When a Neighborhood Hires Its Own Police

PETER A. JAY

October 25, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace.-- A few dozen members of the Guilford gentry, tired of muggings and car theft, get together and hire off-duty police to patrol their Baltimore neighborhood at night. A good idea, you'd think. So why has there been such an uproar you'd think they'd sent snipers to the rooftops with orders to shoot to kill?

In a rational world, city politicians would be applauding the Guilford project. It's made at least one neighborhood safer, and it hasn't cost the city any money. But the city government, for reasons both practical and ideological, doesn't like the idea at all.

The practical reason's pretty obvious. Governments as a rule don't like to see public services of any kind performed privately. The practice reduces their authority and threatens to shrink their budgets. And the more successful the private effort is, the worse the government's own efforts look in comparison.

The ideological reason is more complex, and arises from a perverted notion of egalitarianism. Guilford's political problem is less what it's doing than what it is, which is visibly upper middle class. If poor neighborhoods can't afford to hire private security guards, it's argued, then it's inequitable to allow richer ones to do so.

This thinking has infected other areas of public life too, notably education. If Baltimore City or Somerset County spend less per student than Howard or Montgomery Counties, it's said, it's unconscionable, and the state should step in to equalize spending. What's really unconscionable, though, is the state of some of our schools, and not the fact that in some jurisdictions they're not so bad.

In the case of schools, the idea that there should be some sort of equality of input regardless of locally-available resources raises interesting philosophical questions that courts and legislatures are grappling with across the country. In the case of law enforcement, although the principle's similar the debate isn't as far advanced.

To say that the Guilford experiment is inequitable because other communities can't afford to try it sounds very fair-minded. So try this test. Imagine for a moment that a benevolent foundation has identified a poor Baltimore neighborhood as having a special need for improved security and has offered the city a grant to provide additional police protection there.

Do you think for a moment there would be public hand-wringing over the inequity of such a thing? More likely, the city would snatch the money out of the foundation's foolish hands before it had time to change its mind, and the subject of inequity would never come up.

Nobody likes the idea of rich enclaves in poor cities protecting their exclusivity with vigilante-style private security forces uncontrolled by any government. But that isn't what Guilford has done, and officials who can't tell the difference are either dense or demagogic, take your choice.

By using only off-duty officers for its supplemental patrols, Guilford achieved two important ends -- good communication with the city police department and adequate training for those it hired. Other approaches to strengthening law-enforcement at the neighborhood level have worked well, too, however.

Thousands of neighborhoods, in cooperation with local police departments, have installed lookout or crime-watch programs in which residents patrol the streets and call the dispatcher to report suspicious activity. This has been successful, for the most part, in reducing crimes against property such as burglary and vandalism, but it's less useful in preventing muggings and sexual assaults.

It's true that an effort such as Guilford's sharpens the contrast between a city's better and safer neighborhoods and its more dangerous ones. But this isn't necessarily bad. Besides, the benefits of upgrading one single neighborhood can be considerable.

If Guilford, for whatever reason, becomes more secure, the value of Guilford houses -- and the tax revenue they provide the city -- will rise. And more middle class residents will stay in the city instead of joining the migration to the suburbs.

At the same time, there can be a healthy ripple effect. Just as urban decay is a blight that spreads contagiously from block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, so too -- though not as quickly nor as inexorably -- can urban improvement. If Guilford can establish itself as significantly freer of crime than the rest of the city, areas adjacent to Guilford are likely to benefit, too.

Baltimore's in trouble. Its population is decreasing, its tax base eroding, and its hopes for the future almost totally dependent on the health of the huge metropolitan area of which it is an ever-less-significant part. If it is ever to reverse this slide, it has to begin by making its streets safe once again.

The only way that is ever likely to happen is by starting at the local level and progressing neighborhood to neighborhood. It's not a very good sign to see Guilford taking a small step in the right direction and getting, you'll forgive the expression, bashed over the head.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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