Police interaction with community needs work

Angelique Gerald-Porter shows where she was grabbed on her arm by a policeman in front of her Overbrook house on Memorial Day 2011. The cop also punched her in the stomach, she says. STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Angelique Gerald-Porter shows where she was grabbed on her arm by a policeman in front of her Overbrook house on Memorial Day 2011. The cop also punched her in the stomach, she says. STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: May 30, 2012

THE WHITE SHEET covering Denzel Stephens’ body soaked up his blood from the pavement, as Fairhill neighbors craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the 21-year-old who lay facedown between parked cars.

Philadelphia Police investigators scoured the area for evidence, and an officer joked with neighbors while he tried to disperse the crowd. But when he turned to a young boy, his pleasant attitude changed.

"I’ll probably be seeing you in about six years," Officer Arthur Anderson, a nine-year department veteran, said to the wide-eyed youth watching cops step carefully around the bloody, bullet-ridden corpse on 2nd Street near Allegheny Avenue.

A man standing next to the boy spoke out against Anderson’s statement, and Anderson turned to him. "I’ll probably see you tomorrow," the 25th District officer said. Then he addressed the neighbors: "If you don’t like it, file a complaint."

This exchange on a night in late March, witnessed by a Daily News reporter, exemplified an "us-versus-them mentality" that residents say persists between some cops and civilians in certain areas, limiting officers’ ability to build the relationships needed to solve the city’s raging violence.

Cpt. Frank Vanore, Anderson’s commanding officer, said he was unaware of any complaint after the incident. He said that he’d look into the matter and that officials are still interviewing witnesses, other officers and supervisors who were there.

But the sting of the officer’s statement is an offense that Vanore said he takes personally.

"You gotta talk to people, you gotta listen to information, but the last thing you want to do is promote a poor attitude toward police or say something derogatory," he said.

Similar incidents occur relatively regularly in Philadelphia, residents say, eroding faith in the department and counteracting its effort to use neighborhood-based policing to build bonds in areas where citizens are distrustful — or hostile — toward law enforcement.

Dan Kennedy of South Philadelphia, who witnessed Anderson’s comment to the boy in Fairhill, said that most Philadelphians in high-crime and poor areas seem resigned to shrugging off negative encounters with police because they’re used to them.

"It’s almost an understanding. You almost give up all your rights," Kennedy said, adding that the police "need to not consider each person in neighborhoods a criminal before they’ve done anything wrong. I think that that sort of outlook on things is just counterproductive to what they should be doing."

Working with the neighborhood

The police department adopted a neighborhood-based policing model in 2009, splitting the city’s 21 police districts into 64 Police Service Areas — smaller clusters of neighborhoods.

Police usually patrol the same neighborhoods to forge relationships and familiarize themselves with criminal elements and quality-of-life issues.

With cops spending an average of about 70 percent of their time patrolling their PSAs, according to Commissioner Charles Ramsey, strained relationships could be costly.

"We carry baggage as police ... where we don’t always treat people the best," Ramsey said. "We’ve had some people, unfortunately, who violate their role and don’t have the highest level of integrity. So, I mean, some of it we bring on ourselves. Some is real, some is perceived."

A study by Wesley Skogan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, suggests that negative encounters with police are as much as 14 times more influential than positive ones in shaping the way a civilian perceives police.

Skogan found that these types of questionable exchanges happen more often in poorer, higher-crime areas where police and civilians would likely benefit most from having solid relationships.

"Positive interactions can help you a little bit, but one negative interaction can do a lot of harm. It’s always difficult, this is a very complicated, dynamic kind of environment," said Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of the criminal-justice department at Temple University. "When people have a bad impression of the police, it’s very hard for police to recover from that."

Deputy Commissioner Patricia Giorgio-Fox, who oversees the Office of Organizational Accountability, said negative encounters are likely to happen regardless of patrol strategy.

"It is a work in progress, and some officers and some community members are much more comfortable with the interpersonal aspect of what we’re asking them to do," Giorgio-Fox said. "That takes time."

"We’ve got to make sure, when we bring people into the workforce, [that we] don’t make assumptions that they are comfortable interacting with folks," Ramsey said.

"Don’t make assumptions that they’re comfortable interacting with people who may not be like them," said the commissioner, adding that young officers — like nearly everyone else — seem to be losing interpersonal skills as communication becomes increasingly technology-based.

That’s why assigning younger officers to patrol high-crime areas and having them work regularly with neighbors is essential to the community-based policing model, Ramsey said.

"It changes your attitude, so later on in your career you realize everybody’s not out to get you, everyone doesn’t hate you, everybody’s not a crook or a criminal," Ramsey said. Although relations may be strained in some neighborhoods, he said, cops walking the streets and talking to people in nonthreatening situations is the only way to start building trust in the city’s roughest areas.

"There are more decent, law-abiding citizens living there than criminals — and you don’t know that if you’re driving up and down the street in a Crown Vic at 40 miles an hour," Ramsey said.

A traumatic experience

It will take time to change public perceptions of police and to change cops’ attitudes toward citizens through the neighborhood-policing model, Ratcliffe said. "The principles under which it’s set up are sound," he said, "But I think we have to be realistic."

For Angelique Gerald-Porter and her family, being realistic about the way cops interact with civilians meant moving to a different neighborhood in a different district after she was beaten by a 19th District officer in front of her Overbrook house on Memorial Day 2011.

Police responded to Gerald-Porter’s block on Simpson Street near Vine to question a group of teenage boys. Gerald-Porter, her 2-year-old son and a friend were watching from the steps of her house. She didn’t agree with the way officers were behaving, and her friend recorded the encounter and took down badge numbers.

A cop told Gerald-Porter to go to the end of the block, even though she repeatedly told him that she lived in the house.

"This is our property right now," the officer said shortly before he was recorded on video grabbing Gerald-Porter by her arm. From there, the iPhone video dissolves into a whirlwind of screams while the officer wrestles Gerald-Porter to the ground. She said that the cop punched her in her stomach, and that her son was pinned beneath them and was kicked in his head during the scuffle.

Both were treated and released from Lankenau Hospital.

In an incident report, cops said Gerald-Porter’s argument with the officer incited neighbors to crowd the block and hamper their investigation. But the video tells a different story, with four squad cars crammed onto the street and more police than civilians.

Although charges of disorderly conduct were thrown out against her, the incident had a lingering impact. After years of donating to the families of fallen police and firefighters, she considers her family’s relationship with the department broken.

"My children were scared to go outside, my children were traumatized," Gerald-Porter said. A call to the 19th District to check whether the officer was still patrolling her neighborhood left her feeling that the incident had been disregarded by the department.

"And I said, ‘So he’s still walking around my neighborhood with a gun?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly right,’" Gerald-Porter said. "I never called back after that. I was scared to death."

Ramsey said the community-based-policing model may not be as effective in some neighborhoods as in others. But whether tense situations are instigated by police or by civilians, Ramsey said, officers are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard.

"We have some police officers who don’t perform their job the way I’d like to see them perform their job — either they don’t have the social skills or the kind of caring that I would like to see in police officers," he said.

"This is not pro-bono work. They get paid to do this stuff and there is an expectation that I have — that the community ought to have — that they be professional at all times. There’s no excuse to treat people poorly."

Contact Phillip Lucas at 215-854-5914, lucasp@phillynews.com, or follow @UnPhiltered on Twitter. Read his blog at www.phillyconfidential.com.

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