STANFORD — It would be a profound mistake to believe that the acquittal of O.J. Simpson of double murder was simply the jury's response to the LAPD's sloppy investigation, faulty handling and analysis of the evidence, or to the racism of Mark Fuhrman. It certainly was that. But it was also much more--a vote of no confidence in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Once, when I was on foot patrol in Harlem, an African American woman with a head wound approached me. "Officer," she apologized, "I know you're very busy, but I've just been robbed." I wasn't at all busy, but I wondered what we white cops were doing that caused a victim to apologize for reporting an armed robbery.
The LAPD should view the Simpson verdict as a similar call for self-scrutiny. If the Police Department were a private business, it would long ago have gone bankrupt because significant numbers of its customers have no faith in its product. Unfortunately, the LAPD, like the Postal Service, does not have to worry about customers taking their business elsewhere. Yet, effective policing requires that the department understand why it is distrusted, why it is losing credibility and try to stop it.
When I was hired to run the San Jose Police Department, it was known as a little LAPD--a reference to a military style of policing that alienates minorities. There was no communication between rank-and-file police and the neighborhoods they patrolled.
Then, for a number of years, beat officers were directed to leave their patrol cars and attend school and neighborhood meetings and to hear what the people thought of them. At times, it was painful. But in the end, mutual respect developed; the public began to participate more in police issues.
Officers learned what services were needed. At the same time, procedures were improved for receiving and investigating citizen complaints. A number of cops who refused to get the message ended up in other occupations. Most important, officers began to realize that unless people reported crimes, provided evidence, served as witnesses and--when on juries--believed police testimony, criminals would not be convicted.
Training was provided for the police to learn about the diverse cultures that made up San Jose. This helped eliminate some of the negative stereotypes that can all too easily flourish in departments. Interestingly enough, the police made more arrests than ever, and crime decreased to the point that San Jose became one of the safest large cities in America, a city of minorities.
There are no panaceas to prevent crime, but the military model of policing, which is supposed to scare criminals into obeying the law, is a failure. What the LAPD must realize is that it is, above all, a service agency obligated to provide communities with the kind of lawful policing they desire and deserve. Community condemnation of crime is a stronger deterrent than police-state methods, which create sympathy for criminals.
In addition to establishing real communication with neighborhoods and a sense of partnership, the police should abandon drug-war tactics and strongly support campaigns to treat and educate drug users. Criminologist Alfred A. Blumstein has described the drug war as an assault on the African American community that would not be tolerated by whites. A study released by the Sentencing Project bears this out. African Americans and Latinos, the study concludes, constitute nearly 90% of offenders sentenced to state prison for drug possession. Ending the drug war would eliminate many of the racial inequities in the criminal-justice system and would be a step toward rehabilitating the image of officers in minority communities.
The police did not create America's race problems and will not solve them. Nonetheless, denying that the police and law enforcement need to be improved only aggravates an open sore. Disclosure of police abuses during the civil-rights movement forced a healthy self-scrutiny in law enforcement and led to increased community efforts to improve policing. The result was a steady improvement in police relations with minorities.
It is time to acknowledge that much of that progress has eroded. The minority community, which has the highest crime rates, must come to realize that it suffers the most when law enforcement fails to punish violent criminals. It is not enough to merely criticize the police and celebrate police failures. Minorities must work with the police to reduce racial polarization by establishing trust in justice and better safety in neighborhoods.*