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Cop World : by James McClure (Pantheon: $16.95; 352 pp.)

April 07, 1985|ROBERT W. GLASGOW | A former journalist, Glasgow, who lives in a San Diego suburb, has reported extensively on U.S. urban problems. and

The public image of urban police departments in the United States, which plummeted to a distressing nadir during the student and minority confrontations of the '60s and '70s, has been slowly improving in recent years. Across the land, police departments embattled with a multitude of citizens' groups initiated a variety of reform and "community relations" programs. Designed to combat antagonistic stereotyping by both officers and citizens and to modify authoritarian behavior among field officers, these programs have met with varying degrees of success. One of the most successful has been that of San Diego.

This book by a former South African police reporter gives a remarkable inside look at the hundreds of officers trying to make this program work. McClure, who is also a novelist, wrote a well-received book a few years ago about the Liverpool police department. In this second documentary effort, he was given complete access to the doings of the San Diego cops, from the chief down to patrol officer trainess.

During rides with on-duty patrol officers and through conversations with them, as well as with crime victims and perpetrators, McClure recorded 150 hours of tape. He has assembled this vast quantity of material into a tight, brisk account of how one American police department works.

Chief architect of the San Diego program--called Community Oriented Policing or COP--was Norm Stamper, a bright, special adviser to the chief in 1974. The man credited with giving the program effective momentum is William B. Kolender, a career officer who became chief in 1977 at the age of 40.

A few elements in this extensive program: Authoritarian appearance or behavior is forbidden in ordinary circumstances. Police rarely wear caps or helmets or mirror sunglasses. Clothing is tan-colored. Police cars are an unthreatening white. A few macho hard-liners probably remain in the department, but one can only suspect that their lot among their peers is not a happy one. Use of rank is very subdued. Everyone has been instructed in courses of interpersonal relations.

A particularly important program element has proved to be the ride-along in which juveniles, teachers, neighborhood leaders and plain citizens may ride along in the single-manned patrol cars on regular watches. Stamper's notion was that this experience would be beneficial to both police and citizens, giving each an opportunity to learn of the other's perceptions, to exchange insights and respective bitches and gripes.

McClure was clearly dazzled by the results of the program. He gives the reader a striking sense of the difficulty in trying to be a good cop. The reader is exposed to stimulating drama in some of the patrol car responses, but I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the reflections of the various officers.

These comments, often recorded at or just after a scene of action, ring convincingly true. The officers reflect on the dangers of the job, what their performance aims are, how effective they are, the impediments of various legal rules, the assignments they like or dislike. The result is the complex self-portrait of a remarkably intelligent group of men and women.

The conversations with older officers sharply illustrate attitudinal changes. Old-timers recall hysterical post-watch pre-dawn hell-raising with little nostalgia. Obviously not all officers are enthusiastic over the changes, but the large majority of those to whom McClure talked are impressively self-aware and astute about what their role and image are to be.

In the five years since McClure gathered his material and returned to London, there have been the inevitable disappointments. A vice officer on the take has been sent to jail. A number of patrolmen have been killed on duty. There have been public protests over officer use of the choke-hold. Officers have protested that the one-man patrol cars make them vulnerable. Public opinion polls show that a majority of San Diegans still suffer anxiety over crime. On balance, however, the department remains exemplary in comparison to most others; and when, as seems likely, Chief Kolender's popularity takes him into electoral politics, McClure's book will provide good campaign material.

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