An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive, abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others."
― Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption"
Falling down is not a failure. Falling comes when you stay where you have fallen.
A newcomer to New Paltz in the spring of 2018, I was still using my GPS to get around, and had rolled through a stop sign just north of the SUNY campus. I wrote a blog post about the encounter I had with a police officer at the time, and how unthreatening it was to me, a white, older woman. And though the officer stood behind my left shoulder as he asked for my license and registration, and had his hand on his holster, I wasn't afraid.
My daughter had a Black boyfriend when she was in college—his dad worked for the court system and gave his son a badge to clip into his wallet—but I was a nervous mom every time they stepped into the car and drove from the city to Philadelphia, or Philadelphia to New York. In fact, there hasn't been Black male friend, acquaintance, or student I've had in my lifetime who hasn't had a problem, a scare, or worse, with law enforcement. Now the New York Times has just completed an investigative report on traffic stops, how they go down in various places in the country—more than 400 motorists killed in recent years—and I decided it was time for me to interview the Chief of Police in my small town to find out how the New York State mandate for reform is going. As everywhere, there have been incidents here, and a demand for transparency, more training, and systemic change; a new oversight commission is forming. Unfortunately, the conversation thus far has often been irate, beleaguered and uncivil—evident on the Town's YouTube Channel—more so during our difficult Covid months.
"We're all hurting," Chief Robert Lucchesi told me about half-way into our long conversation in his office the other day, as he reflected on the vulnerability we are all feeling these days—personally, professionally, even politically. He's an educated and thoughtful man, with an MA in Public Administration, a love of nonfiction literature, and a devotion to New Paltz where he was born and raised, the first in his family to go to college. He still lives here with his doctor wife and three growing children. The shift from warrior to guardian mentality has not been difficult for him; he has a nurturing persona. The wellness of his family, the community and his officers, concern him every day, he explains, ruefully. Recently, he's approached the local clergy to offer pastoral care to his staff, if they request it. "I wish we had more safe spaces for conversation," he says. "It's a difficult time, we are in the midst of a reckoning, everyone is guarded. And it's hard to find good officers, and not to lose them to higher paying localities. When we have a shortage of coverage, everyone works exhausting extra shifts."
I had first met Chief Lucchesi before Covid when he was still a Lieutenant. A friend of a friend had called when she heard I was a journalist. She'd found a white supremacist flyer—a blood libel screed—in a Village Hall waste paper basket. It mentioned a recent synagogue shooting and she wanted to know what to do—anonymously. I went to the police station right away. I'd been feeling unsettled. As often as I've encountered anti-Semitism, it always shocks and frightens me. I thought I might have to explain blood libel, but I didn't; Lucchesi was both informed and compassionate.
"We see people at their most vulnerable and embarrassing," he says, "and some of what they tell us is protected by privacy laws." Therefore, total transparency is never possible, especially if there is an ongoing investigation. That was the case with the flyer, even after a detective was assigned. Still, I felt reassured.
Are there any similarities between reporters and detectives, protecting sources and informants? Probably, though this would be a long conversation involving lawyers and constitutional experts. What we do have in common, it seems to me, is the sensation of being on the outside looking in, both of the community and observing the community. It's not always comfortable. We have to understand our own backstories, life experience, and biases to work effectively.
I thought of a New York City transit cop I once knew who never left his gun behind, even on his days off, and saw perps everywhere. He was on high alert, constantly vigilant, and more than likely suffering from PTSD. How can such a person change without struggle, without re-education, without psychological support? The question is rhetorical, of course. Much needs to be done. If only I could clone Chief Lucchesi and send him to every town and city in the country to hire, train and retrain a cadre of 21st century guardians. If this were at all possible, police departments everywhere—even the most militaristic, rigid, systemically racist, and terrified of change—would be on the path to evolution and redemption.