Forget events in the spotlight—
local PD’s are where the action is
     Working harder & smarter pays off in continuing crime

By Marie Simonetti Rosen

It was a year punctuated by events that captured the national spotlight: the Freeman standoff in Montana; the capture of the alleged Unabomber; the crash of TWA flight 800, and the terrorist bombing at the Olympic games. It was also an election year with all the usual prerequisite law-and-order campaigning.

But while public attention focused in one direction, on these and other events, the real action was elsewhere, as local police departments, usually with little notice, were busy  very busy.

Police departments drew increasingly upon past research  especially in the area of problem solving. They incorporated new technologies, and shared information about what works. They looked to other jurisdictions where successful strategies had been implemented and duplicated them. Day-to-day operations were reformulated with a view to reducing crime. In growing numbers, police executives are convinced that effective policing can decrease crime, and even a growing cohort of criminologists is  conceding that police work is responsible for the recent notable decline in crime. Nationwide, there are clear signs of departments reorganizing, refocusing and implementing anti-crime strategies, targeting problems and attacking them with verve. And from all indications it appears that their efforts are paying off, as 1996, like the years immediately preceding it, witnessed significant drops in the crime rate.


Hot Spots and Cold Cases

Police went after drug-dealing hot-spots and public housing crime. They tracked down guns, mounted camera surveillance devices and notified the community of burglars working in the area. They went after stolen goods and set up telephone hot lines that residents could call for crime information. Fugitive and warrant units and cold-case squads were set up or reinvigorated. (In Houston, for example, warrant enforcement has reportedly generated 8,860 arrests and cleared 38,126 cases. The New York City Police Department, with help from the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI, will be going after as many 87,000 fugitive felons and 403,000 misdemeanor offenders.) Many departments redirected resources to high-crime areas and peak activity periods. Some departments, such as those in Bridgeport, Conn., Gary, Ind., Camden, N.J., and Minneapolis, got temporary reinforcement from state police units.

Clearly, 1996 was the year of the crackdown, but perhaps the most common approach was a crackdown on quality-of-life crime. In city after city, quality-of-life enforcement became a priority, in part because such a focus was desired by the community, but as important, because evidence increasingly points to the fact that going after minor violators contributes directly to reductions in major crime. 


In with the New

When it comes to reducing crime, increased innovation and accountability rule, with many large and mid-sized departments continuing to undergo significant organizational transformations. LEN’s People-of-the-Year award is testimony to the kinds of structural changes that are going on around the country. The San Diego Police Department has brought all of its divisions on-line and given its lieutenants 24-hour responsibility and commensurate increases in accountability. Boston officials attribute the city’s recent drop in crime to increased accountability throughout the ranks and the reorganization of the city into two-block-square reporting areas, so that emergency calls can be routed to the line officer responsible for a given neighborhood. In Montgomery County, Md., police district boundaries have been redrawn to provide a fairer, more realistic distribution of police workloads and greater success in preventing crime. And supplementing local efforts in organization change, the National Institute of Justice has provided Federal funds to export the NYPD’s ground-breaking Compstat process to Indianapolis and Prince George’s County, Md.

As internal changes sweep the nation’s police departments, the role of supervisory personnel, notably lieutenants and captains, is coming under renewed scrutiny. Since the advent of community policing, the focus has been on the beat cop, on how well he knew and interacted with his neighborhood, and on foot patrol, substations and mini-precincts, community meetings and the like. In 1996, the focus has been on the supervisory ranks, with redefinition of their roles and increases in their responsibilities and accountability. No longer are they mere conduits that filter information upward and commands, directives and influence downward. Supervision and middle management are now bound more closely than ever to their geographic areas and what goes on there. Specifically, supervisors and managers have been charged with problem identification, tactical and strategic planning, and problem-solving that directly lead to crime reduction.

The impact of these changes on crime is clear. But what about the impact on the middle management ranks themselves?

While many departments credit “re-engineering” for crime reduction and enhanced community policing, such changes have not come without a price, in the form of organizational tension. In Austin, for example, lieutenants became the “power rank,” when sectors were put under their control. This change has become a linchpin of community policing efforts in the Texas capital, and is considered a success, but one of the negatives is that the captains are miffed because they feel they are no longer in the loop.

