Pubdate: Mon, 14 Jun 1999
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 1999, New Haven Register
Author: Nicholas Pastore


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 build 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 country - not just big cities,
but small cities - have 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 policing - leaving the cop cars to get to know
people on the street _ and 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

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

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 do - a 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
community - if we want to dismantle blue walls, that's where to start.

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Nicholas Pastore, a retired New Haven police chief, heads the
Connecticut office of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, 109
Church St., New Haven 06510.

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