Syracuse Police Chief Kenton Buckner has made improving the relationship between police officers and the communities they serve a priority since he was sworn in nearly four months ago. But some community organizations are concerned there isn’t enough being done to earn the public’s trust.
Buckner is in the process of assigning uniformed officers to specific geographic areas in the city rather than a rotation. The chief believes officers can better interact with and get to know a particular community if they are seen on a regular basis. In addition, Buckner is making captains responsible for their own particular area 24/7.
"I think that allows the community to get to know the people that are responsible for the area. Vice-versa with the officers and then also bring sort of a problem solving element to the captains that are resourced in with the community and police officers to be able to address the frustrating issues the community is concerned about.
But Buckner’s idea of putting more officers on the streets does not appease everyone.
At a recent Thursday Morning Roundtable at Syracuse University’s Nancy Cantor Warehouse, members of the community got a better sense of the role of the Syracuse Citizens Review Board.
Peter McCarthy is the Chair of the Citizens Review Board. The CRB investigates citizen complaints regarding their experiences with police officers. McCarthy believes the neighborhood assignments have promise, but it’ll take more to alleviate community members’ fear over use of force.
"The whole approach of authentic community policing is something that has promise for building trust and improving relations between police and community. We hear too many disturbing stories where citizens feel they are not treated with respect by police officers. It’s in the overall approach, but as I said it’s in policy training and supervision for how officers treat people."
Currently, the written policy of the police department reads that, “sworn officers shall use only the level of physical force necessary in the performance of their duties.” But McCarthy says the community seems to believe the police are quick to use physical force.
"People's perceptions were that there was some pretty brutal, unwarranted use of force. There was a report on use of force after fleeing, and the perception was that if you run, they're going to beat you up."
But Buckner sees the new assignments as an opportunity for communities and their assigned officers to bond, which he believes can go a long way.
"I think that when you know an officer and the officer knows the community they’re serving I think there’s a probability of having a stronger relationship with that community."
Buckner mentioned the Public Service Leadership Academy at Fowler High School as a way to attract more young community members to become involved in policing.
The Law Enforcement Instructor at Fowler, Jamie Bazderic, agrees and believes his students are eager to become involved in the criminal justice system.
"I see it in my classroom everyday. Kids are coming here breaking down barriers they see and the stigma around policing and they see this as a viable opportunity. Not only to be police officers, but you get kids who say they want to be lawyers, they want to be part of the criminal justice system."
One the students in Bazderic’s law enforcement program, senior Noel Torres, has always dreamed of being an officer.
"When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a cop. I always wanted to help the community."
And the best public servants are from the community which they serve, according to CRB administrator Rannette Releford.
"We need to be trying to include the community in the process and I believe you make a great public servant when you’re from the community. That’s the reason why I came back, I wanted to give back to my community."
But many Syracuse Police Officers do not actually live in the City of Syracuse. There have been calls for a residency requirement for officers, but the police union has pushed back on those efforts. Buckner believes making more community partners will help entice officers to stay in the city.
"A number of officers that work in this city do not live here in Syracuse, but we have to get community partners in with our black and brown citizens, Spanish speakers in the community and hopefully some of these individuals will actually stay in this community once they get the job."
For aspiring police officer Noel Torres, leaving Syracuse isn’t even a thought.
"I definitely want to stay here. I know the city. I love the city and I really couldn’t envision myself somewhere else. If I did follow this path it would have to be here."
One of the ways the CRB believes community trust can be built further is through the use of police body cameras. The city has just completed a yearlong trial of the technology. Many feel the cameras keep both police and citizens on their best behavior, but the police association is pushing back. They argue officers should earn more for wearing the cameras and fear consequences for officers who forget to hit the record button.
In the meantime, Chief Buckner is moving forward by assigning officers to specific neighborhoods to establish better relationships with the community.