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by Peter Moskos

June 5, 2015

Let's Rethink Patrol

Here's another piece of mine in CNN, also out today. I hope this gets a bit of attention because I was able to move past the headlines (thanks to my wonderful editor at CNN for her encouragement and mad editing skillz) to question the very concept police patrol. That's the type of moderately deep-thinking that is hard to get published in op-ed form.

But at this moment there might be a small window of opportunity to make substantive changes in policing. Why do have a system where, for instance, the first responder to a mentally ill person is a police officer? It doesn't make sense. Not for the cops. Not for the mentally ill. So why not rethink a reactive model of undervalued and understaffed police patrol. The status quo swallows up resources and -- by design -- limits the discretion and problem-solving ability of police officers.
Many people who call 911 do need help, but it's not help that a very young police officer barely out of high school -- armed and with the power of arrest -- can provide. These calls for service would often be better addressed by doctors, social workers, teachers and parents.

Over the past 40 years, with the advent of call-and-response policing, the mentality of policing changed. Consider the portrayal in the 1980s TV show "Hill Street Blues" (it's pop culture, but it contains truth): The first sergeant, played by Michael Conrad, finished roll call with the sage advice: "Let's be careful out there." After his death, the new sergeant was played by Robert Prosky. His motto? "Let's do it to them before they do it to us."

There are benefits to old-fashioned beat policing that we need to reclaim, but we can't as long as most police resources are controlled by civilian dispatchers, officers have too little discretion, and the war on drugs dominates urban policing by criminalizing too many people.

For a cop bouncing from call to call constantly dealing with criminals or people who have lost control of their lives, it's too easy to believe that nobody in the area is in control. From the window of a patrol car, every face on the corner starts looking the same. By walking on foot and engaging with the noncriminal public, police officers, especially those without any prior knowledge of the area they police, could begin to understand both how communities function and how they fail.
Read the rest here.


Alex Elkins said...

Nice and useful op-ed.

Though, I think perhaps you underplay the extent of the change in police culture you are asking for. Is there a way to base officer "productivity" or competence on something other than arrests? What would be the new metric for advancement within the department? Is non-arrest-based policing--where quantity is valued over quality--possible?

I study policing in the 1950s and 1960s, and journalists then reported on the existence of quotas, though they were not formal in the vein of "zero-tolerance." Was there ever a time when arrests were not the measure of a police officer's competence?

The tricky thing about police reform is imagining and building a future free of past excesses--machine-era graft and overt racism come to mind--that seem (to some) to derive from some specific organizational structure or strategy/tactic. Can we have community policing without graft? Can we have police professionalism without a culture of immunity? Can we fight crime without a warrior mindset? Can we have discretionary policing without racial profiling? It'll be tough to convince people that proactive policing is something we should hold onto--that discretionary stops, frisks, and arrests are valuable tactics we should continue using--when many people see them as "inherently" oppressive.

Adam said...

"Is there a way to base officer 'productivity' or competence on something other than arrests?"

I haven't had a chance to read this report yet, but it looks like it addresses your question.

Peter Moskos said...

Thanks for that link. I haven't read it yet either. I strongly suspect, after I do, that my students will be force to read it, too.

Peter Moskos said...

I'm reminded of a line at roll call from the movie Serpico: "Summonses, Summonses, Summonses."

So no, I don't think that is new. The NYPD has kept fabulous arrest stats since day one (I once stumbled across them in Harvard library). Certainly there were problems in the old days. And in the length of a short op-ed, I simply ignored them. But I think we could have the best of both worlds today. Tolerance for corruption is lower. Police are less corrupt. They're paid a living wage. Undoubtedly, one could not expect *less* corruption if police were more closely tied to the community. But I could live with a bit more corruption if police really did understand, work with, and have the respect of the community they police. And I think corruption would still be low for the reasons very few officers are corrupt today. Along with good character, it's simply not worth the pension risk.

The "inherently oppressive" part is more problematic. Some will always think police can somehow be effective by being reactive and striving toward "community policing" (whatever that means). I beg to differ.

Alex Elkins said...

Thanks, Adam, for that link--and, Peter, for the tip about the potential goldmine at Harvard.

I recognize the limitations of the form of the op-ed. I hope you didn't take my questions as a criticism that your piece did not anticipate my concerns--that you didn't write the thing I wanted you to write. It's good to have your thoughts.

Adam said...

HKS has been cranking out publications on police issues. See the list here. (I haven't found the time to read any of these, but they look interesting).