KANSAS CITY, MO.
PATROLMAN John Bryant turns down his sputtering police radio and proudly shines his spotlight on a boarded-up drug house in a tough section of Kansas City, Mo.
Driving through an area that two years ago had a homicide rate 20 times the national average, Patrolman Bryant shares stories of shutting down drug dealers and seizing illegal guns. He credits a new approach to law enforcement: freeing officers from responding to regular radio calls so they can target high crime areas.
``When you're on patrol, you always have to be cognizant of taking calls,'' officer Bryant says. ``If you get called up on a rape or shooting, you're pretty much done for the night.''
From New York to Washington and from Indianapolis to St. Petersburg, Fla., police chiefs are now allowing teams of officers to focus on crime ``hot spots'' without the constant interruption of 911 calls.
Since the advent of 911 emergency service in the early 1980s, most police departments have focused resources on answering the continuous flow of calls for assistance. But the escalating number of gun- and drug-related crimes - coupled with limited police manpower - have forced communities to look for alternative ways to control their mean streets.
The Kansas City gun experiment began two years ago when the city was awarded one of the first federal Weed-and-Seed grants. The $55-million Justice Department program aims to ``weed'' out criminals in the worst crime areas of US cities, then sow the ``seeds'' of neighborhood social programs. The federal funds paid overtime for officers to patrol this area of high violent crime from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. without answering routine calls.
During a six-month experiment, gun seizures in the 80-block target area increased more than 65 percent. Gun crimes declined 49 percent. And drive-by shootings dropped from seven in the previous six months to one.
``It's a matter of focusing your resources,'' says Capt. John Hamilton of the Kansas City Police Department. ``I don't think there's any police agency in the United States that can look forward to a giant-size influx of manpower over the next few years, crime bill or not. So I think we've got to learn to work more effectively and be more proactive.''
Officers working the overtime patrols would watch for traffic violations and suspicious foot traffic. If given probable cause, they searched for firearms or drugs. Traffic stops were the most productive method of finding guns, with an average of one gun found for every 28 traffic stops.
During routine police activity, it requires about 500 hours of patrol time per gun seizure, says Lawrence Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland who helped run the Kansas City experiment. Special patrols can be 10 times more effective, he says.
``During regular patrol,'' Mr. Sherman says, ``you don't really have your head wrapped around the objective of finding guns.''
Surprisingly, until recently, there has been little focus nationwide on strictly enforcing existing gun laws. With so many guns out there, many policymakers and police departments have assumed that it would be a mere ``drop in the bucket'' to focus on getting guns off the street, Sherman says.
``What's new is the assumption that if a gun is being carried, it's a lot more troublesome than if it's at home under the bed,'' he says. ``If it's under the seat at midnight, it could do a lot more damage. And that's where we ought to try to get it out of circulation.''
THANKS to the success of the Kansas City program, Indianapolis is funding a city-wide gun-seizure experiment. In Kansas City, drive-by shootings and homicides returned to previous levels in the target area once the experiment ended. But Kansas City police say they continue to use concepts learned during the program.
``It allowed us to get a different mind-set,'' says Sgt. Peter Schilling. ``The only way to fight gun crimes and narcotics is to allow officers special time to do this kind of work.'' Sergeant Schilling now works with his officers to free them from radio calls when needed. ``It's a whole different policing concept,'' he says.
Even without federally subsidized overtime, Kansas City officers are still carving out time to do computer checks, knock on doors, and network with other city agencies without slighting calls for service, Captain Hamilton says.
``Law enforcement has gotten itself into a reactive mode,'' he says. ``It's much easier to just sit in your police car and when they call your radio number, you answer and work that call until you're ready for the next one.''
Most police officers agree that the proactive approach to police work is more difficult. But it's also a morale builder.
``You really have to use your mind; you can't just be a machine,'' adds Bryant. ``Before this program, I couldn't do anything on my own without being interrupted by calls on violent crimes. After the program was implemented, I was able to go out and do self-initiated activities without worrying about how long until the next shooting.''