Communities Helping Police

May 12, 1991

Community policing is expensive and labor intensive. It requires additional resources and new thinking as police officers are assigned to a given area as general purpose lightning rods. Instead of just catching criminals, officers try to restore residents' faith in law enforcement.

So why did state legislators in Albany, despite all their budget worries, authorize the hiring of 6,000 new officers for community policing in New York City? Because that new law-enforcement concept has shown promise in helping to curb the lifestyles of crime and apathy that today bleed so many of the nation's urban communities.

This could be the recipe for Baltimore, too. In itreport,"Baltimore and Beyond," a team headed by urbanologist Neal Peirce recommends that the city police department reorient and revamp itself into a community police force.

The Sun supports such redeployment as a realistic way to wrest neighborhoods from the control of dope pushers and other criminals.

It will not be an easy task. For that reason we urge Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his administration to start modestly by targeting one or two problem areas in the city.

As a permanent police presence moves to those areas, officers should forget statistical bookkeeping for a while. Arrest quotas are a sure way to defeat the whole effort. They encourage bureaucratic role-playing and divert attention away from attacking the real reasons why neighborhood residents have capitulated before criminals and stopped cooperating with police.

Preparatory work is needed even before community policing starts. Perhaps more and brighter street lighting will help make drug-trafficking more difficult. Perhaps crack houses can be padlocked, using new laws that make it possible. These are just a few of the steps that other city departments can -- and should -- take to assist police.

Even when community policing is started, there should be no rush to assess its effectiveness. Changing a crime-ridden area will take at least six months -- perhaps much longer. Just as decent people did not lose their faith in the police and the justice system overnight, their faith cannot be restored in an instant.

Over the years, residents of crime areas have seen too many "wars" on lawlessness, too many "all-out sweeps." Yet all those highly publicized campaigns have only offered a temporary palliative until the numbness of everyday reality returns. When Baltimore City develops its community policing program, care should be taken to ensure that this approach will not turn into yet another letdown for embattled neighborhoods.

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