Any way you cut it, 1991 has been a grim year for America'spolice departments.
The amateur videotape of four Los Angeles police officers brutally beating motorist Rodney King, broadcast across Los Angeles and then the world, prompted critics to charge there's a substratum of vicious brutality in big-city police forces coast-to-coast.
Milwaukee's police were subsequently revealed to have returned naked, bleeding 14-year-old Laotian boy to Jeffrey Dahmer -- the deviant who had 15 bodies of murdered youths, mostly black and gay, in his apartment. The cops had ignored citizens' appeals for help. Their response was that it was only a gay lovers' quarrel.
Is there something fundamentally wrong with American policing? telegraphing a message to cops -- in films, in the media -- that they ought to be tough as hell on vicious criminals, do we set ourselves up for lapses into cruelty, even brutality?
And isn't the operational method of the last few decades -- cops in cruisers, waiting for ''911'' calls, rushing into tense situations with lights flashing and sirens blaring -- a set-up for possible ugly standoffs with a kind of ''enemy population'' in poor and minority neighborhoods?
Demonstrably, it's not working: violent crime continues to soar.
Community soul-searching in the wake of the Los Angeles and Milwaukee incidents is pushing for a radically different model: community-oriented policing, with officers assigned long-term to foot beats, getting to know residents and businesses, attempting to defuse tense situations and stop crimes before they occur.
The high-level Los Angeles commission investigating the King incident proclaimed ''the L.A.P.D. has an organizational culture that isolates the police.'' Los Angeles officers, it said, ''view citizens with resentment and hostility'' and ''are encouraged to command and confront, not to communicate.''
The L.A. commission said recruits should be screened better to detect violent or racist tendencies. Officers ought to be retested psychologically every three years. And community-based policing ought to be the new order of the day.
Now Los Angeles Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky has a bill to work toward ''gender balance'' on the force -- a good idea because women are sociologically less prone to brutality. Not a single woman was found among the 120 L.A. officers most often cited for use of force.
L.A. might well have faxed its recommendations to Milwaukee's investigatory committee. The Milwaukee panel said it had received multiple complaints about ''slow response time, racist and homophobic attitudes and general lack of respect from police officers.''
''Whites living in the inner city have been told, 'Don't call us, call a moving van' when they report crimes,'' the Milwaukee investigators reported.
Community-oriented policing topped the list of 50 recommendations in Milwaukee. For the last two years, the idea moved to become official policy in New York, where its most prominent advocate, Police Commissioner Lee Brown, got approval to expand the force by 5,000 with beat cops walking all 75 precincts in the city.
Not all police cotton to the new approach. ''You can take community policing and stick it in your ear,'' Milwaukee's former police chief Harold Brier said recently. ''When I was chief, we were relating to the good people and we were relating to the other people too -- we were throwing those people in the can.''
Out-of-the-ranks opposition, from officers leery about becoming social workers, is commonplace.
And now community policing faces other obstacles: proving its effectiveness. A government-ordered study in Houston, where Lee Brown instituted community policing before his move to New York, reported a lack of tangible, measurable results. It said officers walking community beats are sometimes overwhelmed and unprepared for their new tasks; supervision is light; officers are spread too thin in a 60-square mile city.
Don't scrap community-based policing; learn to do it better, said the Houston report. Advocates say it may well take 5 to 10 years for the entire philosophy of a police department to turn over.
Can we be patient enough? There's danger, Lee Brown recently told the International Association of Chiefs of Police, that as ''urban conditions worsen, there will be mounting pressure to abandon community policing and use the police as temporary occupying forces.'' But it just won't work, he said. ''I can assure you that in the end the community police officer permanently assigned to the neighborhood is a better deterrent to unrest than a SWAT team waiting in the wings.''
Maybe what we need most are younger, more educated, socially sensitive cops. And here there's a ray of good news. The omnibus crime bill (which failed to pass Congress last week, but will return in the New Year) authorizes a police corps -- up to 20,000 college students getting their tuition paid (a la ROTC) in return for serving on a police force for four years. There'd be summer training at new federal police academies.
In time the program could have 80,000 graduates working -- a net gain of 30 percent over current U.S. police force levels, notes the police corps' ''inventor,'' the New York lawyer Adam Walinsky.
The newly trained, college-educated young officers, freed of traditional police biases, a good number black or Hispanic, could be the foot soldiers of a serious national commitment to community policing. It's not likely to come a moment too soon.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.