Note to NYPD: This Is Not How You Improve Relations With the Community
Via Brad Warbiany, it appears that it is now an appropriate function of the police to ticket stalwarts of minority communities for the abhorrent crime of….playing chess in a public park and making themselves available to local kids to teach the game of chess:
A group of seven mild-mannered chess players are due in criminal court next month after police officers from the 34th Precinct issued them summonses for playing their favorite board game in Inwood Hill Park.
The men were ticketed on Oct. 20 for being inside of Emerson Playground, a children’s play area off limits to adults unaccompanied by minors. But the men were in an area furnished with stone chess and backgammon tables — separated from the play area by a fence.
“There is a problem in this area with drug dealing, but the police have time to write tickets to people playing chess?” asked Yacahudah Harrison, 48, one of the men who received a summons for “Fail[ing] to comply with signs.”
“Under my direction, uniformed officers routinely enter the parks to enforce closing times and other regulations; all designed to protect the community,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“The NYPD allows for officers to issue summonses in lieu of effecting an arrest for appropriate offenses.”
But Inwood residents expressed outrage that the NYPD would target the chess players in light of the men’s history as caretakers and teachers for the next generation of Inwood chess players.
“This is a positive thing for our kids to see and do, it’s a positive mental activity for them,” said Regina Christoforatos, 38, whose 6-year-old daughter Zoe has been learning chess in the park.
Beyond the patented ridiculousness of expending law enforcement resources on issuing summonses for daring to play chess on a public park’s chess boards, the incident is also symptomatic of why there is often so much distrust between police departments and local communities in minority and/or high-crime neighborhoods.
Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that the police officers in this case are of the opinion that playing chess is an offense that is equally serious as the myriad other crimes occuring in the neighborhood. But they chose to expend resources to go after these men nonetheless.
There’s actually a sense in which, all other things being equal, doing so is even justifiable, perhaps under a “broken windows” theory of crime, or even just on the rationale that it is the job of the police officer to issue citations for any offense he personally observes.
But the fact is that police officers don’t operate in a vacuum. Instead, they operate in communities that are often well aware of their problems, but also well aware of what is definitively not a problem. Moreover, these communities are often well aware of who is part of their problems and who helps make life better for them.
A story like this, however, shows that the police officers in the neighborhood, perhaps because of the law enforcement strategies adopted by City Hall, have absolutely no clue about what the problems in the community are, nor about who is part of the problems in the community. Instead, they have rules and strategies adopted by bureaucrats in City Hall that purport to have greater authority than the local neighborhood in determining what and who is a problem in the community.
A story like this shows that the police officers have not taken the time to actually get to know the community in which they serve, to learn who the citizens are who make life better for the community and who are capable of making the officers’ jobs easier and safer. What should be particularly embarassing to the NYPD here is that these men have apparently been using the park for these purposes for quite some time, and yet the officers seem to have had no familiarity with them.
Worse than all, though, is the response of the police captain in standing by the summonses and suggesting they are a necessary part of “protect[ing] the community.” Regardless of whether the captain actually believes this patently absurd suggestion, the message he is sending to the community is that he, and by extension, the NYPD are utterly clueless as to what the safety and law enforcement needs of the community actually are.
…And then they wonder why they have such a poor relationship with the citizens of neighborhoods like this.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When the police are invested in their community and take an interest in that community, it will shows, and the citizens will trust their police. I, personally, live in such a community. Like most such communities, it is a safe and low-crime place to live. But we still have our share of petty ordinance violations. The difference is that, because the police are invested in the community, the local police captain would never dream of justifying issuing a summons for such a violation on the grounds of “protect[ing] the community” unless the violation was something that someone in the community was actually concerned about. Nor, by and large, would the individual officers do more than issue a warning for such a violation unless, again, the violation was something that someone in the community might actually be concerned about. Why? Because they consider themselves part of the community, neighbors more than prison guards.