EXCLUSIVE: Dialogue between cops and community in Sunset takes to the streets

A group of rookie police officers and officers in training, accompanied by the commanding officer of the 72nd Precinct and the precinct’s executive officer, took to Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park on Tuesday, October 13, in the company of a man who has made a point of publicizing encounters in which, he contends, excessive force was used by NYPD officers.

Dennis Flores, who has released videos of such encounters on several occasions through El Grito de Sunset Park, the community watchdog organization he founded, joined precinct commanding officer Captain Thomas Ng, precinct executive officer Captain Eric Perez, other 72nd Precinct staffers and the gaggle of young cops and cops-to-be, in a stroll down the busy shopping strip, an event at which lifetime Sunset Parker and former Assemblymember Javier Nieves was also in attendance.

The purpose of the event, said both Flores and the officers, was to continue to build bridges, and build on dialogue between the community and the cops that began just about a year earlier. At that time, police-community relations were rocky following the arrest of a vendor at the close of the Fifth Avenue Festival, caught on video, which raised a sustained outcry because of the nature of the encounter between officers, the vendor and bystanders.

“This is a good step, where dialogue begins,” noted Flores, who said, “It creates mutual respect when folks get to know each other. It’s not about wanting to make cops’ jobs harder. We don’t want to create animosity. We want to work together to get positive results. The police are part of the community.”

As a self-proclaimed “critic of many tactics of the Police Department,” Flores went on, he has come to recognize that criticism must be tempered with a strong dose of constructiveness. “You can’t point fingers at people if you don’t really want to fix things,” Flores stressed. “We just want to make sure there are relations between the community and the police so there is no issue we can’t resolve. There has to be a dialogue. At the end of the day, we have one goal: doing right by the community.”

Ng, for his part, said it was important for community members and cops to get to know each other – one major reason for bringing the young officers and officers-in-training out to the shopping strip, so they can, “Get to know the community one-on-one, face to face.” Such encounters breed trust, he said. “We talk about treating the community like we treat out families, and treating everyone with respect.”

The strides along the avenue follow a year of baby steps that have gradually grown more confident. In October, 2014, in the wake of the Festival arrest, there was a town hall meeting at which, Perez said, cops in attendance (which included top brass from One Police Plaza) repeatedly heard that, “There was no community trust, a lot of misconduct toward the public. They thought we were abusing authority.”

Fast forward a year, and, despite a couple of encounters that have raised questions, including an arrest inside a bodega that made headlines just a couple of weeks prior to the walk on Fifth Avenue, “We are at a different frame of mind,” said Perez. “The dialogue is open. We email and call each other.” The walk along Fifth Avenue, Perez said, was planned in advance of that incident.

“The difference is Captain Ng and Captain Perez,” said Flores. “They are receptive to criticism and dialogue. There are steps we are taking together. I can’t say that everything is fixed but it begins with dialogue.”

For Ng, one of the symbols of an evolving relationship between the precinct and area residents is the success of this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. It was the first such parade in nearly 20 years and prior ones had been accompanied, he said, by “some kind of confrontation.” This year’s, however, went off without a hitch, he said.

Given that encounters between cops and community usually involve some sort of tense situation, noted Perez, a key to maintaining an equitable relationship between the police and residents is knowing how to “handle conflict. We want to make sure that cops’ state of mind [is that] they are here to help the public. If we have to arrest someone, we must do it the right way. We serve the public and do it in a way that we protect ourselves. The beauty is that the department is realizing this more than ever.”

As part of this changed focus, the Police Academy has resurrected a program that long ago was discontinued, and is now sending its recruits out onto the streets in local precincts as cops in training; they will return to the precincts where they trained, once they are graduated, as rookie cops. The hope, said Ng, is that they will put their knowledge of the community gleaned during Police Academy days to good use.

If they are familiar faces, added Perez, it may engender a level of trust. “A lot of people are afraid to speak to police officers,” he remarked. “But, deep down inside, they are very happy they are here.”

Nieves said that, over the past year, for the first time, the 72nd Precinct under Ng’s leadership has reached out to the community. “Much kudos to Captain Ng,” he told this paper, noting that there used to be, “A lot of blame – he said, she said. I’m not saying this is going to be a silver bullet, no pun intended. This is the beginning of dialogue. But, if this is what we are opening up to, it really can only be better.”

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