,” said Diaz, a Bronx resident. But he conceded that the mayor’s response to the recent outbreak of anger and violence has also “made the cops feel more vulnerable.”

Rushing to catch the bus at 125th Street and Madison Avenue, Dr. Elizabeth Ohuche, who has a doctorate from Teachers College and has one son who is in the NYPD, said that people should allow the cops to do their job instead of protesting. “Cops are doing a great job, especially the NYPD. Their hands are tied, but they are doing their best,” she said, adding that people should trust the judicial process. “They have a right to stop and search you.” — Swati Gupta

As Francine Brown, a fitness instructor, locked up her bike on 145th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, she said she believes that if more cops lived in the city they served, the situation would be better. “I think the improvement would be to reinstate the residency requirement, where the police had to live in at least one of the five boroughs they’re supposedly serving,” she said. Many officers “commute into the city and look at the community, particularly the black and Hispanic community, as low-life, savage, uncivilized people,” she said, “if they even think of us as people.”

James Cole, a soft-spoken 14-year-old, had finished with school for the day and was waiting for his father outside The True Blue luncheonette and deli on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. “They need to cut us some slack,” he says. “We all make mistakes, but they’re ticketing us for our little mistakes. They really need to listen to citizens, and hear what they have to say.”

Jo-Ann Thomas, originally from Louisiana, was doing her laundry on 145th Street. Thomas taught history at a high school nearby for 40 years. She says she prays every night for things to get better, and she believes that one day, people’s prayers will change things. She has one son, who is in his fifties. Every Sunday since he was a little boy, she said, she’s made sure he wears a blazer. Even so, she said, recently he was stopped and frisked by police, who suspected him of being involved in a drug operation nearby. The photo of the suspect that they showed him, Thomas says, looked nothing like him. In the photo, the suspect had a nose piercing.

Doreen Godare

Doreen Godare

Just talking about the incident seems to humiliate Thomas afresh. She says the police searched her son extensively, even inside his underwear. “He told them, ‘Officer, do I really look like the kind of person who would have a nose ring on?’”

Doreen Godare was closing up the hat shop “Harlem’s Heaven Hat Boutique” for the night. The hats, which look like something out of a fairytale, run from wall to wall. “Everything is so tense right now,” she said. “They need to sit down and talk.” — Tess Owen

Community policing is the answer, said Shawn Chin-Chance, 36, speaking near Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. It “will greatly help improve the strained relations,” he said. And that, he says, “starts with proper training.”

Chin-Chance also believes there is an insider/outsider tension when the police are not acquainted with community members. “It’s unfortunate that the two agencies that are not subject to residency requirements are the ones that really need to be have them. They are the police and fire departments,” said Chin-Chance.

“It’s an institutional issue,” said Ari Feliz, 31, a resident of the Bronx talking near Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. “There has to be a revision of state policies to address it. When you walk into a hospital, you have a patient’s bill of rights that tells you what’s within your rights. But you don’t have a bill of rights that tells you what you are entitled to when dealing with the police out in public. So what are we supposed to do?

“The officers should know that they are here to serve and protect, not intimidate us,” he said. — Seema Somshekar

Ernest Woodson, 51, has owned his Harlem barbershop, Mosaic Cuts, on the corner of West 130th Street and Amsterdam Avenue for nearly 17 years. In all of that time, he said, only three police officers have stepped into his shop to strike up a conversation. Woodson’s barbershop has become a kind of neighborhood hangout for residents of the Manhattanville Houses across the street. On Thursday, Woodson was talking with Kenny Graham, 55, a photographer, who comes by a few nights each week.

“It’s not about disrespect towards the police and stuff like that, it’s how they approach us,” Graham said. “If you come looking like you got the right attitude, you cool——just like anybody.”

“You know what they’re doing?” Woodson interjected. “They come with like that military mindset.”

Woodson paused. “We ain’t the enemy,” he said.

“We’ve never been the enemy,” Graham added. — Solange Uwimana

QUEENS

Parminder Singh, a real estate developer who comes from India’s Punjab region, was sitting on a bench inside the Jackson Heights 74th St- Broadway subway stop, waiting to pick up a friend visiting from Pennsylvania. He used the time to read, The Ajit, a New York newspaper written in Punjabi. He said the police have a strong presence in the area.

“Every 20 minutes we can see police around here. There are cameras and if there is a problem they come straight away,” he said. “They make it safer. You can walk around at midnight, anytime at night. It’s no problem here.”