In New York, the focus of community policing  the “power rank”  is the captain. But with power comes pressure  lots of it. Scores of captains and other precinct commanders have been reassigned for failing to meet their basic responsibility for bringing neighborhood crime rates down. Even those who do deliver are subjected to high-stress debriefings at the regular Compstat meetings. At least one possible result of these changes is that  fewer lieutenants than usual are applying to take the recently announced captains’ exam, and that even many of those who are taking it are ambivalent about wanting the rank. Captain’s bars may no longer be as desirable as they once were for many NYPD lieutenants (although one could also surmise that a kind of “Darwinian policing”  survival of the fittest  is taking hold, with new, more intense demands on captains helping to screen out candidates).

Austin’s police chief, Betsy Watson, summed up the ambiguities that are taking hold in middle management: “What is it that a captain can do that a lieutenant should not or cannot do? What is it that a deputy chief can do that a captain should not or cannot do...? We haven’t defined roles and responsibilities that are commensurate with each rank in the organization and then we bemoan our inability to hold folks accountable. Accountable for what? For a job that was never defined, never clearly explained and for which people have never been formally prepared. It is not a problem of our people. It is a problem of structure.”

Once again, the military-based structure of departments, while good for some things, doesn’t often accommodate community policing, department restructuring or teamwork.


Then and Now

Nearly 30 years ago, the Federal Government stepped in to foster police professionalism through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. The enactment of the Crime Control Act of 1994, with the resources it has provided and the role it is playing in police work, is very much akin to the golden days of LEAA. There is a great deal of Federal assistance for police departments, for new technology, for research, for finding out what works, for training, and more.

The striking difference between the LEAA days and today is that the Federal Government is now putting far greater emphasis on putting more officers on the street. To date, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services  the COPS shop  has made commitments for 50,000 new officers. In the LEAA days, on the other hand, the Federal Government invested in the officers we already had by providing educational benefits for in-service personnel through the LEEP program, and many of today’s police leaders point to that educational incentive as a key stepping stone for their careers. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey released this year, the number of police departments that require recruits to have some level of higher education doubled from 6 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 1993  still a far cry from the recommendation of the 1967 President’s Commission report, which said “the ultimate aim of all police departments should be that all personnel with general enforcement powers have baccalaureate degrees.” Granted, more officers today than ever before have college educations, but it remains regrettable that the 1994 crime act’s provisions regarding educational benefits for in-service personnel are underemphasized, underutilized and, to be sure, parsimonious.

As the COPS shop continues to fulfill its goal of putting 100,000 community policing officers on the nation’s streets, there is no doubt that the public safety field has grown. This is especially true if one includes private security forces under the heading of public safety. Forbes magazine reported that as of 1995 the number of police and security guards had grown to 1.8 million, ranking 11th among the country’s top 30 job classifications. In 1960 it ranked number 22, with 500,000. According to BJS, approximately 374,000 sworn, full-time officers are currently at work in more than 12,000 county and municipal police departments.


Growing Pains

While expanding in size, the field has also grown philosophically. It has been struggling with the concepts and the practice of community policing, which has helped to change how police do what they do. Consider the late 1980’s, when many big-city departments unveiled operations known by catchy names like TNT, Clean Sweep and SNIP to crack down on drug hot-spots. Even the Feds got into the act with the “Weed” component of the Weed and Seed program. But eventually, these and other crackdowns were back-burnered because they cost too much, they generated huge numbers of arrests that strangled the courts, and they often angered the very communities they were meant to help. What’s different this time? For one thing, the 1996 crackdowns have been better coordinated with the court system, there is far more jail space now than in the late 1980s, and alternatives to incarceration are getting a renewed look. As important, police point to greater input from the community in developing aggressive anti-crime tactics. Through community policing, the police and the public have gained a greater mutual familiarity  and, arguably, trust thus making today’s crackdowns different from those of the past.

Still, there are those who fear for the future of community policing, concerned that high-pressure police tactics signal the concept’s abandonment. There is also concern that community policing’s intent has become too convoluted, making evaluation and research projects now underway all the more difficult to measure.

