[from June 1999 issue]

Picture the following little slice of life one early spring weekday in one of our city's residential neighborhood alleys:

A contractor had just had his toolbox stolen from his trunk. He called the police. A squad car arrived bearing two officers who had been dispatched to take a report. The alley, although wide enough for rear gardens and parking spaces on both sides also (many of which are unoccupied during weekdays - this fact will be relevant), has a public right of way only a little wider than what can comfortably accommodate a single vehicle. The alley is also a reasonably well-traveled one, especially in the last year because of several rehab and maintenance projects being undertaken by homeowners.

So, along comes the squad car through the alley to where the complainant awaits. His truck is parked in a private space, but the squad car simply rolls to a stop in the middle of the alley rather than turning into an adjacent empty parking space. Clearly, the alley is now blocked. The lead officer, also the driver, still sitting in the squad car with her partner in the passenger seat, proceeded to take the complainant's information. Of course, this started to create a traffic jam. One neighbor was out in the same alley waiting to direct a Bell Atlantic repair crew into his parking place so that they could get to work quickly to solve a problem that would allow their customer to get his computer back on line with the Internet (the neighborhood is filled with home office entrepreneurs). Time was of the essence for that customer, and Bell could do nothing because their crew's truck was blocked by the squad car whose driver apparently had no regard for civilians.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the inconvenienced resident requested the police officer to simply pull into one of the empty parking spaces. That is when matters got real dicey. And, complicating things, a neighbor driving down the alley from the other direction also asked that the squad car move so that she might be able to pull her car into her own parking space which she could not get to because of the roadway being blocked.

Well, the officer didn't like this brazen citizen "interference" with her "official" duties one little bit. And when one of the neighbors tried to explain how much easier everything would have been for everybody involved if the officer would simply be courteous enough not to block the alley (keep in mind, we're not dealing with drug deals going down or dead bodies here), her response - in a very threatening manner - was, "You watch your tone of voice; I'm here on official business!"

Why she decided that her job in that particular instance was more critical to the social and economic well-being of the community than the job for which the telephone company crew had been dispatched to perform is something of a mystery. In fact, what public benefit is gained by a martinet of a police officer just throwing her or his weight around to show who's boss?

One witness to the incident, who agreed that it looked like the officer was going to bolt from the car at any minute with guns at the ready and probably put the neighbor waiting for the telephone truck in a hammerlock face-down on the pavement, wondered whether the overbearing attitude wasn't some way of showing us that they can hassle the "uptown" yuppies just as easily as they can folks east of the river.

This officer's behavior reminds us of that which was the subject of our page one story a couple of years ago - the headline said it all: "Police Storm Front Porch, Arrest Residents Without Explanation - Crime: a Beer" (InTowner, September 1997.) At the time that incident became quite the Cause Celebre and we thought that it had been understood in the Third Police District that the officers should not have behaved as they did. The incident that is the subject here was also in the Third District.

Now, don't get us wrong. We are not condemning all officers by any stretch. We know the force is replete with smart and conscientious and dedicated men and women out there in the streets. We encounter them regularly and have talked with many over the years. We have not always felt that the brass fully appreciates these officers; too many of them seem to be allowed to drift away from police work, like Joe Zelinka who seems to have gotten discouraged. (We never were sure his bosses appreciated what a tremendous asset he was to the community he served.)

What disappoints us even more than the outrageous attitude of the officer we've been discussing is that we have not been able to interest the top brass at the Third District about this problem. Our attempts to talk with the commander there have been fruitless, even after we left an appropriate message about what could have degenerated into yet another police brutality incident. If the department is to gain the trust and confidence of the citizens, the people in charge have to respond to legitimate concerns and show that they are, in fact committed to reform. And, if they won't return calls from neighborhood newspaper reporters, is there any reason to ever hope that they will give the right time of day to any citizen?


Readers will be interested - and encouraged - to know that within 48 hours of publication of our commentary, Third Police District Commander Jose Acosta called our office to discuss the incident reported here. He gave us every reason to be confident that he shared our concern, not only about the officer's lack of simple common sense about blocking an alley right of way, but most importantly about the reported attitude and behavior of that officer. He has assured us that this matter will be fully reviewed with that officer.

The commander also stated to us that it is a matter of strong priority with him to work at overcoming these kinds of attitudinal shortcomings among a minority of officers who may still conduct themselves in such manner. Bottom Line: We are impressed and believe that Commander Acosta really is committed to giving the residents of the Third Police District first-rate police services.

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