A Chicago police station has been reimagined as a sprawling campus to be shared with residents. Will it actually help heal the police-public rift?
Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.
We here, in the waning days of 2015, are at a vital juncture in the relationship between police and the public.
In Toronto, New York, suburban Missouri, and cities and towns all across North America—any place where race, power, income, history and accountability intersect to foster (often very justified) distrust in law enforcement.
Police shootings, random street checks, and highly publicized acts of violence have helped establish officers and the people they ostensibly serve as two very separate, opposing entities. And that is all coming to a head now—Ontario’s overhaul of police carding practices being just one of the results.
Down in Chicago, where police brutality and racial profiling have yielded major distrust in, and costly lawsuits against, law enforcement, an architecture studio has re-imagined the modern police station with an eye toward healing the wounds.
“Polis Station,” is part of the inaugural Chicago Architectural Biennial, a series of exhibits that demonstrate how architects, artists, policy makers and others can tackle pressing social issues through the built environment.
Half art installation, half planning model, “Polis Station” re-imagines Chicago’s 10th District Police Station, located in one of the city’s most violent areas, as a sprawling campus where police and the public alike access recreation, professional development and health services.
“Police station as community centre,” is the elevator pitch, and “Polis Station” puts a heavy emphasis on social interaction between officers and community members.
Granted, a lot of it is on the fanciful end—a café where citizens can file police reports, a meditation garden and outdoor quiet room “for emotional and psychological wellness”. Even the model’s suggestion of abandoned buildings redone into housing for police, healthcare workers and other public servants seems rather a stretch, and not exactly the most pressing issue for policing today.
But there are plenty of viable suggestions in there too. A gym and recreational facilities for cops and regular folks to share, a computer lab and law library in the central station building, a makers’ workshop, free wi-fi spaces, a nutritionist, mental health services and a counseling centre in the surrounding area.
At the very least, these are useful, socially beneficial public spaces.
The new, improved, police station is mostly a hypothetical right now, though Chicago’s 10th District Station did open a community basketball court in its parking lot back on October 4.
Toronto is no stranger to police outreach through sports and recreation, either.
Since 1991, independent organization Proaction Cops and Kids has provided police-led athletics, leadership training, and mentorship to at-risk youth in Toronto, Durham Region, and Hamilton.
In 2012, Police Constable Dennis Chen, a Community Response Unit officer with Toronto’s 54 Division, started the free Proaction Youth Basketball League for teens in low-income neighbourhoods around the Flemingdon Park, Thorncliffe Park, O’Connor, and Pape areas.
The division also works through Proaction to offer a hockey league, a girls’ mentorship program and other development opportunities for young people in the area.
Chen said the basketball league is meant to keep kids off the streets, and foster a stronger relationship with police officers and local community leaders.
But community outreach programs are not a guaranteed fix-all.
Using youth athletics to bridge gaps between law enforcement and the community is a strategy used by police forces around the world, said Anne-Marie Singh, an associate professor of criminology at Ryerson University, but it isn’t necessarily effective. “Much of the research shows that where these programs will be most successful is actually [neighbourhoods] where they’re not needed,” Singh said. “Places like Rosedale.”
A program like the Proaction league, in which most of the players are young Black or South Asian males, might help counterbalance feelings of racial profiling and victimization caused by police actions such as carding, said Singh, “but if we’re looking at building relationships between the police as an organization and the community, largely speaking that’s not going to happen.”
The main problem, according to the professor, is that while the young people participating in outreach programs may form individual bonds with the specific officers administering them, broader issues of trust between at-risk communities and law enforcement do not get improved.
Are outreach programs like Proaction, or those outlined in “Polis Station” enough to solve the rift between law enforcement and the populace? Absolutely not. Community presence is a simplistic solution to a very complex, very long-term problem.
And, given what we know about carding and the police’s apparent stockpiling of personal information, there are very real reasons to be hesitant about police supervising community activities, or inviting people to spend more time around police stations.
But considering that officers and citizens are, to many minds, totally different from each other, maybe some casual social interaction will help bring the two sides closer together—not to close the gap completely, maybe, but to take a few steps toward doing so.
It is true that spending time around someone different from you builds a greater willingness to listen to them, understand how they live, why they do what they do, why they feel the way they feel about certain issues. That recognition of humanity and complexity is something the police have asked the public for. It’s something the public deserves from the police, as well.