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by Peter Moskos

February 26, 2013

The Streets of Rome: The Realities of Problem-Oriented Policing, by Peter W. Maher

Back in October, 2012, I had a guest blogger, Jan Haldipur, on "How the iPhone Changed the Way We Do Ethnography: A Methodological Note." It's worth a read.

Today I proudly feature Peter W. Maher. He completed his undergraduate studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. (and can be contacted at pmaher@hamilton.edu).

Peter did some work with police that is remarkable for anybody, much less an undergraduate. His work has already been featured in the press, but since it's in upstate New York, odds are you missed it. But check out this, and this, and finally this.

Maher has got a promising career as a research ahead of him, if that's the path he chooses take. It's an honor to have him contributing to copinthehood.com:
New York City’s crime control programs have been lauded as a data-driven fix to soaring crime rates. Yet, until recently, few small cities adopted such measures. Rome, New York was no different. Three years ago, as a college sophomore, I began an internship with Rome’s police department. The city was once the site of a sprawling air force base and had been churning out textiles with ferocity for over two hundred years. However, in the early 1990s, when the military base was shut down and the demand for rustbelt manufacturing was outsourced overseas, the city saw drastic change. Population declined, drugs became rampant, and crime rates soared.

Rome, like much of the northeast, is a deeply traditional place. Unlike the city infrastructure and its people, the department seemed immune to urban decay. Even after the city’s decline, the police force continued to operate with the same reactive patrol strategy it had employed for nearly a century. Suffice to say, the department was incredibly resistant to change.

After completing an 18-month study of Rome’s police force, spending hundreds of hours working with detectives and beat officers, I proposed a change to the way the agency did business. I planned a pro-active policing unit designed to aggressively and strategically fight crime, modeled after a mixture of broken windows theory and Herman Goldstein’s problem-oriented policing strategy. I felt that if Rome had a chance to stem urban decay, this was it.

I managed to persuade the Chief of Police to give me ninety days for a trial of the program. Entitled the Community Impact Unit (CIU), the program’s aim was to put officers on foot and bicycle into high-crime neighborhoods, much as they had in the earliest days of policing, aiming to partner with residents to identify and combat neighborhood problems before they escalated into violent crime.

Resistance immediately arose from some veteran cops, who didn’t take too kindly to a college intern suggesting how they could do their job more effectively. They had more than a few doubts that a “soft and cushy,” community-oriented program could fix crime. I told them to let the results speak for themselves, and the program went to work.

Following in the footsteps of Compstat-designer Jack Maple, we started mapping crime and gathering intelligence, identifying areas that were hardest hit by criminals. Three days in, an officer returning from neighborhood patrol encountered a vehicle reeking of marijuana. After searching it, the CIU officer found eight pounds of marijuana, a substantial discovery for a city Rome’s size.

Two days later, acting on citizen complaints, the unit spent time on foot, scouring a neighborhood riddled with drug activity. After several hours, team members discovered a clandestine methamphetamine lab, preventing the explosive substance from distribution onto Rome’s streets. Stories like this piled up, day after day.

A renewed focus on abandoned lots, riverbanks, and other locations susceptible to crime caused the unit to clean up decades of graffiti and litter. Even the most seasoned Rome police veterans couldn’t recall a time when highway overpasses and commercial areas boasted such order. Thanks to coordinated citywide efforts, the tagging and trash hasn’t returned.

In a mere ninety days, CIU officers recovered more narcotics and seized more firearms from the streets of Rome than patrol officers had in years. Department-driven community efforts skyrocketed, and officers began to gain a deeper understanding of the crime in their city.

Meanwhile, contrary to most aggressive police units, the department has received wide citizen acclaim for the unit’s implementation. Unlike other agencies that have received notoriety for privacy invasions, our unit stood immune to such infringements. The principal mission here was to work with citizens to identify and analyze problems – graffiti, open-air drug use, loitering, littering, trespassing – and develop unique ways to solve them.

Several weeks ago, as the trial period of the program concluded, citizens spoke up. Several hundred Romans petitioned city hall to keep the program around. The department not only has decided to continue the program, but has since added two more officers.

To appease critics, the unit has only been in session for five months, far too soon to draw a definitive conclusion on official crime rate reduction. Regardless, the effects of the program are overwhelming. Crime is now being addressed more effectively and thoroughly than ever before. With a cost of only new uniforms and little detriment on normal patrol, the Community Impact Unit has drastically changed the way the Rome Police Department addresses crime and community affairs.

If a city as tradition-ridden as Rome can adopt this advanced and incredibly effective crime-fighting strategy, so can yours. The success of the program offers great hope for the streets of Rome, and your streets too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Chicago should start doing the CIU program. With crime rate inclining there, I think it will help them reduce it.