Virginia Coalition of Police
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A Trend Grows in Policing

Published: September 29, 2007

One of the better trends to emerge in the U.S. over the past several years has been the move in many big cities toward more thoughtful ways of fighting crime — what I call enlightened policing.

There is a growing awareness in city after city that wielding a police department like a blunt instrument is counterproductive. If you want to bring crime down and keep it down, cops have to be smarter.

Ray Kelly, who’s been remarkably successful as police commissioner here in New York, has long embraced this approach. So has Bill Bratton, first in New York and now in Los Angeles. Dean Esserman is doing interesting things in Providence, R.I., and Garry McCarthy is trying to haul Newark, at long last, out of the dark ages of policing.

I’m hardly naïve about the existence of police abuse, whether in New York (where Mr. Kelly has had some dreadful lapses) or elsewhere. But there has been a definite move in many big cities away from thuggishness as the rule and toward more enlightened, more effective strategies.

Those who doubt that violent crime is still an enormous problem should consider the following:

Since Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation’s attention understandably turned to the threat of terrorism, nearly 100,000 people — men, women and children — have been murdered in the U.S.

Each year hundreds of thousands of criminals, having served their terms, are released into communities with very few jobs and almost no support services for ex-offenders. These are people with advanced degrees in criminality. In just the 12-month period ending Dec. 31, approximately 600,000 offenders will have been released.

The F.B.I. reported this week that violent crime rose in the U.S. in 2006 for the second year in a row. The more thoughtful members of local law enforcement already knew that from their own careful studies.

On Wednesday, dozens of police chiefs from around the country met in Chicago to assess the crime trends that have developed since the beginning of this year.

They are trying to understand why there has been a surge in homicides in big cities in Florida, and in Baltimore, Washington and Oakland, Calif., at the same time that there have been substantial decreases in places like Los Angeles, Houston, Minneapolis, Sacramento and Nashville.

In an echo of the now-famous Compstat system, their goal is to analyze national crime data with an eye toward developing preventive strategies and squelching emerging crime trends before they spin out of control. If Los Angeles is doing something that Baltimore could benefit from, that information should be shared.

This is not sexy stuff, and it doesn’t get a lot of public attention. But it saves lives.

The Chicago gathering was sponsored by the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization of top law enforcement officials from some of the largest departments and agencies in the country. The forum has been sounding the alarm for some time about the spike in violent crime, and correctly noted early on that the trend was not uniform.

“Some cities are showing dramatic increases and some are showing dramatic decreases,” said Chuck Wexler, the forum’s executive director. “We’re almost like epidemiologists. We’re trying to figure out why.”

Gangs and guns are huge problems. So are armed juveniles who have exhibited a startling willingness to kill over virtually any slight, or during street-corner holdups in which electronic devices like iPods and cellphones are prized items.

Some cities are suffering from a shortage of police officers (they’re expensive) and the withdrawal of federal support for anti-crime initiatives.

As crime increases, police officers become more engaged, which means they become more vulnerable. So far this year, 138 police officers have died in the line of duty, a 38 percent increase over the same period in 2006.

In the old days, the knee-jerk police reaction to a spike in crime was to respond with gratuitous (often murderous) violence. Los Angeles was a particularly brutal venue, and the brutality there yielded some particularly horrendous results.

L.A. is now in the early stages of a potentially historic decline in crime. Some of the police tactics are counterintuitive, if not heretical, from the perspective of the old-timers.

Earl Paysinger is Bill Bratton’s deputy in L.A. He told the gathering in Chicago that the decline in crime in his city was due in part to the department’s efforts to “reach out to communities that years ago we didn’t even talk to.” One of the payoffs, he said, is that now “people are more willing to call the police.”

Sometimes the right thing to do is also the most effective.