The political strangulation of American community policing

I’ve been a cop for a long time and like everyone else I’ve been horrified by the pictures shown on television of urban unrest and outright hostility to law enforcement.

Jim Hill

I was a young cop when the Los Angeles riots happened in 1992 and thought, “well we made it through this it can’t get much worse.” Apparently, the 24-hour news cycle and politics have conspired to prove me wrong.

When I watched the recent rioting my immediate reaction was that (insert city name) definitely didn’t have a relationship between their police department and their community. However, when I dug down deeper I had to admit that this could happen almost anywhere because hardly any law enforcement agency does real community policing. Most agencies will say that they do community policing and many have programs or events that show flashes of community policing, but in the larger context community policing has just become a buzz word.

Who’s to blame for this?

Politicians on both ends of the spectrum are to blame. Over the years we’ve seen law enforcement called; an occupying force, jack-booted thugs, uncaring, feeders at the public trough, a drain of resources needed elsewhere, racist and brutal. We’ve watched as law enforcement budgets have been cut with hatchets and positions lost, while the departments are told to do “more with less.”

Let’s get something straight law enforcement is not a business.

It should never be run as a business and it should never be used to “turn a profit” off of the citizens. However, we hear this time and time again from politicians that want to lay claim to being a “fiscal conservative” or just want to redirect funds to their pet projects, that law enforcement as part of government should be run as a business. This has been a driving force in the strangulation of community policing.

This mentality has led to cutting positions because if a cop isn’t actively engaged in making a traffic stop, writing a ticket or arresting someone, the cop is obviously lazy and wasting taxpayer money. Therefore, politicians have made it a priority to push staffing models that totally discount time needed to walk a beat, talk to the residents or swing by a park and hang out with some kids. Nope, politicians are all about pontificating about bean counting and cutting “waste,” which just so happens to be community policing time. What do politicians demand in order to feel that their law enforcement agency is doing good work: Statistics.

How many tickets have you written and how many arrests have you made?
Many politicians don’t understand how their requirement for a business model with “identifiable measurements” (those are called quotas in plain English) have destroyed community policing. In fact police officers tried to get Arizona to pass a law outlawing quotas by law enforcement and it was vetoed by the governor because, how else will supervisors know how to evaluate police officers?

Community policing is hard work, cerebral work and work that may never produce those podium moments that politicians and bureaucrats demand. Community policing will never be a revenue generator. Community policing will cost time and money; however, true embedded community policing is the path to true crime reduction. Oh, it’s nice for the politicians and bureaucrats to dazzle the masses and self-congratulate themselves by pointing to statistics, number of arrests, number of citations, the big round-up or crime suppression details, but what change did they really effect?

Did they discover the root problems that led up to the need for law enforcement intervention? Did they apply problem solving, community involvement and community empowerment to address the root problems? Or, do they keep responding with the same political driven podium moments, which do nothing to address a problem but bolster their political agenda both left and right.

Is Community policing an end to tickets and arrests? Absolutely not; however, when a community knows their cops on a more personal level, they’ll be the first ones to step up and tell you that if my officer made that arrest, it needed to be made.

So, moving forward let’s start doing “more with more.”  More cops on the streets, more involvement by the community and with the community and more resources for the community and the police.

Editor’s note: Mr. Hill is a retired Scottsdale detective and vice president of Arizona Law Enforcement Outreach & Support.

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