Police On Beat Could Improve Communities

May 05, 1991

Using talent and resources they already have, Baltimore City and the counties could vastly improve their police services and create safer communities.

The highly promising formula is called community-oriented policing.

It's as traditional as the old "cop on the beat." Officers get long-term assignments in single neighborhoods. They're expected to be out on the street, get to know residents and business people and analyze local problems ranging from trash-strewn lots to rowdy taverns to drug markets. And then to work cooperatively with citizens to solve them.

Especially in poor and disorganized neighborhoods, police officers become, in effect, community organizers.

Why return, just before we plunge into the high-tech 21st century, to the cop on the beat?

Answer: Because we've hit the limits of what the 911 emergency call system can ever achieve. Especially in high-crime areas, rapid emergency response is seriously deficient. When a call comes in, officers go roaring off, sirens wailing and lights flashing, to deal with disturbances in communities where they don't know the residents. After a few minutes they roar off again, perhaps with a suspect, more often not -- having addressed none of the root problems that led to the disturbance or crime.

The Baltimore region is lucky: One of its leading public safety officials, Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan, is recognized nationally as an expert on community policing. He has sought to implement it with a 45-person COPE (Community Oriented Police Enforcement) unit.

The COPE officers in Baltimore County focus first on reducing residents' fear, analyzing what causes crime and then trying to do something about it.

Example: In the Garden Village area, close to the Baltimore city line, antagonism between residents and police was chronic. In the early 1980s, unruly teen-agers terrorized the neighborhood. Burglaries and drug abuse became common; a stabbing and shooting occurred. Police responded to 911 calls. They made a few arrests. But the gangs continued to hold sway.

Two COPE officers then were sent in. They started talking to residents. They analyzed crime statistics, photographed the area's dismal deterioration. They zeroed in on ringleaders in the crime spree. Arrests followed.

But the COPE unit went further. It persuaded the county highway department to pave the alleyways, the utility company to repair streetlights. The officers got the county recreation department to turn a rubble-strewn park into four basketball courts. End result: a neighborhood with sharply reduced crime, kids playing basketball, fear radically diminished.

Not all the improvements have held -- the underlying reasons for instability in such neighborhoods as Garden Village remain. COPE units have to be redispatched from time to time. The Baltimore County police haven't felt they could maintain full-time community policing anywhere.

Could the money be found anywhere, in tight budget times? Yes, if the police could curtail their responses to 911 calls.

And why not? A huge portion of 911 calls are for service, not crime. The answer is to retain "rapid response" capability for the 10 percent to 15 percent of calls that are life-threatening or might result in the arrest of a felon. But in less pressing cases, it makes sense to train 911 operators to delay response until officers' less busy hours.

Community policing has lots working against it. Detractors can belittle it as social work inappropriate in times of soaring homicide and robbery rates.

But society's need has changed. Huge numbers of people feel isolated. Many poor neighborhoods are hostile milieus of violence.

Community-oriented policing addresses these realities with a personalized law enforcement presence. It raises a new potential of crime prevention. The prospective long-term savings -- cleaner neighborhoods, fewer crimes, less clogged courts, less overcrowded, expensive prisons -- are stunning.

Community policing isn't a cure-all. Introduced in Baltimore city, it wouldn't correct the problem of hundreds of serious offenders -- even in homicide cases -- soon released and out on the streets again.

But a community-policing orientation could attack another serious shortcoming of Baltimore's police -- heavy centralization at headquarters. Since the early 1980s, the department has lost about 400 investigative and patrol officers -- even while the headquarters' staff has enlarged. Detectives are no longer assigned to precincts; they're almost randomly assigned cases and can't get a chance to learn the people and dynamics of individual neighborhoods.

Maybe it's time to get the Baltimore force back out on the streets, in the neighborhoods, where it belongs.

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