Community-Based Policing: Round And Round And Back Again

Over And Over And Over

August 2, 2005

An advantage, or disadvantage, of having been in the news racket too long is that you see the same nostrums proposed again and again. One of these, “community-based policing,” was briefly popular during my long and fascinating years on the police beat for the Washington Times. I hear noises on the web to suggest that it may be returning. A few thoughts:

Community-based-policing is a well-intentioned cure-all for crime. The idea is that the police should mingle with the people, and come to be loved, so that the people help them to fight crime. Instead of those intimidating, remote, paramilitary, and ninja-clad Robocops in cruisers, you have Officer Krupky the kindly Irish cop (all right, O’Krupky) who knows the people, understands their culture, is part of the neighborhood, and so on. CBP has the advantage of appealing to the desire of nice people for niceness. It charms people with terry-cloth minds, and conservatives who want to be thought insightful. Unfortunately it works best in neighborhoods that don’t need it.

I remember discussing CBP with a cop with whom I was walking a foot beat near Cap Hill in DC. I forget now how many blocks he had to cover. What happens, he asked, if I’m at one end of my beat and hear a robbery-in-progress at the other end? By the time I run eight blocks in regulation shoes I’m exhausted and anyway the perps are gone. They aren’t stupid. They’ll wait till I’m as far away as possible before robbing the place. And they’ll likely have a car.

Foot-beats just can’t get there fast enough. You have to respond to calls. Unless you really think that Officer O’Krupky’s kindly manner will end crime, you have to have those cars.

In police work as in military operations, terrain and numbers count. Look around you carefully the next time you are in a large crime-ridden suburban county like, say, Prince Georges County just outside of Washington. The county is huge, cut up by highways and overpasses, chopped into sprawling tracts of housing and shopping malls. Foot-beats? How? A division of infantry would disappear.

A lot of cops I knew in DC spent years on their beats, knew the residents, often knew who had murdered whom. Crime didn’t stop. Why? The drug crews were stone killers. If they even suspected that someone had snitched, he wouldn’t last the week. The snitch lived in the neighborhood. The cop didn’t. If somebody did snitch, he certainly didn’t testify. Suicide appeals to few.

The first time I walked in a bad neighborhood with the Chicago PD, I noticed a kid, maybe twelve, on a bicycle who always seemed to be two blocks in front of us. A drug look-out, the cop explained. When we got too close to where his big brother and the guys were slinging rock, he would warn them and all would disappear. They would of course be young, fast, and know the alleys, and the rock would be long hidden even if somehow you did get close.

To have a deterrent effect on alley crime or to win love, particularly with people who are either skeptical of cops or hate them, you need a whole lot of O’Krupkies. This implies greatly raising the budget for the police department, and also implies being able to find enough good recruits. This typically means raising taxes on prosperous people in safe neighborhoods to police downscale neighborhoods that the prosperous people don’t care about.

The police are terrible at hearts-and-minds just as soldiers are, and for the same reasons: They are incorrigibly authoritarian, clean-cut blue-collar believers in personal responsibility and self-discipline who find themselves shepherding anarchistic, often ethnically disparate people who don’t care about anything the cops believe. Drill instructors and hippies. The two come to hate each other.

When I rode some years back with the LAPD in bad neighborhoods, we stopped a car for some minor infraction. The cops were shaven-headed and hung with mace, night-sticks, cuffs and such, looking like martial Christmas trees. They leveled their guns at the car, then ordered the driver, a middle-class black man, to get out, step backward toward the cops with his hands in the air, and kneel to be searched for weapons. It was the worst possible approach to community relations.

On the other hand, a week before, a cop they knew had parked his cruiser on a street and had his head blown off by someone never caught. Brutality breeds brutality. It also breeds caution. A common phrase among the police is, “I’m going home tonight.” They will humiliate a citizen before they will take a round in the head. Given the choice, I would too.

The intractability of crime in the bad sections does not arise from having police in cars instead of on foot or on bicycles or motor scooters or roller skates. It arises from ghastly social necrosis that the cops didn’t cause and can’t change. The rot is heavily, very heavily, racial.

To understand this you have to know, as many white Americans do not, just how segregated the United States really is. In large parts of big cities, in LA, DC, Chicago, Boston, on and on—you can ride for eight hours with a cop and never see a white face. In the highly segregated satellite towns around Chicago, the police cite figures of eighty-five percent unemployment. The baby carriages hold the fourth consecutive generation on welfare. Selling drugs is the only industry, often regarded as no more criminal than copyright piracy.

These places amount to Kenya and Tijuana distributed in pockets across a European nation. They see the cops as an occupying force. The police are always carrying the young men off to jail, usually on drug charges. I can’t count the times I’ve watched young black males leaning against cars and being searched. The locals know that whites in the suburbs use drugs and don’t get into trouble. The locals know that if they drink a beer in the front yard or roll dice on the hood of a car, here comes a cop. They feel…occupied.

Yes, I know that there is a large, growing, and law-abiding black middle class in its own suburbs, to which none of this applies. Yes, I know that the city governments that make and enforce these laws are often black, and I know the theory the preventing small crimes discourages large ones. No, hostility is not universal or always intense. I’ve been with cops to black block-parties in DC and been very well treated by the not so young. (“Glad to meet you, Mr. Reed. Lawsy, Sandra, don’t just stand there. Get this man some chicken.”)

It doesn’t matter. Underlying human decency doesn’t prevent hostility. Consider Ireland.

Community-based policing comes and goes, like the tides. I wish it well, without much hope. I suppose people have to have something to do.