June 8, 2020
By Arthur H. Gunther III
I will tell you a story or two of neighborhood police back in my older days in Spring Valley, N.Y., a then countrified community north of Gotham. This was the time when officialdom did not have to invent the term “community policing” and seek federal grants for its spot use. Police walked a beat, period, every day. There were perhaps three radio cars at the downtown station. Police were seen. They spoke to us, and we spoke to them.
This does not mean everyone was an angel, police or the public. It does not mean every one of the officers was suited to the job. It does not mean police were perfect at “protecting and serving,” nor does it mean all citizens were respectful of men doing a tough job — running into nasty people, seeing the horrors of domestic abuse and other base human behavior that has to give a police officer PTSD. It does not mean officers were not killed or maimed in the line of duty somewhere in the land.
What it does mean, this time of officers walking Main Street in Spring Valley, in Anytown USA, in the cities of old, too, is that people generally knew the neighborhood police, usually by name. They talked to Officer O’Reilly. And he talked to them. There was less of a chance of “us vs. them” escalation in any incident, and there was the greater opportunity of common sense born of human interaction and communication.
So, one story from my time. A bunch of bored youngsters, seventh, eighth graders, a few older, a few younger, descended on an empty hotel that was to be torn down for one of the many shopping strips that pushed downtowns out of business. The fellows made their way through the hotel lobby, the bedrooms, etc. Generally speaking, no damage was done, but this was still trespassing. I was trespassing.
In time, the Ramapo police became involved, as did Spring Valley and Hillcrest community leaders. Instead of arrests and police blotter entries, we fellows, our parents, police and officials gathered for a meeting at the Hillcrest Firehouse where it was decided that we would give up the Columbus Day holiday to clean up the hotel. That we did, and very soon after the spruced-up place was torn down.
The point is the police were part of that community, part of the solution for teen shenanigans that, who knows, might have gone to worse behavior if we had been arrested, finger-printed, etc.
Another story is of a fellow walking Main Street, Spring Valley, after the regular 9 p.m. curfew. Officer on the beat stops him, tells him to go home after the two have a friendly conversation. The officer even notes that he, too, broke curfew. No confrontation. No escalation.
Now, these are relatively innocent stories of long ago, in simpler times. No drugs, no weapons involved. No broken homes. No horrors to relate.
Yet, decades later, when the Ramapo officer who interviewed me after the Hillcrest Hotel adventure had retired, I was able to send him a note that I had never forgotten his fatherly, understanding humanity. Would that happen as easily today when police officers seem to be hidden behind a fortress in brotherhood, yes, but also in an isolated point of view? When escalation seems automatic, as if by military-like training? It cannot ever be “us vs. them.”
Black lives matter. All lives matter. Bring back the beat cop in every community, put volunteer officers in food banks, soup kitchens, community service endeavors. Take off the helmets, the military gear. Let the people know you, and they you. It’s not the entire solution, but it’s a mighty big step. Bless our officers. Bless the people.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. firstname.lastname@example.org