The Police and the Community

J. BOLTON MADDOX

December 18, 1991|By J. BOLTON MADDOX

EDGEWATER — Edgewater. -- Community policing is the hot new idea in law enforcement. It is a way for public-relations-minded police executives to defuse issues of police brutality and insensitivity. In fact, however, we already tried it, and it failed for precisely the same reasons the current system is failing.

Neal R. Peirce (Opinion * Commentary, Dec. 2) lauds the return to putting the cop back on the beat and recruiting ''younger, more educated, socially sensitive cops'' for police work.

The cop on the beat was the primary form of policing from 1829 until the 1960s, when communication technology (radios and 911) created new possibilities for quick response. The police put officers in cars to respond quickly to calls for help.

Civil policing is only 162 years old. The first civil police force was London's Metropolitan Police in 1829. Until then, none of the thousands of civilizations on this planet needed a civil police department. There were military police and secret police, but until 1829 there was no police force that was limited by law and the rights of individual citizens. Military and secret police exist to secure the state -- not rights.

When England set up its civil police, one of the guiding principles was that ''the police are the public and the public are the police.'' England in the early 1800s was as crime- and violence-ridden as our American cities today. The beat policeman or ''bobby'' literally civilized England.

American urban police departments copied the British model almost in total. The beat cop was the basic unit of American urban policing until the mid-1960s. The public demanded quick police response when it picked up the phone, and the era of patrol cars and 911 began. When the officer walked a beat he watched the community; when the officer was put in a car, the community watched the officer ride by to the next call.

Yet it was issues of police brutality and insensitivity that took the cop off the beat. To understand this, one must understand the sociological theory of ''broken windows.'' If the windows of a school or factory abandoned in a high-crime area are unbroken, they tend to remain unbroken. If one window is broken and not immediately repaired, very soon all the windows are broken.

The broken windows on the police beat are drunks, disorderly people, trash depositors, loud music, etc. All these minor law violations, innocent enough in isolation, amount to a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood if the beat cop does not immediately ''fix'' them by warnings, move-on orders or arrests.

In urban areas of the 1960s, this put the beat cop in direct confrontation with the ''street corner'' culture. A police force by definition must resort at times to force. When force was used by a white beat cop to accomplish a minor arrest of a minority male, the broken-window principle was forgotten in the frenzy over ''police brutality.'' Police executives were only too willing to take the officer off the beat and put him in a car.

In addition, court rulings and short-sighted legislation took away the beat cop's tools to fix the broken windows of street disorder. Drunkenness was considered an ''illness,'' not a crime, and drunk laws were decriminalized. Disorderly conduct was redefined more tightly. Noise laws became not laws but issues of ''environmental pollution.'' Littering was treated similarly. Thus, when the car police were called for a drunk on the sidewalk, a loud radio, a disorderly bunch of youths on the corner or persons trashing the neighborhood with beer cans or worse -- the standard police response became ''I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do.''

It's a fine idea to return the cop to the beat. In the mid-1970s I was one of the first police officials in a major city to do this. However, the purpose of the beat officer is ''order maintenance'' -- fixing broken windows. Unless laws are changed, the officer is being asked to fix a problem with no tools. The ''community-oriented police officer'' is a useless public-relations gesture.

Mr. Peirce's second point, about better educated and more sensitive police officers, was also tried in the 1960s and '70s. It was abandoned because higher standards interfered with affirmative-action goals of hiring more minorities and women.

Mr. Peirce correctly notes that far fewer complaints are lodged against women officers than men. Women are less aggressive and willing to confront young males, who commit most crime and violence. The best studies of the woman police officer show that she quickly finds a way to get off the street and into a support function. Many of these women are single mothers. The pressures of child care do not ease with shift work and court commitments. The best all-around cop who ever worked for me was a woman, but she was the exception, not the rule.

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