Tenzin Samten

Tenzin Samten

“If you are nice with them, they are nice with you,” he added.

John Phillips, a fireman who lives in Long Island City, was on the corner of 49th and Vernon Boulevard. He works closely with the police and thinks highly of them. “I think they’re great. I think they do a great job keeping the city safe and well maintained,” he said. He says that the police have a great relationship with the people in the area and that he hasn’t had any negative experiences with them. — Noele Illien

Tenzin Samten, 19 and Bipal Gurung, 18, are neighborhood friends who have skated together in Woodside, Queens for the past few years, and they have some words for the NYPD. “Don’t abuse the power of stop and frisk,” said Gurung.

Samten said he was walking home from a friend’s house last October when he was stopped by a police officer. He was wearing a black sweatshirt with his hood pulled over his head, and the officer told him he looked suspicious, he recalls. Samten says the officer then falsely accused him of drinking and smoking, handcuffed him, and held him in his police car for an hour before letting him go. “I just started hating the cops,” said Samten. “There’s a lot of things they need to change.”

With his family, Miguel Roa, 42, owns a Filipino restaurant called Papa’s Kitchen in Woodside. Like others, Roa thinks the key to better relationships between police officers and community members is communication-maybe even set up some sports events. “It’s a first step,” he said, “When you start playing basketball you think, ‘This guy is nice.’ Sports is good communication.'” — Justine Calma

Jimmy Campbell, 33, was standing on the traffic divider on 29th Street and Queens Plaza, holding a radio to stay in communication with his co-workers, who were working on the construction of the Marriot hotel.

“I guess the mayor is to blame for what happened. He spoke from his heart and didn’t listen to advice,” Campbell said, of the recent comments made by the mayor about his son, Dante. “I think the police have lost respect for him.”

Campbell, who used to live in Woodside, says he has not personally observed police misconduct. And as for members of minority groups who resist arrest or get into altercations with police, “They kind of bring it on themselves,” he said.

Jimmy Campbell

Jimmy Campbell

Terrence Howard, 32, a plumber, lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but he has been working in Queens for the past four months. Howard said the police maintain a strong and sometimes forceful presence in his neighborhood. Cops can be aggressive toward black males, he said, but people react to them based on past grievances with police. “It’s both sides of the party. If something happens, it escalates,” Howard said. “Why can’t you obey the officer?”

But Martin Altre—an 18-year-old Laguardia College student and Astoria resident who went to Brooklyn Technical High School with Dante de Blasio—said he does not disagree with the comments made by the mayor about his son. “It’s kind of true,” he said. — Yvonne Juris

Weston Jamail, a welding student at Apex Technical School, was waiting at a bus stop near 21st Street and 38th Avenue. He said in order to improve relations between city residents and the police, the two groups, “need to stop taking the law into their own hands.” He added: “If you come with respect, you’ll get respect. It applies to both sides.”

Hernan Cacho, a resident of the Ravenwood Houses, sat on the benches in front of his housing complex located at 36th Avenue and 21st Street. He said relations between residents and cops could improve if cops stopped hassling residents and held more community meetings. “I want to live freely. I don’t want to live like a caged animal,” he said. “Something has got to give.” — Natasha Payes

Sami Mobarak, who owns an antique shop in Astoria and has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said that he thinks the police do a good job there. Standing on one of the more industrial stretches of the neighborhood, away from his store, he argued that the mayor and the police commissioner should work as a team.

He was joined by Saeed Hassanein, who didn’t speak about any tensions between the police and the community but about parking tickets. He said he pulled his car into his garage with the ignition on, went to open the overhead door and turned around, only to find a ticket on his windshield. — Lauren Hard

BROOKLYN

Officer Williams of the 79th Precinct on school run detail at the corner of Tompkins Avenue and Floyd Street.

Officer Williams of the 79th Precinct

At the northwest corner of Myrtle and Tompkins Avenues there are three concrete cinder blocks, three candles, and a ten-inch American flag taped to the wall. Written in black marker pen on the center white candle are the words, “R.I.P Detective Rafael Ramos and Detective Wenjian Liu. In Loving Memory.” That is what remains of the tribute to the two officers, who were murdered execution-style by a lone gunman on December 20.

“Things are getting back to normal,” said Officer Williams of the 79th Precinct (he did not supply his first name). He sat in a patrol van a block north. “Everyone’s a little sensitive in the area, but there’s really no tension.”

