Policing During the Year of the “Perfect Storm”
On Elizabeth and Mott, the constant clamoring of pots and pans acts as background music while several midday diners search for available flat surfaces to bubble in their dim sum orders. One couple rests their menu on a stoop debating whether to get the rice noodles with beef or chicken, oblivious as to the institution they are leaning on. Classical columns frame gold lettering and a weathered wooden forest green door, a symbol of the building’s longevity. This is the Fifth Police Precinct.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that 2020 has been a tumultuous year: the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the globe, the election has polarized the nation, and the BLM movement has invigorated and awakened America. As crime rates have risen, the need for protection and safety has too. To better understand how this precinct and its officers are adapting and responding to the pandemic, the protests during and after the election, the rising crime rate, and the growing distrust separating the badge and the public, I asked the officers themselves.
Officer William Campaign and his partner Officer Lucian Velazquez led me inside the precinct. Upon entering, a desk where citizens can report crimes and file complaints sits slightly to the left while a plaque confirming what the exterior of the building already declared: this precinct is the second oldest in New York, having been founded in 1881.
“Crime has increased, but it’s not due directly to COVID. Anyone you ask, even experts, will tell you that there are multiple factors. This year is pretty much a perfect storm. At the beginning of the year, bail reform raised the age for New York State…allowing a lot of people out of jail that probably ended up committing the same crimes again,” Campaign said, once we settled into the back office where reports are filed and digitized. He added that if you were of a certain age when the pandemic hit, convicts were released due to health concerns regardless of the circumstances surrounding their pending trial, meaning law enforcement likely had to track these people down too.
Concerning how the amount of resources they’ve received has changed, Campaign stated, “there are a number of things that have opened up for the police in the last few months, like grants. If you’ve gotten sick, there are non-profit organizations that have stepped up and said they would help us out.” Campaign and Velazquez both emphasized throughout the interview that the support from the surrounding community has been amazing and very much appreciated. “It’s different everywhere…We have a pretty good relationship with the businesses here,” offered Campaign. “We’re very lucky,” Velazquez echoed. The precinct receives surgical masks on their stoop daily and restaurant owners have brought in food. “The community itself has realized that we have to work together,” Campaign observed.
Both officers noted that policing is constantly evolving, a self-described “fluid” job. However, Campaign recognizes that the public’s perception of police officers nowadays is not simply something to get used to but instead requires action. “We’ve been trying to reach out to the community more. We’re more active on Twitter to let people know that we’re out there and we’re helping.” They also commented that they’ve been making more promotional videos and hosting Zoom calls with the public.
As the interview came to a natural close, Campaign wanted to add one last sentiment.“When I was younger, there was a stigma around speaking to local officers. I think the first time I ever spoke to a cop was when I was in my twenties. If you feel like you have something to say, you want to learn something, or you’re concerned about something, reach out or look online. Velazquez nodded her head vigorously and added, “I want to emphasize that not all cops are bad. Don’t compare them to me. We are all human. A lot of people have an opinion [of police officers] based on what they read online and on social media. Speak to us and we’ll speak to you. That’s what we’re hoping the community does.”
As I exited the Fifth Precinct, I thought about Campaign’s words and realized that it was, in fact, the first face-to-face interaction I’d ever had with a police officer. What I saw were two people who are trying their best to respond and adjust to each day in the best way they know how: by continuing to serve the community and New York as they always have. They depend on us almost as much as we depend on them to reach out and build a relationship, a component that is key to the kind of officers they want to continue to be. “We’re always out there and willing to talk to people,” Velazquez assured, “We want people to be comfortable. It’s a conversation that has to be had.”