City Police Manage Community Relations Without a Community Policing Unit

By Sarah Gabrielli and Taylor Romano

When asked to describe the relationship between the local police and community, representatives from the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department expressed a largely positive outlook. “I would categorize [the relationship] as very good,” police captain Richard Wilson. “We receive a lot of cooperation when we are dealing with various neighborhood issues.”

Lieutenant J.S. Remsen offered a similar viewpoint. Lt. Remsen is the police training and development supervisor, and has been working in the department for 20 years. “I don’t really think it’s that bad,” he said. “We’re viewed upon pretty well.”

When asked the same question, residents of the City of Poughkeepsie were less united and positive in their answers. Some agreed with the police statements, like Shashana McNeil, Director of the Ridley-Lowell Business and Technical Institute on Main Street. “I see officers smiling a lot to the community at large,” said McNeil, who has had a few local police as clients. “There’s a lot of good interaction.”

Others view police relations in a more negative light. “Anything to do with a cop, it’s a joke around here,” said Liz, who lives and works in the city. Liz said this is based on her daily interactions with the police for parole. She believes that the police change their body language around her and her friends, talk down to them and treat them poorly. If she had a problem, Liz said she would not feel comfortable going to the police “because of the fact of discretion and what they don’t want to deal with.”

Five years ago, the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department had a specialized community policing unit to specifically address discrepancies between the police and residents, like this one. Community policing is a concept in which police officers work with the community to form partnerships, establish trust and solve problems together. According to Frank Merenda, a criminal justice professor at Marist College and former community policing officer for the NYPD, these dynamics improve efficiency within police departments.

“It’s been proven over and over again that, in order for a police department to be most efficient, they have to have a working relationship and partnerships with the community,” Merenda explained.

He continued to explain. “You want to establish a trust with the community so that when problems do arise or an incident does occur they feel comfortable enough to go to the police and provide information that would help with those investigations,” Merenda said. This sort of trust can form through different types of initiatives from simply walking the beat, to reaching out to businesses and organizing community programs.

For budgetary reasons, the City of Poughkeepsie eliminated their community policing program five years ago. “At the time we just weren’t able to sustain that,” said Cpt. Wilson, who had led 10 officers in the community policing unit for several years. “There were some retirements, some buyouts, a host of things that happened in a vacuum that reduced our manpower. That was the unit that ended up being the one to suffer.” At full force, the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department employed 105 officers but they are currently down to 93.

“Without that extra 10 to 12 officers, it is hard to meet those challenges head on as we used to,” said Cpt. Wilson. “We still help in the manners that we used to, it’s just a little different because the officer used to have a little more time to follow it through.” Community policing officers in the old unit were responsible for specific neighborhoods, where they would address and solve problems. Now, officers must absorb the additional responsibilities of the old community policing department.

Since the loss of the community policing unit, representatives from the city police department admit that community policing efforts have been made more difficult. “Getting to know the community is a difficult task,” Lt. Remsen said. “It’s not as easy as the brochures and pamphlets make it out to be.” He and the other officers have increased work loads and taken on a larger patrol function. Without dedicated officers to community policing, the department must rely on everyone for the same duties in addition to community police work.

They continue to work in the community by practicing “direct patrol,” which is a proactive approach to responding to reports and preventing further incidents. The department has also increased their foot patrol in an effort to engage with the community. “When you are out of the car you have much more interaction with the community,” explained Cpt. Wilson. “It allows you that dialogue back and forth.”

The City of Poughkeepsie Police Department has “reason to believe” that their relationship with the community has not been damaged by the absence of a community policing unit. They have several initiatives in place that aim to foster relationships in the community. In addition to increased foot patrol, the police continue to attend meetings for the Middle Main Street Business Association, neighborhood revitalization, neighborhood clean ups and youth engagement.

“Cocoa with a Cop” is a spin-off on a popular community policing program, “Coffee with a Cop,” in which officers visit schools in the Poughkeepsie School District. There, they engage with the children, read stories and answer questions about safety and law enforcement. Morgan, a woman living in the City of Poughkeepsie, has children in the school district. She has been able to speak with the officers at these events, and confirmed that they visit the schools at least once a week to teach about safety. “The feeling is that by developing relationships with such young children, as they grow, the relations with law enforcement will continue to grow,” explained Cpt. Wilson.

The police department also participates in the Neighborhood Stabilization Committee. This group is made up of representatives from the police department, fire department, zoning department, public works and the mayor. They meet regularly to discuss different neighborhood issues and how each unit should go about addressing them.

Additionally, the city has seen a steady decline in crime over the past five years since the elimination of the community policing unit. Based on a recent report from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, between 2011 and 2015, the total number of Index Crimes reported to the police decreased by 32 percent in the City of Poughkeepsie. These Index Crimes included seven violent and property crimes which, excluding rape, each went down individually.

Despite these efforts, people in the City of Poughkeepsie have still detected a lack of police involvement in the community. “No, not at all,” said city local Deborah Porach, when asked if she had seen police make an effort to get involved. “I haven’t seen them make any effort to talk to people or blend in. Pretty much, they come when they’re needed.” Several others reported never having seen community outreach from the local police outside of their official duties. “I’ve never seen a cop come out of character out here,” said Meghan Ebert, another local.

Multiple community members stated that they would not feel comfortable going to the police if they had a problem or complaint. Some believed that the police were “too busy” to deal with certain situations. “I feel like that’s just a waste of time,” said Morgan. “They have other things, more important things, to worry about and to focus on.” Others were under the impression that the police would not be willing to help, even if they could. “They just don’t care about certain things,” said Chiquite Furs, who attends school in the City of Poughkeepsie.

In the absence of a specialized community policing unit, the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department maintains community policing in their overall philosophy and approach to policing. “Do we proactively go and seek people out? Probably not,” said Lt. Remden. “But we do make ourselves accessible.” They believe that regular day-to-day interactions in the community still manage to form the trust, partnerships and relationships that are essential to community policing.

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