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In Policing, Small Crime Is a Big Deal

October 30, 2002|Charles A. Sale | Charles A. Sale retired in 1993 after 30 years in the LAPD. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Police in general consider themselves members of the warrior class. For the most part, they detest enforcing "petty" statutes. Such enforcement is considered beneath a warrior's dignity.

Contributing to this is the strange symbiosis between criminals and police. They are like tooth decay and dentists: Each defines the other. Hardened criminals often have a grudging respect, even a twisted affection, for law enforcement "gunfighters." Police and criminals form a partnership, which preserves the "dignity" of violent confrontation and the military virtues such confrontation requires.

This is the first problem that Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton will face in applying the "broken windows" principle of policing, which holds that enforcing so-called quality-of-life crimes such as graffiti removes the stage for larger crimes and, in the process, makes cities more pleasant for law-abiding residents.

The second problem is public resistance. The "don't you have something better to do" mentality is a serious hindrance, as is the perception (and sometimes the reality) of police oppression.

History and police anecdotes often do not coincide. For example, while courage and daring were indeed essential to driving organized crime from Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, selective traffic enforcement around establishments owned or frequented by organized crime figures was an arguably more powerful tool. Our intelligence people identified the bad guys; then our traffic enforcement people drove them out -- literally -- with vigorous and sometimes "creative" use of the vehicle code.

Likewise in the case of motorcycle gangs: Police gunfighters are almost useless against them. But a cop with a pleasant though persistent disposition and knowledge of every nuance of the vehicle code will send motorcycle ruffians packing.

These boring truths about effective law enforcement tend to be obscured in the screenplays and news extravaganzas about spectacular law enforcement events -- some real, most imagined -- that form the "police story" of a great city.

These truths are also distorted -- usually through minimization -- in the mythology of street cops. And they are distorted -- usually through embellishment -- at conventions of senior police executives who pontificate on community policing and other innovations but who mostly consider simply how to survive in the toughest executive role in government.

The history of crime and police is, for the most part, a history of minutiae. From embellishments of these minutiae flow an overwhelming volume of police drama -- most of it for entertainment, much of it for news and politics, some of it for sustaining the ideals of the police service.

In this embellishment, the medium, particularly television, has overwhelmed the message. The effect has been to cause us to believe that what we see in film and on television is real. It is not. Not even cop "reality" shows or up-to-the-minute television journalism is real, because the camera, the medium, overwhelms all that it seeks to record. The facts are smaller, more numerous. The truth is in the minutiae, and few have the patience necessary to comprehend it.

The law enforcement equivalent of water torture -- persistent attention to detail -- delivers better results than isolated blazes of gunfire.

In the race of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise may not be exciting to watch, but he always wins. Fleas spread great plagues. Attacking criminal fleas with law enforcement ice picks is slow work. Other methods are required.

Community policing, the current favorite trend, must be grounded in vigorous quality-of-life enforcement to be effective. Without such enforcement, community policing is just a politically correct reference to whatever the police happen to be doing at the time. As now practiced in most jurisdictions throughout the United States, it is just a well-loved emperor who wears absolutely no clothes.

Finally, no law enforcement program, however subtle or intelligent, can succeed without courageous and daring police officers--people trained, practiced, equipped and willing to use deadly force. Courage and daring matter. Gunfighters are essential. They are the "big stick" that must be used unflinchingly when speaking softly fails.

In fact, they are what make speaking softly work.

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