That’s not to say impossible to measure. One recent study offered a dose of good news, finding that community police officers in Richmond, Va., while less likely to make an arrest, had a much higher probability of having people do what the officers told them to do. The study’s author observed: “The pro-community policing officers were much more likely to engage and stop suspects on the street, to be a little more active. While they had a lower batting average, they got to bat a lot more.” In view of the problems of excessive force that so often plague law enforcement  often as a result of individuals not responding to officers’ commands  the Richmond finding is all the more significant.


All Hands on Deck

There is no longer much doubt among practitioners that police strategies and tactics can reduce crime; there is also a growing confidence that community activism can play a major role in crime reduction. Such activism comes in a variety of forms: loud protest marches in front of known drug locations; midnight barbecues on street corners known for drug dealing; watchdog groups, sometimes armed with cellular phones donated by departments; increased volunteerism; more information being provided to police.

But it’s not just neighborhood residents who are taking on a greater role in public safety. In the broadest sense, society is taking action with policies aimed at deterrence, collectively telling criminals, “We know who you are and we know where you live.”

More than ever, communities have access to information concerning the status and location of offenders. Computerized telephone systems in numerous localities can now inform residents as to where ex-offenders live. In Northern Virginia, communities for the first time made public a list of the names and addresses of about 9,500 people on parole for crimes such as burglary, drunken driving, drug dealing, sexual assault and murder. Registries for released sex offenders have grown in popularity, despite court challenges. In California, a molester hot line has received thousands of calls since its inception in July 1995. More newspapers routinely publish photos of wanted fugitives. (That’s not to say that the approach is without problems, as was seen in Minnesota when a privately published anti-crime newspaper had to print a retraction after it mistakenly identified a number of St. Paul residents as child molesters.) And, of course, perhaps the most visible sign of the “we know who you are” trend was the rescue of the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” through an appeal from the public and the law enforcement community.

A better-informed public was not the only example of community involvement in crime reduction. The concept of penalty has broadened as well. In addition to imprisonment, an offender now risks losing housing, welfare and educational benefits. Criminal background checks are being conducted with increasing frequency, and are being used to bar ex-offenders from a growing list of occupations. A number of states are expanding the definitions of criminal behavior, such as Florida, which added deadbeat parents into its state crime computers. In response to the growing national concern over underage single-family households, many jurisdictions are once again enforcing statutory rape charges that for years had been collecting dust.


Impact Statement

The increased crime-fighting capability of police, better coordination with other criminal justice and social agencies, community action, improved economic conditions and the linkage of criminal deterrents and entitlement programs are now starting to coalesce. And just what impact has this energetic, synergistic trend had? For many, it is the combination of factors that has led to a decreasing crime rate.

The latest Uniform Crime Reports and BJS victimization study show nationwide declines in the violent-crime rate of 3 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Adult crime is down. Domestic crime is down. The number of burglaries is at its lowest level in the past two decades. Even juvenile crime dipped slightly for the first time in a decade.

Granted, throughout most of the year, criminologists continued their warnings regarding a coming surge in juvenile crime. As the year ended, however, several experts changed their tune and now say that the future with respect to juvenile criminality is not as dire as they had previously predicted.

But despite the good news, there are still concerns that juvenile crime remains at particularly high levels, and police departments around the country  perhaps acting on the earlier gloomy forecast  focused their attention on young offenders. Many departments worked more closely with schools, and developed strategies for dealing with truancy. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, developed a program that fines parents $135 for a child’s first truancy offense, with subsequent violations carrying fines up to $675. The police also give parenting “how-to” classes. They report that within 180 days of launching the program, burglary dropped 6 percent, car theft, 12 percent, and shoplifting, 18 percent.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for its part, issued a report on youth violence that recommends, among other things, the development of closer relationships between law enforcement and schools. The issue of education was enough of a hot button to prompt a number of police officials and organizations to publicly voice their opposition to a bill in Congress that would deny public schooling to the children of illegal immigrants. And one survey found that most police chiefs believe that for the crime problem to experience a permanent downward shift, more resources have to be put into addressing the needs of children.

