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Invite the Police to Dinner

New ways to curb cop-community tensions

WHILE southern California remains stunned by yet another videotaped beating by law-enforcement officers, citizens in Philadelphia are trying a new approach to break the pattern of brutality in their city: Invite the cops over for dinner and bingo.

In the past three years, the Police-Barrio Relations Project has regularly brought together police officers, civil rights attorneys, and Latino citizens to, among other things, stage mock arrests and then talk about what went wrong - without waiting for a heated incident to occur.

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The record of the Philadelphia Police Department is by no means pristine, but police participation in the project is indicative of a trend in cities across the nation. In Houston and San Diego, in Syracuse, N.Y., and scores of other communities, an emerging cadre of grass-roots organizations is finding innovative ways to attack the problem of police brutality.

Last week's beating of two suspected illegal immigrants by Riverside County sheriff's deputies in California - just five years after the infamous Rodney King case - has underscored the need for fresh approaches. The beating has triggered protests, international outrage, and tough questions about why such incidents keep occurring.

"Law enforcement has learned that community responses to police abuse will be reactive and short-lived," says Nancy Rhodes editor of "Policing by Consent," a newsletter for the Chicago-based National Coalition on Police Accountability (NCOPA). "They've learned to ride out the demonstrations and marches, stay low, and wait until protests wear out."

While civilian review boards grew in number after the Rodney King incident - they now exist in 60 percent of the largest US cities - many are fought tooth-and-nail by powerful police unions.

"If a community has nothing to back up their CRB [civilian review board], it will wither and die," says Ms. Rhodes, noting that lack of support has killed or severely curtailed boards in Washington, San Diego, and Spokane, Wash. "There is so much pressure on them, you need a watchdog to watch the watchdog."

Realizing that after-the-fact scrutiny and penalties, however harsh, do little to deter police abuse, community-based groups are forming to take matters into their own hands. While such groups can only chip away at the entrenched attitudes that spawn police violence, say many experts, their emphasis on preventive and long-term approaches is commendable.

"Instead of being confrontational, these groups are making genuine attempts to enhance communication and understanding," says criminologist James Fyfe, co-author of "Above the Law," a book about excessive use of force by police.

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The Police-Barrio Relations Project in Philadelphia formed three years ago from four local civic associations, after a number of incidents between police and Hispanics. "All these organizations would get together and rally after a disaster and then, unfortunately, not get together again until another disaster," says project director Will Gonzales. "We finally said, basta ya [enough] and decided to establish ourselves as a permanent force."

The project has developed a multipronged approach. Regular community-education workshops bring police officers, civil rights attorneys, and Latino citizens together to conduct hypothetical police encounters. Project representatives also go to schools, hospitals, and civic organizations to teach citizens how to conduct themselves in the event they are arrested so that potential problems are de-escalated.

Richard A. Zappile, deputy police commissioner, credits the project with being "on the forefront of creating new understanding and awareness between police and their community."

In Syracuse, the Task Force on Community Police Relations holds regular speak-outs, asking citizens to expose problems and propose solutions. With no funding, 24 regular members and 60 part-time volunteers are learning how to write legislation to create a civilian review board.

Along the US border, several small groups from El Paso, Texas, to San Diego have grown up under the umbrella of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-backed organization that monitors human rights abuses.

One such group has become so prominent that it has been asked by the new US Border Patrol chief in El Paso to instruct federal Immigration and Naturalization Service agents on constitutional rights of citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal aliens.

Another organization, Solutions to Tragedies of Police Pursuits (STOPP), in Jackson Hole, Wyo., has focused on deaths and injury inflicted on innocent citizens after police chases. A national network of pursuit victims, STOPP keeps a national database of statistics, lobbies for stiffer penalties for those who flee police, and networks with police groups about solutions.

"Rather than an opposing zealot, we found a dedicated ally striving for the same goal - increased safety and police professionalism," said Capt. Ronald H. Traenkle in Bensalem Township, Pa., speaking of STOPP after a legislative hearing on proposed pursuit legislation.

Because such groups fill a glaring need, their ranks continue to grow, says NCOPA coordinator Mary Powers. The coalition, formed after the Rodney King incident, now has more than 100 member organizations. "The watchword is eternal vigilance," she says. "People have finally realized there is nothing unique about the beatings of Rodney King or these two immigrants."

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