Policing in Today’s Multi-Faith New York:
Working with the NYPD to Improve Public Safety for All New Yorkers
by Dr. Henry Goldschmidt
Imagine you’re an officer in the New York City Police Department. It’s Friday night, and you’re working on a block that’s closed for police activity. A young woman wearing a long, modest skirt and full-sleeved blouse says she lives on the block, and needs to get past the police line. You ask for identification to check her address, and she tells you bluntly, “I can’t carry ID on Shabbos – it’s against the Torah.” Is she for real, or maybe up to something? The next day, you’re providing first aid for a young man with a full beard and turban, when you discover a small knife worn in a sheath under his clothes – beautifully decorated, and seriously sharp. He assures you it’s a religious object, never used as a weapon, but you’re not so sure. Should you take the knife, or let him keep it?
NYPD officers find themselves in tough situations like these all the time, as they work to protect and serve religiously diverse New Yorkers. How do they balance religious liberty and public safety? How do they build effective partnerships with faith communities that may be unfamiliar to them? How best to police the diverse city we all love?
ICNY is now helping to answer these important questions, with a religious diversity training video for NYPD officers. Over the past year, we’ve been working with partners in the NYPD – as well as fantastic filmmakers and local faith leaders – and we are proud to share the results of our work. Please click here to watch the full 20-minute video, Policing in Today’s Multi-Faith New York. This remarkable new video can help all New Yorkers understand and appreciate the religious life of the city, but its most important audience will be the 35,000 uniformed officers of the NYPD. Our colleagues in the Department will soon start using the video for training at all levels, from cadets to commanders. ICNY will thus help the largest police department in the country work effectively and respectfully with people from all faith backgrounds and communities.
The video features the voices and perspectives of New York religious leaders, sharing insights into their faith traditions, as well as their experiences collaborating with the NYPD. Through our conversations with these faith leaders, viewers will learn concrete, practical information about the religious beliefs and practices of their fellow New Yorkers. It’s true, for example, that many Orthodox Jews don’t carry identification (or anything else for that matter) outdoors on the Sabbath, from about sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. That young woman at the police line was being honest – it is against her interpretation of the Torah. And it’s true that many Sikhs wear a small symbolic sword, called a kirpan, as an article of faith representing their tradition’s commitment to social justice. In most situations, the young man you helped can keep his kirpan – as long as the blade is not too long, and he’s wearing it discreetly, out of public view. Such practical insights will help NYPD officers strike the best possible balance between religious liberty and public safety.
Just as important as any practical information, the video will also introduce officers to the human faces of city’s religious diversity. Through our conversations with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Yoruba-Lucumi community leaders – as well as fantastic footage of the city’s religious life – viewers will learn to look past the stereotypes that all too often stand in the way of a human connection with our diverse neighbors. Near the end of the video, Baba Antonio Mondesire (an Ifa priest, or Babalawo) reminds viewers that members of the city’s African diaspora faith communities “are very much participants in society . . . We’re your neighbors, and we help each other.” To which we can only say Amen – and Asé. This kind of human connection across faith lines can transform policing in New York City, and perhaps transform the city itself.
ICNY has been honored to work towards this goal with our partners in the NYPD, and we hope you enjoy the fruits of our labor. Click here to watch the full 20-minute video, Policing in Today’s Multi-Faith New York, and let us know what you think of it!
Dr. Henry Goldschmidt is the Director of Programs at The Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY). Dr. Goldschmidt is a cultural anthropologist, community educator, interfaith organizer, and scholar of American religious diversity. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and has taught religious studies and cultural anthropology at Wesleyan University and elsewhere. He is the author of Race and Religion among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights (Rutgers U. Press, 2006) and the coeditor of Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (Oxford U. Press, 2004).