The focus on juveniles is not limited to the police. In the past two years, at least 44 states have changed their juvenile laws or are considering statutory changes  usually with an eye toward making proceedings and penalties tougher. Teen courts, designed for first-time minor offenses, have grown in popularity, with 280 of them now in operation in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Although the year ended with some criminologists retreating from their earlier dire predictions, educators are becoming more worried about the teen-agers of tomorrow. It was recently reported that there is a wider gap in the skills of children entering kindergarten this year than 20 years ago. One facet of this disadvantage, experts say, is that such children develop little ability to tolerate frustrations  a phenomenon with troubling implications for educators and the police alike.


The Home Front

Domestic violence, long considered a crime about which police could do little or nothing, has seen its share of increased police attention of late. Police departments, spurred in part by Federal resources made available under the Violence Against Women Act, are actively developing a variety of domestic violence programs: computerized offender histories, specialized units and officer training programs, relationships with social agencies, and streamlined protocols for dealing with prosecutors and the courts. The police have been giving out cellular phones and alarm pendants to victims. Specialized courts have sprung up in numerous areas with simplified processes for obtaining orders of protection. Hot lines have been set up to notify victims when attackers are released from jail.

One development on the domestic front that carries the potential for significant impact was the enactment in 1996 of Federal legislation that prohibits the possession of a gun by anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. With no exception built in for law enforcement or military personnel, the new law has forced police agencies to take a hard look at their internal policies and practices. In mid-December, for example, the NYPD changed its selection process to exclude those with a history of domestic violence. But what about officers already on the job who have domestic violence convictions? Colorado has begun exploring whether any State Patrol or state Bureau of Investigation officers must turn in their guns because of the law. The Denver Police Department reportedly has placed some officers on desk duty until the department figures out how to comply with the Federal law   a scenario likely to play out in many departments around the country. Local police unions and national police organizations have signaled their discomfort with the new law, and a number of them are considering challenging it. But it bears keeping in mind that with all the efforts police departments are making to deal with domestic violence, it would be politically, legally and ethically tricky for police to enforce a law from which they were exempted.


Putting Technology to Work

Clearly, many of the achievements of the year were made possible through technology  specifically, information technology. The mapping software now being used by a number of departments has given crime maps the look of fine art. In Baltimore County, Md., for example, police warned residents about a series of burglaries through a calling network connected to the department’s mapping system. Many departments have set up home pages on the World Wide Web to provide information to citizens. In Florida, at least 52 police and sheriffs departments have home pages that can be accessed through the Citizen Safety Center of the Attorney General’s office.

The FBI is in the throes of a massive overhaul of its crime files  entailing some 40 million records in 17 data bases. The vaunted NCIC 2000 project got off to a rocky start, with delays and cost overruns, but officials now say things are back on track. As planned, NCIC 2000 will have an increased capacity, allow for greater integration and cross-referencing (e.g., mug shots with fingerprints), integrate state systems that don’t talk to each other, and reduce from minutes to mere seconds the time it takes for information transactions. (At present, NCIC  handles over 1.7 million transactions per day, an average of 1,183 per minute, compared to roughly 158 transactions per minute 20 years ago.)

For its part, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that $33 million would go to 48 states and Washington, D.C., to improve criminal history records, with a view toward keeping felons from purchasing handguns, preventing sex offenders from working with children and the elderly, and identifying repeat offenders who may be subject to three-strikes laws.

Scientific and technological advances have not occurred without a price. Forensic labs cannot meet demands currently being placed on them. The level of refinement for evidence analysis has never been greater, yet such increased precision remains underutilized largely because crime labs are overwhelmed. A survey reported last August found that eight out of 10 lab directors believe their caseload has grown faster than their budgets, their staffs or both. Delays in evidence analysis, according to some observers, have created a major bottleneck in the system. For the FBI, the wait is nine months to a year. Some hope looms. Plans are in the works for a new $150-million lab at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. In addition, the National Institute of Justice announced that it would provide funds to develop ways of bringing down the price of DNA testing from several hundred dollars to $20.


Keep It Up

In 1996, the police community benefited in no small way from the resources of the Crime Act of 1994, enhanced technology and a renewed sense of determination to bring down the crime rate. While there is a growing belief that policing can have a significant impact on crime, there remain a number of specific reasons that were credited for crime reductions in various localities (see sidebar, above). The common denominator in many of the explanations, however, was the vigorous way police have targeted specific problems and focused creative energy and resources on them. The police are working harder and working smarter, and their efforts, at least for now, are paying off.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]