Police chiefs not only ones to blame for crime

WILEY A. HALL

August 12, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

In January, a Baltimore City Council member demanded that Police Commissioner Eddie Woods reduce crime within six months or step down. Six months and 29 days later, with violent crime still rising and his department besieged by controversy, Commissioner Woods unexpectedly tendered his resignation, then seemingly fled into hiding when he left town for a two-week vacation.

Early last year, Isaac Fulwood Jr. promised to resign as police chief of Washington unless his department cut the city's soaring homicide rate. Homicides continued at a record pace there, and Chief Fulwood kept his promise last September.

How about Daryl Gates, chief of the Los Angeles police department for 14 years? Actually, Chief Gates refused to take much responsibility for his department's behavior -- though Los Angeles has paid millions of dollars to settle police brutality cases during his watch, more than any other department in the nation. It took the videotaped police beating of Rodney King in 1991, and criticism over police response to the riots last April, to force Chief Gates into retirement in June 1992.

So, here are some questions to ponder: Are the nation's police chiefs suddenly being held responsible for crime? And if so, is this a good trend or a bad one?

"Police chiefs should be held accountable for how they manage their departments, but it would be absurd to hold them accountable for crime," says Joseph M. Wright, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. "Society is such today that we have to blame ourselves, parents, politicians, the schools, and our general failure to teach morality, for crime."

You may recall that it was for this reason that I accused City Councilman Lawrence Bell, D-4th, of fear-mongering when he delivered his January ultimatum to Commissioner Woods. But in retrospect, holding police chiefs accountable for crime is not such a bad idea. The buck should not stop with the chief of police, though.

Public officials have gotten a free ride on crime for far too long now. They denounce the violence. They talk about getting tough. Then they look for scapegoats when their tough talk and public denunciations have no effect. Public officials speak with forked tongues about crime: They say one thing when safely cloistered in professional seminars. Then they say something very different when the public is listening.

Exhibit One: Several years ago, as part of an ambitious study of prison overcrowding, Johns Hopkins University asked Maryland's public officials whether prison policy should be guided by an attempt to rehabilitate prisoners or warehouse them. The majority of those officials voted for rehabilitation, while warning that the public would oppose such a philosophy. But then the researchers surveyed the public. Contrary to official expectations, most people also voted for rehabilitation. Nevertheless, we incarcerate thousands each year with little attempt to hold judges, prosecutors or corrections officials accountable for the result. The only thing officials promise is that wrongdoers are taken off of the streets -- warehoused.

Exhibit Two: Researchers once asked the nation's criminal prosecutors how the criminal justice system could win the war against drugs. The majority of the prosecutors surveyed said they advocated more emphasis on treatment and prevention rather than arrests and convictions. Nevertheless, police continue to arrest -- and prosecutors continue to prosecute -- thousands of drug users each year. At the same time, Baltimore and most major cities can provide help for less than a tenth of the persons seeking treatment -- and no one demands a public accounting for why this continues.

Exhibit Three: The nation's police chiefs, meeting in Washington a few years ago, warned that crime cannot be fought by force alone. The police chiefs called for a communitywide effort against crime, with more emphasis placed on education and jobs than on arrests. Yet, few chiefs complained yesterday when President Clinton's long-awaited anti-crime package focused primarily on putting more officers on the streets. Nobody suggested that the nation needed 50,000 new teachers or 50,000 new job counselors instead.

If crime doesn't plummet, maybe officials should be held accountable for their silence. Maybe heads should roll.

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