Towards better policing

Sam Smith – Increasingly, views on social and political issues in our land seem driven more by anger and blame than by an attempt to find cures and reforms. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current controversies over policing.

This is not to say that anger and blame don’t have an important role. They, may, for example, introduce many to problems for the first time – but they are more like an alarm than a resolution.

Nor should we suggest that proper blame can be ignored and not accounted for. But at some point, if the pain is going to diminished, we need to find alternatives to the culture that caused it in the first place.  We need, for example, police who are part of our communities and not merely enforcing its behavior as though they were Marines flown in to suppress some town in Afghanistan.

The Review will be running a number of articles dealing with the issue of how we can have better policing. I’ve been in this business long enough to have seen good solutions and bad ones and one advantage of this is that you learn that you don’t have to be stuck in the present.

For example, I wrote recently about a DC cop I had met back in 1967 who said of a public housing site: “There’s trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing.” That cop, Ike Fulwood, would eventually become the chief of police, retiring from that post to work with the young before they got into trouble. As the Washington Post reported, “Fulwood has been known to show up at area junior high and high schools with paroled inmates by his side. They’ll riff about life, crime, reform. He believes in forgiveness.” And, said the NY Times, “Politicians in some respects, he complains, have sold people a bill of goods: that tough law enforcement, tougher penalties, mandatory minimum sentences, the death penalty will make a difference in the war on crime and violence. They won’t. It’s beyond that.”

And Fulwood was far from alone. After all, this was a period when for a while the District Building – Washington’s city hall – even used its block-long first floor hallway to bed the homeless at the end of the day.

We are currently taught that positive change is the result of the right policies, regulations and budgets, but, in fact, it also depends greatly on the culture of the people making it. And too often these days, we attempt to create change while keeping our souls in our pockets.

Take one example. Between 1980 and 1982 the DC government reduced the numbers of its recreation workers by 42%. Cut by half was the city’s innovative roving leader program, consisting Rec Department workers trained to work with, and provide alternatives for, the city’s toughest young. Because they weren’t cops they could do things cops couldn’t do and it was working. Until the budget cuts. Meanwhile, some recreation facilities were been closed completely; those remaining open had many fewer staff and much shorter’ hours.

Now here’s what was happening nationally at the same time, according to Wikipedia:

During the first 9 years after Nixon coined the expression “War on Drugs”, statistics showed only a minor increase in the total number of imprisoned. After 1980, the situation began to change. In the 1980s, while the number of arrests for all crimes had risen by 28%, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126%.

In DC during 1980s and early 1990s, the murder rate tripled, largely thanks to the war on drugs. And everyone forgot about the roving leaders.

The police had been more involved in communities as well. Not only were they on the street where they met and got to know real citizens – instead of being sequestered in patrol cars, they even ran a major local boys club for nearly 70 years.

For many it was part of growing up. My sons, for example, were in the police Little League and many of the coaches and umpires were cops. I still remember watching my son catching behind the plate as a cop with a gun on his hip called the shots.

So, as we think of police reform, it is important to think of ways to make urban police a part of our cities’ communities and not just alien enforcers. And to do that will involve changing our culture as well as the rules.

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