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by Peter Moskos

May 11, 2008

Community Policing query

Dear Prof. Moskos

First off, let me say that I enjoyed your book. As someone who has recently moved to Baltimore and now finds themselves living on the edge of the Eastern I found it a fascinating read. Your discussion of 911 helped to explain the very big difference in reaction between the community meetings.

Commanders (not a direct quote) "We won't know something is happening unless you call 911 and tell us. We can't do anything about it if you don't tell us."—911 operators "You've got transvestite hookers working in the park across the street? We can't do anything about it unless you call when one of them is getting into a car."

Even without my new context, "Cop in the Hood" would have been an interesting book. I appreciate how you are able to speak with two voices; both the police and the sociologist.

That out of the way, I have a question I would appreciate your opinion on: are citizen's patrols actually effective? I've made some minor forays into the literature and searched for opinions. Although community policing generally seems to have a positive effect in some studies, I can't find anything pointing to which aspect(s) is effective.

At a gut level I have a cynical reaction to the overall effect of having a random group of neighbors walking around the area in green vests and waving the occasional flashlight at a dark corner. Keep in mind that I live in Greenmount West straddling the border between the Eastern and Central, so we have to communicate with 2 separate districts. This seems to reduce the level of direct contact with anyone who we have direct contact with.

I'm very interested in your viewpoint...

I answer:

Living between two police districts really does make things worse. And having to deal with a different set of officers on two different blocks is a pain. There is a natural tendency for police officers to push problems (such as prostitution) "away." I certainly pushed some people away from the Eastern and back into the Southeast. Counterproductive, when you consider I lived in the Southeast.

Community policing, by and large, doesn't exist and never has. It was supposed to mark a move away from reactive policing. But despite lip service to the contrary (I mean, nobody will ever come out against community policing), I don't think any police department has every implemented a real long-term community policing program. Quite simply, you can't have community policing if patrol officers are sitting in cars waiting for radio calls.

About citizen patrols… I don't know. My thought is that they can be effective (both directly and indirectly). It really is community policing. That's good, right? But for all the effort put in, the gain is probably very very small.

I'm a big fan of the Guardian Angels, for instance. But that's more from the perspective of being a young guy very happy to see them on the Chicago L than from any actually academic proof that they prevent crime. Buy my guess is that they do help prevent crime from a Broken Windows perspective. And even if the Guardian Angels (or other citizen groups) don't prevent crime, at least they made me feel safer. That's worth something.

District Commanders in Baltimore tended not to be the most enlightened bunch. (At least from my experience back in 2000. I'm sure they're all much better now.) Getting police to move away from rapid response and toward foot patrol in not in their genetic DNA. They're right that they won't know until you call 911. So the question they and you should be asking them is why don't they know and what can they do to know better.

And that 911 operator is an idiot. Just call for disorderly then, to get police to respond. But even better would be to talk to your post officer (on any of the three shifts, but the midnight is probably the best because we had more time) and talk to him or her about ways to solve the problem. As a police officer, I would much prefer to help a real person than just respond to another anonymous 911 call for prostitution. What the cops can do is arrest. And some arresting is probably part of the solution here. But probably just one piece of the solution.

Interestingly, there weren't many street-walking prostitutes in the Eastern when I was there. My guess is it was too dangerous for prostitutes and Johns alike.

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