The high price of success:
Police still make a difference, but at what cost?
police to collect racial data on motorists stopped for traffic violations, with the data then to be analyzed by the Justice Department. Numerous line organizations voiced their concern about the bill. The International Association of Chiefs of Police found little support among its members for federally mandated data-collection but called for the funding of state and local data bases. The Police Executive Research Forum, for its part, is looking at the development of a national standard. Even the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, while supporting the legislation, did not feel it necessary for officers to ask drivers their race or ethnicity, but instead suggested that they rely on observation. This notion cut to the heart of one of the central issues of the data-collection debate. Police, who know all too well that there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop, strongly felt that asking drivers for the desired information would inevitably and unnecessarily intensify an already tense situation, possibly to the point of violence.
Despite the concerns, numerous jurisdictions went ahead on their own to undertake the task and not without some cost. The Florida Highway Patrol, for example, estimated that its efforts on data collection would cost between $1.1 million and $4.7 million, depending upon the method selected to record and analyze the information.
Profiling has long been a practice of businesses ranging from insurance to banking to marketing. It has been used by law enforcement to intercept airplane hijackers, hassle hippies and thwart drug couriers. But recent developments are now showing law enforcement what portrait artists have long known a profile presents just one side of a picture, not the full face, and the other side of the picture can be strikingly different from the one that is presented. Some police policy-makers have lamented the looseness or complete absence of any generally accepted definition of the profiling problem. One chief went so far as to suggest that racial profiling has come to mean all things which inconvenience people of color involving the police. Until a definition of the problem can be reached, a solution will remain elusive.
Police agencies are forced to grapple with the question of whether crime-suppression efforts are worth a distrustful, even hostile relationship with the minority community. Granted, many of the recent high-profile examples of improper racial profiling have come from agencies that patrol the nations highways, where there are striking differences from patrolling the neighborhood streets of a city or town. For highway patrol agencies, the community, as it were, tends to be just passing through on the way to somewhere else. Municipal policing, however, is generally less anonymous, and police stops in the age of computerized crime-mapping are often based on detailed information about a neighborhood and its hot spots. As important, said one lieutenant, Profiling is just another fancy word for experience. Still, there is always the risk that this could fall into the category of unacceptable police practice.
The racial-profiling debate was not without its political overtones. One chief observed that for some people there is much mileage to be gained by marginalizing the police and using [them] to mobilize their constituencies. Others refer to a kind of modern-day McCarthyism, and note that one cannot ignore the fact that in some areas drug buyers are white and sellers are black. Still, police departments today know that community perceptions count whether real, imagined or stirred up and so many police officials have undertaken an examination of the problem, as have other outside entities. Not least of these is the Justice Department, which in December reached agreement with the State of New Jersey on a consent decree that includes the appointment of a monitor for the State Police, who will report directly to a Federal judge on just about any police function.
A lingering question that emerged from the years focus on racial profiling and other controversial police practices is just what impact heightened public scrutiny of police will have on the level of drug interdiction on interstate routes. Although a final answer has yet to be arrived at, anecdotal evidence suggests cause for concern. As the year ended, reports from various jurisdictions indicated that arrests were dropping. For example, through September arrests by the New Jersey State Police had decreased by 42 percent compared to the same period in 1998. Certainly one explanation was that the attention to profiling was forcing some officers to change their racially driven ways. Some police union officials, however, contend that the decline is due to troopers fear of being falsely accused of racial profiling. Officers with good intentions and honorable records, it would seem, are not taking any chances.
Looking over cops shoulders
In all likelihood, at any given time there is always an investigation of a police department going on somewhere in the country. If 1999 seemed to bring an inordinate number of such investigations Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cincinnati, Seattle and Hartford, to name several it may be a reflection of the prevailing philosophy of the Justice Department, a penchant for more thorough self-examination by police and, to be sure, politics.
The New York City Police Department began the year still reeling from the August 1998 torture of Abner Louima by police, and on Feb. 4, the proverbial other shoe dropped. An unarmed peddler named Amadou Diallo was killed in a hail of police bullets, and in short order there were no fewer than five outside agencies investigating the incident. The four officers involved in the shooting were indicted for murder. Despite statistics showing that police shootings were declining, a poll conducted just weeks after the Diallo shooting indicated that 72 percent of blacks, 62 percent of Hispanics and 33 percent of whites believed that most officers used excessive force. (On the other hand, a survey commissioned by the NYPD found that most residents, including a majority of blacks and Hispanics, respect the police.)
