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Santa Ana Police Get Up Close and Personal : New Approach to Law Enforcement Scraps 'Aloofness' for Community Involvement

September 07, 1986|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

It was Wednesday. Santa Ana Police Sgt. Bill Scheer and Officer Ron Moreno were working the day watch on foot patrol, strolling along a tree-lined residential street near the city's downtown.

There wasn't much going on, but, said Scheer, in foot patrol there often isn't very much of what the traditional street cop would call action. Actually, that's the point.

The style of policing in Santa Ana--where officers routinely rub elbows with citizens and work intensively at crime prevention and community relations--could not be further from the detached aloofness that brought fame to the Los Angeles Police Department in TV's "Dragnet" and has, in some ways, defined the LAPD's public image since.

But though Scheer and Moreno are competent at such traditional street-cop diversions as jamming junkies and busting bad guys, they are an integral part of a new approach to policing that has brought the Santa Ana Police Department a reputation as the nation's most progressive and innovative local law enforcement agency.

'Thin Blue Line'

Alternately called "community-oriented" or "problem-oriented" policing, this philosophy essentially dismisses the traditional police concept that there is a "thin blue line"--the police department--operating as a third-party force trying to separate good and evil.

Scrapped in this approach are traditional beliefs that a police officer's only friend is another officer and that a police life, when threatened, has some special, extra value above and beyond any other threatened life.

In community-oriented law enforcement--directed in Santa Ana by Police Chief Ray Davis--the tenets of policing are changed.

The police department becomes an agency whose mission is determined by what the community wants from its police. Police priorities mirror community priorities. The thin blue line is erased.

There aren't many truly new ideas in policing--foot patrol, for instance, existed long before the automobile--but community-oriented law enforcement moves ahead by turning back to some concepts abandoned when officers stopped pounding the beat and started driving it. Foot, horse and bike patrols are part of this, but so are storefront community centers and the growing use of paraprofessional civilian police service officers to take over such duties as traffic-accident investigation and some criminal investigation, freeing the more expensive, fully sworn police officers to concentrate on crime priorities set by the community.

Book Spotlights Leaders

Departments that have adopted this new attitude become a part of what UC Berkeley criminologist and police expert Jerome Skolnick has dubbed "The New Blue Line," the title of his new book. Published a few weeks ago by the Free Press division of Macmillan Inc., the book spotlights six leaders in this new trend of law enforcement. Skolnick's brightest example: Santa Ana.

Skolnick's is only the latest of a handful of books and articles in professional publications in the last five years that have begun to identify what is happening.

Actually, say Skolnick and other experts in this new type of law enforcement, Santa Ana heads a consensus list of exceptional police departments that includes Oakland, San Jose, Houston, Denver, Detroit, Flint, Mich., Newport News, Va., Baltimore County, Md., Madison, Wis. and Newark, N.J.

This list does not include the LAPD, which, experts in this emerging police philosophy agree, pioneered some of the concepts on which community-oriented policing relies, but lost its momentum as a national example of police innovation perhaps as long as a decade ago. The management of LAPD takes sharp issue with such criticism.

West Called Progressive

Police departments perceived as exceptionally progressive by this cross section of authors also transcends a traditional split in style that divides policing in the West from the way the profession is practiced in other parts of the country. Western departments--particularly California agencies--have been generally free of the graft and corruption that pervades many Midwestern and Eastern departments.

Price to Pay

But the hygiene is achieved at a price, said George Hart, Oakland's police chief. Western departments, said Skolnick and Hart, have a reputation for being coldly detached from their duties, cultivating the image of seasoned professionals who require little in the way of assistance from the citizens they protect.

Hart still talks about a visit paid to Oakland around 1974 by a team of New York police officers who spent six months looking at the way Oakland and other Western departments operated. Hart said the New Yorkers left impressed with the skilled, procedure-oriented agencies they had seen. "But they said that having seen it, they weren't at all sure they wanted it for themselves," Hart said.

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