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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Justice Xpress
Spring 2004

Shmoozing with Cops

Dennis Fox

January 1, 2004

Brookline's police say the bad old days are over. After attending the Brookline Citizens Police Academy, I mostly agree. Cautiously.

The twice-annual ten-week Academy emphasizes friendly interaction between town residents and police. As the instructors explain it, in the 1980s the traditional department's officers shrugged off anything average citizens might say. Macho cops didn't have to make nice. But today's careful selection and effective training, enlightened supervision, and all the technology Brookline taxpayers provide help the department protect lives and property while respecting individual rights and liberal Brookline's political values.

Academy students chat with officers, tour the police station and lock-up, and ride along on patrol. The department expects residents educated about police work's complex challenges to support the police in return, though most of the 14 students in my class started out so enthusiastic about police that it's hard to imagine they could become even more so.

Though he acknowledged it's not perfect, one speaker placed Brookline's success in humanizing itself in the top ranks of Massachusetts departments. I believe him. The new police station is a wonder of computers and communications gear and a gee-whiz simulator that teaches cops not to shoot unless necessary. Our teachers were amiable, articulate, and committed.

Still, concerns persist. Many speakers talked about police discretion, for example. Discretion is basic to professional work, yet in any institution it's sometimes abused. In Brookline, abuse allegations and other problems are investigated by a police officer, not an external Civilian Review Board.

The investigating officer told us Brookline's Board of Selectmen can act as a review board when necessary, but that's not sufficient. Selectmen are unlikely to root out abuse when finding it can render the town liable or when political impulses and allegiances intervene. Perhaps that's what happened in 2001, when police arrested Palestinian protestor Amer Jubran at a Coolidge Corner Israel festival. Selectmen simply backed the cops, despite evidence supporting Jubran that led the judge to dismiss charges.

More discretion: On Academy ride-alongs, officers explained they could give either traffic tickets or written warnings. My ride-along cop, who grew up in Brookline and seemed comfortable with his role, said he usually warns unless he doesn't like the driver's attitude -- a rationale frequently repeated in class. Another officer offered to let his ride-along student decide whether to ticket or warn. Some might find this a bit too discretionary.

A related problem involves arrests. One speaker explained that keeping Brookline safe requires stopping people driving through town for minor motor vehicle violations and using that stop to sniff out other crimes. That's one reason so many people arrested in Brookline live somewhere else.

Officers, of course, aren't all the same. Some more than others make arrests later found to be unjustified, or over-charge suspects, or generate more than the usual number of complaints. The investigating officer takes his job seriously, but without external oversight it's hard to assess the outcome.

A final concern stems from Miami, where cops in November attacked thousands protesting a Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. Police hardly distinguished between demonstrators they were exaggeratedly told would be violent -- superficially and inaccurately lumped together as "anarchists" -- and union members, retirees, journalists, legal observers, medics, and others. Witnesses report police repeatedly used tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags -- the kind we got to shoot in Academy -- on nonviolent people obeying orders to retreat.

Miami's hard-nosed, fear-mongering police chief will control security at next summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston, where preliminary plans already raise public concern. What concerns me is that Brookline police who are coordinating with Boston's sympathized in class with the official Miami line. They should do their own research rather than accept what they're told by feds doing Attorney General John Ashcroft's bidding.

Our modern, image-conscious professional police force is better than the one Brookline used to be happy with. Yet any militarized force can become as dangerous as old-fashioned head-bangers. A Civilian Review Board could help make sure legitimate fear of terrorism doesn't mask a crackdown on nonviolent dissent. Maybe it could also keep me from getting bean-bagged by cops I now know.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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