Bob Neal

In our age of instant videos, police work is heavily scrutinized. As public employees doing work that can turn lethal in a split-second, police officers should be scrutinized.

With even-handed scrutiny that accounts for the difficulty of the work.

Which brings us to Lewiston, where police-community relations seem unusually tense. On Aug. 30, Mayor Carl Sheline and City Council President Linda Scott announced formation of an ad hoc advisory committee on police-community relations.

The action followed two heated community forums on public safety, forums called after a couple of downtown shootings. And there was another shooting this week.

The committee was created to advise and recommend to the council and city staff ways to improve community safety, the Sun Journal reported. That’s pretty much boiler plate, leaving the committee to fill in all the blank spaces.

Six days later, Lewiston’s police union president, Detective Tom Murphy, spoke against the committee, and two days after that Police Chief David St. Pierre was removed from the committee. St. Pierre said it was the will of the City Council.


Three points I want to make. The first is that many, perhaps most, ad hoc committees come to naught. They meet, usually at public expense, from several to dozens of times, issue a report and fade into history even faster than the dust gathers on the report.

The second point, which may be at the heart of the police union’s fear, is that this committee wasn’t set up to be a citizens’ police-review board. Those are called civilian-review boards, and the tension between them and officers on the street is often sharp.

My third point is that, as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told us in 1958, “To Jaw-Jaw is better than to War-War.” (Richard Longworth, a Winston Churchill scholar, says the quote is wrongly attributed to Churchill.) Talking always beats fighting.

It troubles me that police are in the spotlight more for shooting people than for putting themselves in harm’s way. We need a model for police work that puts officers and the public in more contact. Unhostile contact.

The nature of police work can be isolating. Driving a cruiser for a shift, wearing all the gear (body camera, taser, sidearm, communication devices, etc.) and with no one to talk with other than folks you pull over can make for a lonely workday.  Officers may speak more with their compatriots before and after shift than with everyone else while on duty.

Officers are trained to restore or keep order, using or threatening to use force as needed. Their training seldom includes how to cope with folks in mental health crisis or how seriously to regard a broken taillight. They often come to be seen as an occupying force, driving around armed, especially in minority communities.


When I ran a store in Harlem, I knew our regular beat cop. He came into my store often, walked past maybe 10 times a shift. At the corner bar, I’d see Officer Jack Kearns on his break. Not drinking, just relaxing, talking with folks to keep up with the neighborhood.

Kearns was both in our community and part of it. We trusted him. We gave him extra eyes and ears. He and the other beat-walkers helped keep the neighborhood peaceful.

Assigning an officer to walk a beat in, say, residential Wilton isn’t practical. But it might be practical for an officer to spend an hour or two a day hanging out at shops or parks in town. Just to say hello, get to know folks. Show the flag, as it were.

Some jurisdictions are experimenting with removing traffic patrol from police work and hiring special traffic officers to stop cars for inspection sticker or license plate violations. Some are armed, some are not.

In mid-investigation, secrecy can be important in police work. But secrecy comes with risks. Among those is that it cuts investigators off from folks who might have helpful information. Perhaps worse, it can leave the impression that the police are keeping something from the public that might embarrass the police. That is a bad look.

When the head of the Lewiston police union objects to police participating in a committee set up to improve community relations, the unspoken message is that the police don’t care about community relations. I don’t believe that’s true of the officers on the street, but it’s the impression their union leader leaves. Speaking of a bad look.


(I write that as a former member of five unions, Building Service Employees, Commercial Telegraphers, Retail Clerks, News Guild and Maine Teachers.)

I won’t bet that the community relations committee comes up with a usable grand plan. But to keep the key players, such as the chief of police, out of it is just plain dumb.

Jaw-jaw will always be better than war-war.

Bob Neal is grateful that when his store in Harlem was robbed, he needed only run to the door and yell “Police” and the NYPD was there in a minute. Caught the guy, too. Neal can be reached at

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