Hot trend in Baltimore cools elsewhere

February 09, 1994|By David Simon | David Simon,Sun Staff Writer

In New York, two weeks ago, they began to reassess it.

In Houston, they gave up on it.

In Boston, they looked at it and decided on something else.

Community-oriented policing -- the law enforcement trend of the 1990s -- may be in retreat elsewhere in the nation, but in Baltimore it is still a term spoken with some reverence, at least by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his police commanders.

More than three years have passed since then-Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods called for a five-year plan to remake the agency in the "community-oriented" image. His successor, Thomas C. Frazier, is saying the transformation could take up to eight years.

Lauded by national experts, community-oriented law enforcement attempts to reduce reliance on the 911 emergency system by dedicating specially trained officers to neighborhood intervention and problem-solving, ranging from crime-fighting to truancy to trash removal.

"What we're trying to do is join together individual officers with individual neighborhoods and respond to problems before they become calls for service," explains Maj. Alvin Winkler, commander of the Eastern District, where a community-oriented pilot project is under way.

The problem: The Baltimore department doesn't have enough manpower to respond to rising crime and simultaneously undertake citywide community policing, which requires the assignment of additional officers to neighborhood service duties.

In the Eastern District, city officials have stacked the deck, beefing up the precinct's strength to 200 officers at the expense of other investigative units and districts, where there are many vacancies.

In addition, while some neighborhood leaders and merchant groups are pleased with community policing because of increased police visibility, critics suggest there is only limited evidence that the strategy reduces or prevents crime in big cities.

In Houston, so many officers were employed in community policing that essential police services suffered, and the city soon abandoned the notion. Concentrating instead on targeting violent criminals, the department has scored a 22 percent decline in major crimes. Boston police, using similar tactics, cut their city's murder rate in half.

In New York, newly elected Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani called last month for a "redefinition" of the department's community-policing effort after internal reports showed that officers in the new program were poorly trained and supervised.

Despite such examples, Baltimore's new police commissioner intends to rapidly begin some form of community policing in the city's nine police districts. Many in the department wonder where the manpower will come from and whether the labor-intensive strategy is appropriate for the inner city.

In the Eastern District, for example, commanders and officers say they are getting good results in neighborhoods such as Berea and Orangeville, where homeowners support the initiative.

"This can work in neighborhoods where people have invested in the community," says Officer Chuch Strachan.

In hard-hit drug areas, there has been less response, officers say.

At a department planning meeting, one commander said he asked his colleagues whether they really believed the new philosophy could work at Greenmount and 22nd Street, where 100 people might be on the street trafficking in drugs.

"They looked at me for a moment and then started talking about something else," he recalls. "I never got an answer."

Adding to the ambiguity about community-oriented policing is the fact that its proponents are willing to claim success if fear is reduced among residents, regardless of whether crime declines.

"If people fear less, they are liable to be more willing to deal with substantive problems in their community," says David Kennedy, a Harvard University professor and policing expert.

But, asks a city commander, what do you tell someone who lives near Edmondson Avenue? "They have a fear of getting shot on the street that is perfectly justified. You can't reduce that person's fear without reducing crime around them," he says.

Supporters of the new model are more sanguine. "It's only going to happen over time," says Major Winkler. "We need time to reconnect with the community so that we can have a real impact on crime."

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