WASHINGTON — Police officers in U.S. cities should make special efforts to help convert lawbreakers into constructive citizens, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said Thursday.
"Bad people are few and far between," Reno told police executives from around the nation gathered here for a Police Foundation conference on civil disorder. While hard-core offenders must be "put away for as long as we can ever get them put away, there are other people that have gone over to the realm of the bad that we can pull back," she said.
"Most of those juvenile delinquents that are causing so many of the crime problems that we see basically want to be self-respecting people who can participate and contribute and be constructive in their communities," Reno said. "But they kept taking the wrong road, they kept being beat down. It's the police officers who are bringing them back."
On another topic, Reno told reporters later that she has been in daily contact with Surell Brady, an assistant deputy attorney general now in Los Angeles monitoring the situation as the Rodney G. King beating case nears its end.
Reno and other Justice Department officials would not elaborate on the specific steps that the department and its various arms, particularly the Community Relations Service and the FBI, are taking in Los Angeles. "We are staying in touch with local law enforcement officials," a department spokeswoman said, declining to say anything more.
At the police conference, Reno said that, if society is to find prison space to house serious lawbreakers for long terms, lesser violators now behind bars must be sent back to communities as "constructive citizens" to make room.
Sounding a theme often voiced by advocates of community policing, where officers build rapport with residents of the community they police, Reno contended that too many Americans feel disenfranchised.
"They sit behind doors and they glare out at officialdom in whatever its form--a building inspector, a Housing and Urban Development manager, a police officer--and they don't believe that person," Reno said.
"They won't come out. They won't bring their child to the clinic . . . five houses away because they are suspicious and unbelieving that government really cares."
Police are crucial in countering this isolation, because they "translate the dreams of American citizens when they succeed and frustrate the dreams when they fail," she said.
Drawing on her 15 years of experience as Dade County, Fla., state attorney, Reno proposed that teams be formed of "community-friendly, highly respected police officers, social workers, public health nurses, community organizers" to work full time within specific neighborhoods.
"To get to the people, to get that lady to bring her child to the clinic, to get her to come out and talk to the public health nurse . . . about infant nutrition, about immunization programs, we have got to break down that wall of suspicion and mistrust that exists," Reno said.
Accompanied by a police officer with ties to the community, the public health nurse would feel free to knock on the distrusting mother's door "and together they can address the problem of a family as a whole," Reno said.