Establishing that sort of balanced civic environment is a job for the local police department, for the county sheriff’s and state police department too; but it will also take the work of an active, engaged and knowledgeable bunch of humans to accomplish this goal.
That’s why starting with school children makes sense as an educational strategy designed to improve relations with the local authorities. Positive results can be achieved by creating trust, affirming the social contract and rehumanizing both parties, people and policemen (sic), so that there’re no lingering questions about the identity and the purpose of law enforcement.
Those were the ideas I had in mind as I headed to breakfast with Weekly Alibi political correspondent Carolyn Carlson. Carlson had arranged to have two Public Information Officers from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office meet us at a charter high school our star reporter often works at. The school is called the Media Arts Collaborative Charter High School and the television production students there, under the direction of Anthony Conforti—a brilliant teacher, role model and longtime behind the scenes Burque media presence—were taking the first steps in creating a documentary about the role law enforcement plays in citizens’ lives.
As I sat stuffing myself with carne adovada and refritos at Loyola’s, Carolyn and I talked about the perception police have in the nation, state—and of course—here at home in the fertile flood-plane of the middle Rio Grande.
I recalled the time I was in high school up at the golden city and threw the finger at a cop driving through the high school’s parking lot. The resulting confrontation was a delicate negotiation, to say the least. The policeman threatened and put on macho airs, the long-haired high school student sporting a TSOL t-shirt and a golden earring—left ear, buccaneer!—was petulant and insouciant. If not for the intercession of another kindly film and teevee teacher it would have certainly ended badly.
Carolyn reminded me about encounters that police officers from the Albuquerque Police Department had with a variety of citizens, encounters that did indeed cross the line. Such actions by the local police eventually required a team of federal officials to intercede as an attempt to stamp out the culture of violence and citizen abuse that had grown into the status quo at APD.
“That sort of stuff might not happen,” I intoned gravely as we finished and took our leave of the restaurant, “if everyone involved realized that flesh and blood human beings are all that’s really involved.”
Driving over to the school from Loyola’s is no mean feat; heck it’s practically right across the street and Carolyn had just enough time to further remind me of some important details. While the BernCo Sheriff’s Department has been squishy on the use of automatic lapel cameras, the fella in charge, Bernalillo County Sheriff, Manuel Gonzalez III, recently came out as a chief endorser of the type of policing we all hoped was coming around the corner after electing a progressive mayor, council and county commission to boot.
I thought that was a good thing as we entered the office at MACCS, signed in and walked over to Nob Hill Studios, the place where the production class also waited. The deputies were set to arrive at about 10am; Carolyn waited uptstairs for their arrival, I went downstairs to the soundstage.
Anthony hadn’t arrived yet either and a flock of middle school and high school children crowded the digital switching console and monitor in his office/control room. There was a Yamaha electric piano in the corner, so I sat down.
I quietly went through some stuff in E-flat that I’d been tinkering with at home while trying to wrap my head around the fact that the group of children gathered around Conforti’s computer set-up were the same age, more or less, as the 17 victims of the latest US mass shooting. My hands kept flatting the thirds and fifths as Anthony walked in, cheerfully displacing my growing angst.
It’s a dang good thing Anthony Conforti is teaching television production methodologies to our city’s children, by the way. His patience and manner with high school students is excellent; his knowledge and experience is invaluable. Many of those on set already seemed to be seasoned professionals, curious yet steadfastly scientific in their approach to the visual arts.
MACCS hosts the only high school chapter of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers; the group of students working on this community policing project with Weekly Alibi and have also been working with the Southwest Women's Law Center for a couple years, doing a monthly show called "Raising Women's Voices" with the group's executive director Pamelya Herndon.
Then the deputies arrived. Deputy Johann Jareno, a member of the DWI Unit Field Services Division, is also a public information officer with the force. Deputy Felicia Maggard, a public information officer as well, previously worked as a crisis negotiator with the Sheriff’s SWAT unit.
Both are at least 25 years younger than I am. Deputy Maggard is with child. Both were friendly and enthusiastic as we chat before the taping begins. After a member of the school’s newspaper arrived, everyone was seated on stage, a space that is entirely painted green to support the wizardry that goes on in the control room.
The student television producers asked about gangs, guns and the death penalty. And when Deputy Maggard explained simply—but with an obvious commitment to democratic principles—that deputies only enforce laws that were passed by citizens and upheld and managed through the judicial process, it became clear that the office is developing a community policing approach that depends on education as a prime motivator. That’s laudable.
On the other hand, when Deputy Jareno lamented the fact that his family worries daily if he will make it home from work, he emphasized that policing is a dangerous job but neglected to mention that working as a fisherman, logger and farmer are far more dangerous occupations. Though law enforcement officers are exposed to situations wherein they might be murdered—unlike those other jobs mentioned where the threat of accidental death is inordinately high—overall risk to officers’ lives can be reduced with proper training and community engagement.
Police men and women are humans whom citizens have entrusted to deal with societal and cultural situations for which the average citizen is unprepared and untrained. Those situations, which range from mildly transgressive to outright murderous, require the trustworthy to be exactly that.
By teaching our children that the police should be trusted, that they know their responsibilities as civil servants—and their boundaries—bodes well for the future. We should also be sending a message and instructing students that the use of force is an exceptional thing, that law enforcement officers are peacekeepers, not warriors whose exposure to violence and death is a necessary by-product of a violent culture.
If law enforcement follows the same path then we will all be okay. They’re human beings after all, subject to the same strengths and frailties as anyone reading this editorial.