Taking it to the streets
On a recent burglary case, Vail Police Detective Paul Barben was forced to tell a victim that he did not have enough evidence to make an arrest, even though he knew who had committed the crime.”Can’t you just beat a confession out of him?” the victim asked. “That’s how they do it on TV.”Barben had to explain that, according to the United States Constitution, he had to have sufficient evidence for probable cause.”That’s unfortunate,” the victim said.Misconceptions about law enforcement, such as this person confusing Barben with Dirty Harry, abound in Vail. Part of the burden of being a police officer is that every other person who wears a badge is part of the public relations team. As Barben explains, every officer is affected when a Rodney King videotape hits the mainstream or when an unarmed man like Amadou Diallo is tragically killed.”You feel it the next day on the street,” he says.The 1990s may have been an all-time low point in the public’s perception of police. Beginning with the King beating in 1993 and ending with the Abner Louima assault in 1999, police officers were continually vilified in the media and crucified in youth culture. The rise of hip-hop music allowed a frustration with inner-city policing tactics to become a national perception. The best policemen were thought of as Robocops, cold and unapproachable but fair in their dispensation of justice, while the worst were considered to be modern day versions of plantation masters, defending an inequitable social order by dubious means.Further entrenching the misperceptions is the fact that many people think they inherently understand what it’s like to be a cop. Perhaps no other profession in America is more thoroughly explored in the media than police work. From Dragnet to Lethal Weapon to Cops, the job of a police officer has been endlessly dissected, fictionalized, brought to us live, and re-packaged in video games, and yet, people still seem to have at best a cursory understanding of police work. The heroics of the NYPD on Sept. 11, 2001, broke the ice that froze over in the ’90s, but there is much work to do in reconnecting officers to their communities. This is why the Vail Police Department founded the Citizen’s Police Academy.The Academy is the brain-child of Administrative Commander Joe Russell, who has worked for the Vail PD for more than 20 years. His purpose in starting the academy was to foster an environment where officers and citizens could exchange information, an environment outside of the typical enforcement situations that generate most interactions between cops and the general public.”I wanted to create a place where people felt comfortable enough to ask questions,” he says. “We want to hear what the public has to say about us.”One of the first things he explains to his students is how the philosophy of policing has changed. In the ’70s and ’80s, departments responded to a wave of corruption cases by adopting a “white horse” philosophy of policing. A call came in, officers responded to the call, administered justice, and then went on the next call. They spent most of their time inside this cycle (and literally inside their cruisers) because it was thought that less contact with the public would translate to less corruption. According to Russell, the opposite occurred, and as the gap widened between the community and the police, the thin blue line grew thicker. Cops were spending all of their time with other cops, creating a culture of tunnel vision and sloppy police work.The new wave of policing, generically dubbed “community policing,” is an attempt to re-connect to the original mandate of the profession: to act as “peace officers” rather than as “law enforcement” officers. Russell claims this idea is not new at all and quotes police pioneer Sir Robert Peel, who outlined seven principles for a public police department in 1829. The final one states that the police are “only members of the public that are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” In other words, the police are the public and the public are the police.Essential to this philosophy is the re-establishment of the “beat” cop, and thus the Vail Police routinely patrol the streets on foot and are encouraged to establish relationships with the people on their beat. In a town as intimate as Vail, it’s relatively easy to do, explains Barben.”Vail’s the only town I can walk down Bridge Street at 2 a.m. and high five people I’ve arrested before,” he says.For a resort town, community policing is part and parcel of customer service, and it’s been that way since the inception of the department, according to Russell. Yet, he still feels there’s a disconnect between locals and officers, which he illustrates in comparing a policemen to guns.Russell has three kids and has made a point of taking them out to the range whenever they ask so he can teach them about guns in a controlled environment. The reason he always acquiesces to their requests, he explains, is that he doesn’t want his kids to be “mystified” by guns.”Going to the range takes away the fascination with the gun,” he says. “There’s no longer that wondering about what it feels like and what it can do.” As a result, his children view guns as tools instead of weapons of mythological power. It’s the same way with cops, says Russell. The media turns them into authority figures to be feared, but “when you meet us, you’ll find out we’re just regular people.”One of the most popular days of the six-session academy course is the trip to the range, where officer Chuck Owens lets the students fire MP5 submachine guns, pump-action shotguns and a pistol. The regimen for interacting with the weapons is strict. Students are taught to keep their fingers off the trigger, to hold the weapon a certain way while firing and while at rest, and to stand at a safe distance when someone else is shooting.The protocol for handling the officers is more relaxed. Academy director Frank D’Alessio, who also heads the Vail Police Volunteer Program, encourages students from day one to ask as many questions as possible. His philosophy is the same as Russell’s: to get students to see behind the uniform.D’Alessio himself has been active with the department since 1995, when Russell approached him about doing some crime analysis for the department. Initially, he was reluctant.”I said, ‘I have no clue what I could do to help,'” he says, but after reviewing textbooks that Russell gave him, he realized that he could provide some assistance and continues to do crime analysis work for Vail. In 1999, he began work on the volunteer program with records supervisor Kris Cureau, the late officer Ryan Cunningham, and an intern, Tara Ham. The program has grown leaps and bounds, according to D’Alessio, with hundreds of volunteers over the past two years and the creation of the academy, which suggests that the tide, at least in Vail, is turning.But another thing Sept. 11 pointed out is that the perception of police is very much tied to events with dramatic exposure, and since police are only human and occasionally make mistakes, there will inevitably be another “Diallo.”Russell talked about how he dislikes the show Cops because a lot of the police work he sees on it is counter to his philosophy.”When I see someone putting a foot on someone’s neck, I get angry,” he says.Barben typically laughs at the portrayal of police in the media. Pushed for an example, he cites the last cop movie he saw, Training Day, a supposedly realistic expos on detectives.”While extremely entertaining, it’s not showing stuff that’s happening every day. We don’t shove our pens down Snoop Dogg’s throat, but people think that’s the reality,” he says.With the media only focusing on what Barben terms the “tip of the iceberg,” or the incidents that have dramatic potential, conflict between police and the public is inevitable. The key, explains Russell, is not attempting to completely eliminate conflict an impossible goal but to deal with it correctly.”If the department is truly community-oriented, it will be able to work through the bad incidents,” he says.The academy is creating a base of “ambassadors” in D’Alessio’s words to reverse the common misperception, but there’s also a risk of getting too touchy-feely with the public you police, according to Barben.”My problem is knowing everybody and keeping a certain distance,” he says, explaining the “no gratuity” policy the department has for beat cops. He says by letting yourself get too close to certain members of the public, an officer can set himself up to fail when he’s needed most.”You need to have boundaries,” he continues. “Work is work. Cops are held to higher standards, and for a good reason: you have powers the average Joe doesn’t.”
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