A way to police that will help reduce homicides

Getting away with MURDER

February 21, 1999|By Arnold K. Sherman

THE two-page editorial, "Getting away with murder," which ran a week ago in The Sun, rightly notes that the city's homicide problem is not just a policing problem. While identifying some issues within the police department, the article details the systemic irrationalities of courts, prosecutors, corrections officials and police who function as if they were legs independent of the body.

The problem, however, will not be fixed even by producing a criminal justice system that works. We must look beyond the criminal justice system for prevention and moderation of our problems.

Not only do we need a criminal justice system with policies and practices that mesh seamlessly, but also we need to be innovative, creating a system of community justice. Nationwide, there's a movement toward community policing, community probation and parole, community courts and community corrections. In Baltimore, it is time to meld such programs into a community justice system.

There is evidence that crime, grime, fear of crime and public disorder are reduced by increasing "collective efficacy," that is, working through community mobilization efforts to build communities that work.

We do not need New York's so-called "zero tolerance" policy toward minor offenses. It creates a tough image, but it's not a realistic strategy; there are not enough resources to institute such a plan. It would require changes throughout the system, including night courts and longer sentences for serious offenders.

Community policing is a better metaphor, which includes some useful parts of "zero tolerance" and leads to more innovative and productive strategies.

Importantly, the Baltimore Police Department is moving to a community-policing philosophy. In past generation, generally, U.S. policing has been reactive, responding to 911 calls, not studying the underlying causes for crimes. The police were in cars and lost touch with the community.

In addition to great collaboration with the community, police work today is increasingly research or data driven. Greater emphasis is put on analyzing problems and looking for patterns. Research, for example, has shown that a very small number of people commit crimes. Typically, they continuously victimize the same people and places.

Based on these and other findings, police work is becoming more proactive. Community policing includes balancing a strategic focus on the small number of criminals who do most of the crime; responding to emergency calls; and dealing with the important issues of public disorder.

As part of this change toward community policing, Baltimore became the first city in the country to move to a 311 nonemergency number. The reduction in 911 calls allows police more time to focus on the small number of criminals who produce most of the crime.

Another of the many important changes in the move to community policing is the Crimestac program -- short for crime, statistics and tactics -- which is designed to evaluate emerging crime patterns and find solutions. Though this tool is still in its infancy here, it is already making a difference.

The police and the community need to work together to foster an enhanced commitment. The police need to increase the time spent in responding to the communities' legitimate crime and disorder concerns. The community needs to learn what it can expect from the police, what is appropriate for other agencies, what can be done in cooperation with the police and what the community can do on its own.

What is particularly destructive is that the City Council and city residents are trying to micro-manage the department on an incident-by-incident basis.

The effect on morale within the department can be devastating. It is time to consider all dimensions of the problem. We need to take a balanced, long-term strategic view at the criminal justice system and beyond to include looking at job training, education, etc.

The search for the causes of Baltimore's high homicide rates has not been exhausted. While homicide rates are only one of the statistics needed to judge quality of life in a city, they are in a way a measure for a culmination of things that are not working. The schools are one important piece of the puzzle.

Only a small proportion of students who start first grade in the city will complete high school. Truancy rates, tardiness and midterm school changes are incredibly high. We have a city full of illiterate dropouts who have grown up in the streets. They have no experience in long-term relationships that work.

From their earliest childhood games, they learn to take from others through manipulation and violence. They have grown up as prey and predator, without the linguistic skills to analyze and deal with frustration and anxiety. When words fail, violence begins. There is work to be done.

We must move beyond community justice to work with programs that provide services that maximize the ability to restore people to productive lives. It will require individuals and agencies to look at the problem from a broad long-term perspective. And it will mean the willingness to dig deep to provide the resources necessary to rebuild our schools and communities.

The city and state have the people, the ideas and the talent to move forward. What is required is the recognition that we must go beyond politics and particular interests to produce a long-term strategic plan that we will adequately fund, evaluate, adapt as necessary and adhere to as we move toward community justice and communities that work.

Arnold K. Sherman is director of research in the Police Executive Leadership Program in the School of Continuing Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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