When a teen was shot and killed in Brooklyn last month by plain clothes officers who said he had a gun, it brought into focus the frayed relations between police and the community.
The death of 16-year-old Kimani Gray was a tipping point for the neighborhood where rallies, with some reports of looting, violence and arrests, continued for weeks.
"The police are supposed to be friends to the children but the kids are afraid of the police,” said Tracy Carter, a mother, as she stood, arms crossed, watching a march down Church Avenue in East Flatbush to protest the NYPD.
Conversations with residents and veteran law enforcement officials paint a portrait of what they say is a troubled relationship between police and residents in high-crime areas — one in which community members say they feel an underlying lack of respect in interactions with police.
"You have times when we're probably the most hated people in the city depending on what's going on and then you have times where we're loved,” said a veteran officer of more than 20 years who agreed to speak with WNYC on the condition of anonymity.
‘I'm here to do a job, not to get in a relationship’
When asked, officers say the department’s priority is to keep crime numbers low and that interactions like stop and frisk aren’t personal. The city floods precincts with officers fresh out of the police academy — a strategy known as "Operation Impact" — when there's a spike in crime in a given area.
"The police department is responding to that (crime) and they're assigning these young officers to these precincts,” said the NYPD veteran officer. “This is where part of the, ‘I'm here to do a job, not to get in a relationship with the public.’ They know that they're here temporarily. Yes, they're solving the problem but this is where you could get they could be a little bit friendlier."
(Photo: Graduating class of NYPD officers. Kathleen Horan/WNYC)
A second officer with nearly a decade on the force said that when new officers leave Impact they're often transferred into other specialized units: “You're not going to get community policing there,” he said.
Keeping crime at historic lows
The city says a key part of maintaining the 40-year low in homicides is stop and frisk. Officials argue the tactic has saved the lives of many of same people who protest against it; 87 percent of homicide victims are black and Latino and most of them are young men.
"Nobody likes to get stopped but you have to do something," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during a recent press conference, "and if it’s a question of stopping and annoying you or saving your life I know which one we're going to do."
Even if the practice has contributed to public safety, residents say the five million stop and frisks over the past decade have had a corrosive effect on police-community relations.
Sean Howard, 32, lives in East New York where residents were stopped and frisked more times last year than anywhere else in the city. He said he cares more about how the police conduct the stops than why.
"I never had a cop jump out on me and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, what's your name?’ and all that,” Howard said. "They just jump out, search you and go back about their business."
A theme of respect emerges
If you ask residents from Hunts Point in the Bronx to Brownsville, Brooklyn — the lack of respect by the police is a common theme.
(Photo: Michelle Thomas, 41, of East Flatbush. Kathleen Horan/WNYC)
In East Harlem Jeffrey Hunter, 21, a high school track coach enrolled in college, said that when he encounters police they only see one thing: a potential perp.
"Back in the day cops would slow down and ask you questions,” he said. “Now they'll stop you and search your bag and not ask you questions. They'll just pull you to the side and assume you're doing something wrong."
The NYPD has said that it's focused on building community relations and is continually working with neighborhood leaders and clergy members to do so. But in daily interactions — officers say these priorities often get sidelined.
"There's no clear cut guidelines because if there were, trust me, as the biggest police department in the world, we would be instituting it — as far as I'm concerned we should be setting policy for the rest of the country,” said another officer.
(Photo: Teens in East Harlem say they want to see better relationships between officers and residents in their neighborhood. Kathleen Horan/WNYC)