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COPPING — The Front Lines

You can see the difference between a polarized and a VAGUE approach to law enforcement if you compare the police departments of New York, NY and, say, St. Petersburg, FL. Both produced spectacular and nearly equal dips in crime but their methods and official explanations of their successes were quite different.(1)

The NYC method is top-down and mechanical. It consists of three things:
  1. More and better equipped cops.
  2. Compstat — a policy that uses computer data on crime rates to hold precinct chiefs responsible for specific crime reduction goals.
  3. "Broken Window Theory," which says that by enforcing little laws — like laws against graffiti and turnstile-jumping in subways — you catch a lot of WANTED Posterboys in your net while restoring a crime-deterring sense of order to the neighborhood.

Whereas NYC makes law and authority supreme, St. Petersburg, takes a VAGUE-er, more relational approach to maintaining order. Instead of focusing primarily on racking up convictions, police get trained to work co-operatively with law-abiding people in the neighborhood to prevent crime.

Both approaches work, but St. Petersburg's co-operative version of community policing has three advantages over NYC's strong-arm approach. Because it gives people input about crime control priorities, co-operative policing encourages public respect for the law, while the NYC method tends to inspire dread of it. Second, while both methods concentrate police where the crime is, St. Petersburg does it at the community's invitation, so that the police are less likely to be resisted as a hostile force.(2) Third, by forcing police to get chummy with locals who are neither shooting up or shooting at them, co-operative policing also tends to reduce racial bigotry and police brutality.

The New York method, which goes after every infraction like a cosmetologist after blackheads, was definitely effective when the city seemed out of control. After crime went down, however, New Yorkers found that while a taste of fascism can be a welcome thing, you seldom get just a little and citizens who got busted for jaywalking or arrested on trumped-up charges when they asked a cop for his badge number got angry at local law-enforcement. So when New York's Special Crime Unit shot 41 bullets into an innocent, unarmed African American man in February of 1999, citizens of all ethnicities and income groups rallied to protest.

Some perceived the shooting as a result of a nationwide addiction to racial profiling others as the inevitable consequence of over-enthusiastic policies like arrest quotas, stop and frisk laws and hyped-up weaponry. Shouting "No justice, no peace!" protestors demanded civilian review of police, harsher punishment for rogue cops and more minority hires. The PBA, NYC's Police Union, gave the police commissioner a vote of no confidence.

Although the city was divided about whether the shooting was "murder" or a "tragic mistake," most realized that flawed policies rather than a few trigger-happy cops were the problem. Yet no organized groups at all clamored for the kinds of co-operative measures that have fostered both peace AND justice in cities like St. Petersburg. In the Our side vs.Their side model that all sides were using, VAGUEness remained as unthinkable as a cop in pink.

(1) PBS Transcript: Winning the battle but not the war.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Commissioner Safir, New York's numbers look good. How do you explain the 25 percent drop in murders and the overall drop of 14.5 percent in serious crimes?

HOWARD SAFIR, Police Commissioner, New York City: (New York) Well, I think there's a number of factors. The first factor is that the NYPD has been managing its crime by holding (each) precinct accountable, using our computerized statistic program each week, to make sure that each precinct is paying attention its most serious crimes and to minor crimes. The whole idea is based on the broken windows theory, which is that society that lets people break windows is going to be faced with more crime. We have spent a lot of time paying attention to routine street crime like squeegee crime, panhandlers, vandals, squeegee crime, and giving the message that no crime is acceptable in this city.

DARREL STEPHENS, Police Chief, St. Petersburg (Tampa) Well, we're on a six-year trend of decline in reported UCR crime...26 percent below what we were in 1989. And I think it's a combination of a number of things that crime is way too complex a phenomenon to lay it at the doorstep of the police...People in neighborhoods throughout the country need...to become mentors to the literally hundreds of thousands of children in this nation who come from single or no-parent families. For us to believe that more police engaged in more aggressive tactics is going to be the solution for whatever crime problems that we might have in the future I think puts us in a situation where five or ten years from now we'll be trying to explain why crime went up and why it's not something that is the fault of the police.

(2) Search for "Neighborhoods which need police most" at what the New York Times called "the most comprehensive study ever of crime prevention."
Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising

"...the 1994 Crime Act puts a large portion of its 100,000 police force where the people are, but not where the crime is. The scientific evidence increasingly suggests the effectiveness of much greater concentration of federal funding in neighborhoods which need police the most."

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