Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Big City Police Fall Back on Storied Concept

'Community policing' resurrects foot patrolling in attempt to reduce inner-city violence. BACK ON THE BEAT

TAKE a stroll down Dorchester Avenue near Savin Hill around lunch time and you may well run into Boston Police Sgt. Timothy Smith. That is when Sergeant Smith is about his daily "walk and talk" in Boston's new community policing program. "Hello, ma'am. How're you doin he says genially as he approaches a woman at the counter in a local bakery. "My name is officer Smith and I'm doing a walk beat for 45 minutes. If you need anything, just flag me down."

Smith may not yet be a familiar face to residents and business owners here in Boston's Dorchester community, but the hope is that he and his colleagues will soon become more of a part of the city's community life. That's the philosophy behind community policing, a new program aimed at cultivating closer contacts between police and city residents. The idea is to get officers out of their cars and into the community - whether it means walking a city beat, chatting with residents, or checking regularly wit h

About these ads

business owners.

It's the latest trend in urban policing, and has already caught on in several cities across the United States, including New York, Kansas City, Houston, New Haven, and Newark. Criminal-justice experts say many cities, overwhelmed by a dizzying number of daily 911 emergency calls, find themselves out of touch with the day-to-day goings-on in their communities.

"The whole idea of community policing is that you work with the neighborhoods," says George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "It's a much more directed activity."

The idea of community policing was formulated during the early 1980s. Traditional city police departments work as centralized bureaucracies and rely on the use of automobiles - either for responding to crimes in progress or for patrolling streets, Mr. Kelling says.

In addition, some city police departments say the 911 emergency-response system, beset by low-priority calls, is no longer effective. Of the 2,800 911 calls Boston receives daily, hundreds are considered low priority, with many bordering on the ridiculous, Deputy Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty says.

A problem-solver

Community policing is meant to run as a more decentralized operation, with officers doing more than just responding to calls. It is "much like the old-fashioned beat cop, but the difference is the officer is a problem-solver," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a Washington-based, nonprofit research organization. The officer, in turn, has the support of his entire department to help resolve community problems, Mr. Williams says.

About these ads

Although there have been no comprehensive studies on the effectiveness of community policing, Williams says, research has shown it reduces neighborhood fear and improves public attitudes toward police.

In Boston, the idea comes at a time when the police department is being criticized as poorly managed, politically influenced, and lacking accountability. Some say Boston's community policing plan is one of many crime-fighting initiatives announced periodically by Mayor Raymond Flynn.

Mayor Flynn recently appointed a special commission to investigate the police department after a local newspaper criticized it in a four-part investigative series. The series reported that the department conducted poor investigative work and was not effective in solving major crimes compared with other cities.

Minorities have been particularly critical of the Boston police. City Councillor Charles Yancey, for example, says there are not enough patrol officers in the southern part of Boston, which includes Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan (known as Area B) where over 65 percent of all city homicides took place in 1990.

The new community policing program calls for more officers in high-crime neighborhoods. But Mr. Yancey remains skeptical. "There's no commitment to make the tough political decisions which would result in a major reorganization and reallocation of police," he says. "There's no commitment at all."

Criminal-justice experts say city community policing varies widely. New York's program, coordinated by Commissioner Lee Brown, calls for a major organizational restructuring and training. Thousands of new officers will be hired, and the entire program may take two to four years to implement.

Slow phase-in planned

Boston's program started earlier this year and is likely to be phased in entirely over the next several months. The plan has four basic components:

Walk and talk. Officers are expected to spend at least 45 minutes a day walking neighborhood streets. Patrolmen are expected to talk with residents and gather information about criminal activity.

Priority locations. Police will concentrate resources on areas with the highest level of criminal activity, including Area B. Officers in these areas will also be expected to spend longer time on the "walk and talk 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

Neighborhood contact points. The police department's community-service officers, who normally work with community groups, will be placed in new neighborhood locations like libraries. The idea is to get residents to check in with police there instead of calling 911.

Drop-in locations. Patrol officers will be expected to "drop in" and check up on a certain number of organizations and business groups in their assigned neighborhoods.

Back on Dorchester Avenue, Officer Smith is finishing up a 45-minute walk. He says community policing is a good idea but admits that not all his colleagues agree. "There may be some hesitation as to how successful it will be," he says. "Some feel they are being asked to do too much."

Nevertheless, Dorchester residents are enthusiastic. "Most crime you get around here is kids in their teens and 20s," says Bonnie Glenn, a local real estate agency owner. A community police officer is just the thing that will help deter kids from getting into trouble, she says. "We just like having a beat cop, a face we know that's around a lot."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.