The notoriety surrounding the Diallo shooting focused not only on the particulars of the incident itself, but on the whole notion of quality-of-life crime enforcement, with its critics saying such efforts are excessive and tend to violate civil rights. Defenders focused on what they saw as the opportunistic and political nature of the criticism, calling it an ideological attack on a successful philosophy of policing. Quality-of-life enforcement, they argued, did indeed prevent crime and they had the stats to prove it.
In recent years the Justice Department and its agencies have been very generous to law enforcement, but they have also been tough, as demonstrated by the sharp increase in the number of police officers serving prison terms from 107 in 1994 to 655 in June 1999. While some chiefs welcome and even invite Federal authorities, and have used their investigations to advantage, many chiefs have complained that Federal probes have been initiated without their knowledge, thus leaving them to operate in a vacuum. It undermines the responsibility of the chief and the municipality, they say. Some even question whether direct intervention is a proper role for the Federal Government to play. Federal authorities have not done the best job investigating themselves, some critics point out, as shown by the reopening of the Waco investigation. The Columbus, Ohio, Police Division is one agency that has told the Feds, in effect, to buzz off, refusing to enter into a consent decree with the Justice Department. Columbus officials told Federal prosecutors that they will have to prove in court their allegations that police engaged in a pattern of abuses ranging from excessive force to improper search and seizure.
The irony of these investigations and the attention they received, of course, is that in general police around the country use very little force. Through the efforts of the Justice Department and various professional organizations, a national picture is starting to emerge, highlighted by a first-of-its-kind report released in October, which found that only 1 percent of people who had face-to-face encounters with police said that officers used or threatened force, and that firearms are used in just 0.2 percent of arrests. While emphasizing that more study is needed, the report also states with modest confidence that use of force is more likely to occur when they are dealing with persons under the influence of alcohol or drugs or with the mentally ill, and that only a small percentage of officers are involved disproportionately in use-of-force incidents. Not even addressed was the question of whether or not the use of force was wrongful a statistical shading that would seem likely to make the report even more favorable to law enforcement.
The number crunch
A personnel drought has begun to spread its withering heat across the field of policing, confronting agencies with the prospect of operating short-handed in the years ahead. Overtime will be a fact of life. Labor-intensive initiatives may have to be cut back. Supervisory skills will go begging. Pressure will increase in some quarters to reduce standards.
The truth is, Americas booming economy is not good for policing. Competition for recruits has been fiercely competitive, with some departments gaining at the expense of others. The Seattle Police Department, for example, visited some 10 cities to recruit; one of them, Atlanta, was chosen because it has well trained officers with low morale. The NYPD spent $9 million on a recruiting campaign that yielded a smaller applicant pool than officials had hoped for. Departments went overseas to scour military bases for recruits.
Nationwide, seasoned officers are leaving, including a growing number in the upper ranks. With police salaries growing more slowly than those in the private sector, many sworn personnel take a moment to calculate pensions and other benefits and find they can make almost as much money by not working. Weighed against a backdrop of increased pressure from superiors, the public and the press, retirement has a distinct appeal. Departments will find themselves getting younger and less experienced. Officers make an average of roughly $33,000. Should localities consider increasing salaries to make staying on the job more lucrative? Do they have the ability and the will to do so? Should they consider the potential adverse consequences of having an unusually young and inexperienced work force?
Still making a difference
Through it all, police have continued to drive down crime rates, and that drop in crime in some areas has given police free time that allows them to focus more attention on things like investigating computer crime and backlogged warrants. Theyve developed after-school programs; theyve trained landlords to spot drug labs. Theyve worked with residents to make a difference. And despite publicity that was often harshly critical, appreciation of police by their clients is strong. In a landmark Justice Department study of 12 cities, roughly 85 percent of residents reported that they were well served by their police, notwithstanding higher than average victimization. There were differences in the approval ratings given by white and nonwhite residents roughly 14 percentage points on average. Theres room for improvement, but its certainly not bad.
A Seattle police officer clad head to toe in riot gear kicks a demonstrator as police attempt to clear anti-World Trade Organization protesters from an area near the hotel where President Clinton was staying on Dec. 1. The world trade meetings attracted thousands of protesters representing various causes, and local police appeared to be caught unprepared when demonstrations quickly erupted into rioting that caused millions of dollars in damage to the downtown business district and led to hundreds of arrests.