Opinions & observations: A former PAA looks at the police issue
With all the recent controversy about police shootings, few have bothered to seek out the opinions of those inside the police station. And I don’t just mean cops, either. For about three months at the age of 23, back in 1977, I was a police administrative assistant, or PAA, at a precinct house in East Harlem.
I worked in a room, known as the “complaint room,” with two other PAAs, who rotated constantly according to shift. A few were older women from the neighborhood. Two were brother and sister, both also in their 20s, who came from a “cop family” and were just waiting for their name to come up on the police list.
Our job was to take complaints, or “61 reports,” from people who came in or called over the phone. These complaints, in turn, were given to the police, to either act on or discard. While most of this involved petty stuff, once in awhile it involved serious crimes. For example, I had to tell a man who owned a warehouse in the neighborhood that thieves had broken into it for the fourth time.
One thing I learned that was rumored to be true at that time, although I don’t know how true it is now, was that cops who had a bad record or a history of complaints were often transferred to “problem” precincts, or high-crime precincts. Also, many new cops started in these precincts, but transferred out as soon as they were able. Thus, the precincts requiring the most sensitivity often got many problematic cops.
In the three months I was there, contrary to what some people might think, I never heard any cop make any virulent anti-Black or anti-Latino remarks or express an urge to deliberately single out people of color for nasty treatment — although I did hear a few cops make borderline racist jokes that were considered OK at that time but wouldn’t be today.
What I did get a sense of, however, was that many of the cops saw the residents of the precinct as fair game for issuing tickets from all sorts of minor offenses, from parking to possessing half a joint of marijuana. Then, they congratulated themselves on the number of “collars” they had made that day. It’s exactly that type of offense, and that type of response, that has often led to the recent tragic events that spurred the Black Lives Matter protests. And it’s probably fair to say that they wouldn’t have operated this way if they were in a precinct in Staten Island.
Was I friendly with the cops? They were polite on a superficial basis, but they mostly ignored me and the other PAAs, with the exception of the two who came from a cop family and were on the list to become police officers. By and large, they tended to separate people into cops (or those who were “on the job”) and civilians. While this “us vs. them” mentality doubtless exists among some other professions, I’ve never seen it as extreme as I saw it among the cops. You won’t, for example, see a bunch of teachers sitting around in the teachers’ cafeteria, complaining about “non-teachers.”
As I got acclimated in the job, I learned the official rules — and some unofficial rules. For example, technically cops were supposed to do a “ring,” or call in, every hour or two (occasionally, I was called upon to work the switchboard). A few of the older cops did. But in most cases, they might have called just once or twice a day. Still, they expected you to record, in your report book, that they all made “rings.”
The job wasn’t that pleasant for me for a simple reason — we were put into “revolving shifts.” What that meant was that, for example, one week, I might be working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The next week, I would work from 4 p.m. until midnight. And the third week, I’d work the “graveyard shift” from midnight until 8 a.m. On those weeks when I started at midnight, I usually took a cab to work. All in all, I was happy to leave that job and get back to school in the fall.
What recommendations, based on my very limited experience, would I make about the police force? One might surprise a lot of people — getting more female cops on the force. I’m sure there are many nowadays, but when I was working as a PAA, there were very few, at least in that particular precinct house. More female cops would mean that the male patrolmen would have to tone down their extremely macho remarks, especially about women.
The second would be to reserve a certain number of slots in the precinct, maybe 20 percent, for cops who came from that neighborhood, or maybe similar neighborhoods nearby. Those cops would be more sensitive to the surrounding community, and they, in turn, could influence their fellow officers as well.
Raanan Geberer is a managing editor at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
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