Williams says that negative perceptions of the police overshadow the good work of the force and damages relations with the public. “You have good apples and bad apples in every entity: good teachers, bad teachers; good preachers, bad preachers,” said Williams. “It doesn’t mean that all teachers are bad. And it’s the same for the department.”

Williams says that trust in the police could be repaired if people followed orders when being arrested. “It’s a chaotic scene when people get arrested,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions about law enforcement, and I think a lot gets lost in the confusion.”

Over lunch at Mike’s Pizza, several feet from the spot where Officers Ramos and Liu were killed, Officer Bomparola of the 79th Precinct said he became a police officer because it’s “fun. There’s action—fighting, chases, there’s lots of shootings round here.” Bomparola said that he doesn’t want to engage in community outreach because of concerns for his and his partner’s safety. “People want to kill us. It’s not safe. It never was.”

Reggie Williams and his son Tahmel walking home along Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn.

Reggie Williams and his son Tahmel walking home along Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn.

“The majority of the public are good people,” said Bomparola. “But kids around here are brought up to hate the police. They don’t respect authority.”

Not all kids in the neighborhood apparently. Near where Officer Williams and his partner were on duty, Reggie Williams (no relation), 41, walked his eight-year-old son home from elementary school along Myrtle Avenue, past the tribute. Williams’ son, Tahmel, said when he’s older, he wants to become a police officer because he likes to help people. — George Steptoe

Andrew Green, a 19-year-old freelance cinematographer, was waiting with two friends in front of the Atlantic Terminal Mall for a taxi. As a young black male, he said he is particularly attuned to the current tension between the NYPD and the mayor. Increased accountability for police officers, he believes, could help ease tensions by cutting the issues off at their source.

So would body cameras for cops, Green said. “I think those could be effective if they were used the right way.” — Malena Carollo

Resting her bag on a railing outside Brooklyn’s Central Library, a 68-year-old woman named Janet chuckles when asked what she thought could be done to improve the public’s relationship with the police. “The majority of policemen are wonderful,” she said. “It’s a case of one bad apple’s attitude reflected in those beneath him.”

She dug into her bag for a white tube of hand lotion as she continued, “Forget about policy or changing legislation, it’s the attitude that has to change. There’s got to be a change of the guard.” — Soraya Auer

One way to improve the relationship with the police, said William Chaneco: Listen to them. “Regardless of the position you’re in, if the police asks you to do something, do it! And then ask questions.” Chaneco, a 41-year-old employee of Crest Hardware & Urban Garden Center, was sweeping the sidewalk near the store on Metropolitan Avenue. “They’re here to protect us, not to harm us. They have to be aggressive to protect everyone.” Chaneco admitted that one of his friends who used to work in the store is now a police officer.

M.J. Fontain disagrees. “Sure the police have a very tough job,” she said. “But they often go to the neighborhood they don’t understand and they don’t even try to understand its residents.” She blames the violence of recent months on gentrification and the prejudice of police officers against long-time residents of communities. “Several years ago, when this neighborhood was nasty and full of drugs, no police officer bothered to come here,” Fontain said. “Now they are everywhere! Why? Because they protect the newcomers from us.” — Joanna Socha

Sarah Moen, a University of Minnesota graduate, currently studies at Hunter College for a graduate degree in education.

"I think the Civilian Complaint Review Board needs to have more power, to have more money to be able to hire more investigators and staff."

“I think the Civilian Complaint Review Board needs to have more power, to have more money to be able to hire more investigators and staff.” — Andre Vital

She was sitting in a Brooklyn park. “I think there are a lot of steps that need to be done. One could be including cultural trainings within the education program. It could definitely use more cultural sensitivity.”

“Being a cop can be an anxious job,” she said. “It can mess up your state of mind. I think that regular psychology checkups for cops to make sure that they are still suitable to be working is a good idea.” — Shengying Zhao

Stuffing brown paper into a black leather handbag at Eleven Boutique on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, Daisy Francis, 21, said the police “need more professionalism when handling people’s lives.”

She said she felt the police acted childishly when dealing with a robbery that occurred recently in the store she works in, but she feels the same way about how some cops are acting toward the mayor.

A few stores down, Lynette Kirchner, owner of a vintage store called Pony, said, “It all boils down to more communication.” The mayor could “show a little more support,” she said. “The police are having a very hard time.”— Cara McGoogan

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