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CALIFORNIA PROSPECT

More Cops Are Not the Answer : Decentralization of the LAPD might even take the mayor off the hook for hiring 3,000 cops.

October 17, 1995|Tom Plate | Tom Plate's Op-Ed column appears on Tuesdays

Memo to: America's big-city mayors

Subject: Crime, police departments, Dick Riordan's promise

You all know that your dear colleague Dick Riordan, affable Irishman though he is, has been climbing the walls lately. It's not just that racist cop Mark Fuhrman and the blown O.J. case, or even that the L.A. mayor hasn't been getting along with his police chief (not that unique in American cities, right?). What's also eating him is that there may actually be fewer cops on the streets of Los Angeles now than when he took office in 1993, which was on a promise to put 3,000 more cops out on the beat before his first term is over. So this is not good for a politician's blood pressure.

You all know Dick well enough--he's not only thinking about his reelection, he's sincerely worried about the city. So you've got to give him a call and soothe him down: You mayors have been through tough spots like this before. Mayors know that cops can't end crime, and that sometimes a bigger police department is more of a problem than a smaller one. You should explain to him why these truths are not self-evident:

* Police can't end crime-- Cops are to crime what buckets are to leaking boats: a necessary but insufficient tool. Courts let people off on technicalities, parole officers mess up and prosecutors blow cases, but everyone blames crime on the cops. Police can't control the unemployment rate, people's demand for dope or the culture's propensity for violence, exacerbated by irresponsible media imagery. So give the police a break.

* More police may not reduce crime-- In fact, sometimes more police increase reported crime. One scenario: You hire more cops and put them on the streets and, miracle of miracles, they don't snarl at the locals or beat up their young men in the backrooms, and the community starts to respect these cops. What happens? Citizens start reporting crime that they had never reported to cops before, and--voila!--the reported crime rate go up. Can't more cops reduce real crime? Maybe not: A seminal 1972 Kansas City patrol study revealed that only truly massive increases in patrol levels can do that; marginal increases, which is all that municipal budgets can afford these days, tend to have an inconsequential effect.

* Police shouldn't take the credit when crime "declines"-- Lately, a police chief back East has been taking bows as reported crime has gone down. Big mistake. "Police chiefs generally are too seasoned to take credit for a drop in the crime rate," chuckles former Newark Police Chief Hubert Williams, now head of the Police Foundation. Some chiefs go further than that. They have their department under-collect citizen crime reports, then take credit for reducing the crime rate. "How reliable are crime statistics," opines Williams, one of law enforcement's most thoughtful leaders, "when the people who collect it are going to be judged by those statistics? Not all law enforcement people have integrity." And you big-city mayors can explain to Dick Riordan how even insurance companies help "reduce crime": When premiums go up every time a homeowner reports a burglary, many homeowners get wise and stop reporting crime. So "crime goes down."

* More cops can create more problems-- Sure, if they make people feel safer, get people out of their fortress houses and onto the streets, that's great. But recruit too many new cops too rapidly, fail to screen them carefully or train them too quickly and watch out: You can wind up throwing a whole new bunch of rotten police apples onto the streets. Which is precisely what happened not long ago in New York City, where some young cops got their fingers caught in the drug trade cookie jar. Crime rose then; more cops were committing it.

* Use the cops you have more effectively-- A community can also be well-served and protected by making sure the existing force is more effectively utilized. Instead of adding thousands more officers, a city might be better off decentralizing a large, monolithic and traditionally aloof downtown police department. Maybe split it up into smaller forces--perhaps a handful of them to fit the city's long-recognized neighborhoods.

"A great idea--that'd be real community policing," says a prominent L.A. attorney who once served as a New York City prosecutor. "The huge bureaucracy of the NYPD used to frustrate us there. We had separate district attorneys for Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx and Queens, but only one large goliath PD. Sometimes breakup is a good idea. How about separate police departments under community control for the central city, Westside, Eastside, the Valley and whatever?" Says Hubert Williams, "What a wild idea, what an interesting idea. But it would need to be carefully weighed and analyzed."

Sure, but consider that California and the West boast many trend-setting mid-sized police departments, such as in Santa Monica and Berkeley. They're big enough not to be tinker-toy departments and yet small enough to make community policing work. They're models for the nation. So next time you run into Dick Riordan, toss the idea at him.

Sure, it's too controversial for the mayor to touch publicly. But you big-city mayors know how to handle these hot potatoes--you just throw together a blue-chip panel and have some smart men and women look at it. Just as reformers have been demanding the breakup of the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District in order to push school decision-making down to the local level. How about breaking up the LAPD?

At the very least, you can tell Dick this: The very idea might throw a scare into Parker Center and get the downtown police bureaucracy cracking with those long-overdue reforms. Now, would that be such a bad thing?

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