A Campaign to Get New Yorkers Talking about Policing Issues

Alle Johnson, a 26-year-old model, and a friend were walking through Union Square Tuesday when they noticed a booth in the middle of the park. It was part of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s eight-week “Listening NYC” campaign, which is aiming to get New Yorkers talking about community policing and other issues. Johnson and her friend were intrigued and sat down to play a game the campaigns calls  “conversation cards.” It involves talking about issues explained on 48 cards and then filling out postcards with policy stickers to send to Mayor Bill DeBlasio.

Alle Johnson, right, with her friend in the Union Square listening booth. (The Ink/Galie Darwich)

Brandon Holmes, 26, a consultant for the Listening NYC campaign, which launched the first week of October. He said the idea grew out of an NYCLU survey last year of 1,200 residents of Brownsville in Brooklyn, the South Bronx and East Harlem about attitudes toward police.

Holmes said that one of the questions in the survey asked people to name three things that they love to do and if the police ever interfered with they doing those activities; 80 percent of the participants said that the police did interfere in activities such as playing basketball on the park, going out to eat or hanging out with friends.

Each card in the game presents a different situation to discuss and provides answers about policing practices. Participants like Johnson sit at one of two small round tables inside the booth and play the game in pairs.

Johnson said that she liked the campaign because it highlighted problems. “The one question that stood out to me on the card was the one that said from 2000 to 2014 there were 179 deaths recorded under NYPD and only one was convicted,” Johnson said. “That’s insane.”

Juan Pablo Sarmiento in front of the Listening Room in Union Square. (The Ink/ Galie Darwich)

Juan Pablo Sarmiento, a 26-year-old software engineer, played the game with his girlfriend and said he learned a lot.

“There were a lot of things that I knew where like issues here in New York and in the U.S. in total, but those cards like kind of gave me solid statistics and things to think about,” Sarmiento said.

One of the cards that caught his attention was about New York police officers charged with misconduct. “Out of every 10 cops in New York City, how many have been charged with misconduct? The answer was one out of 10,” Sarmiento said. “The next part was, how does that make you feel? And I realized that would be 10 percent out of all the cops who were charged with misconduct and that it’s kind of scary.”

Holmes said that since early October, the Listening NYC campaign has been tracking exactly how many responses it receives and sending the postcards to Mayor Bill De Blasio. The average number of postcards is of 80 to 100 a day, he said. Holmes added that they do not keep track of how many participants play the conversation cards game.

Ron Tirino, 55, a teacher, said that the campaign gets people thinking about the issues and allows them to express their opinions to DeBlasio. “But, whether he listens to them or not, whether it has meaning and value that way I don’t know,” Tirino said. “But, at least it gets people to engage in the issues.”

“We have not had any response from the Mayor’s office about this campaign,” Holmes said. “We have been sending these postcards and we have not had any response yet.”

De Blasio’s office did not respond to a request for a comment regarding the campaign.

Brandon Holmes, with a grey beanie, talking to participants about the postcards. (The Ink/ Galie Darwich)

Holmes said that Listening NYC is targeting DeBlasio so that he will be accountable and lead other agencies.

“The tagline is ‘better policing for a better New York’ and a lot of the items that are up there such as ‘if someone with a mental illness needs help, police should not be the first on the scene.’ That’s one of the policy stickers we have,” Holmes said. “That’s something that does not need a legislative fix. That’s something that can be address through training and better services from the city.”

Policing was not the only topic participants were worried about. Tirino said he would like DeBlasio to keep the promises that he made when he first ran for office.

“Ending homelessness and the progressive agenda that he says that he believes in,” Tirino said. “I would like to see authenticity.”

Sarmiento said he is concerned about support for education. “I wish that educational programs here were funded a lot more,” he said. “That would be one of the biggest things that I would like to see in New York City.”

Holmes said the campaign could be extended if new organizations get involved.

“We are going to be doing it through November and then we have a few days lined up in December,” Holmes said. “But, they may be more private events, more organizations who want us to come so that we can present to their participants and their members and they can also have a safe space to share their stories and their personal experiences.”