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How Fads Run Local Police

The cornerstone of law enforcement in a democracy is that police power is ceded from the people to the police through their elected politicians. By extension, some assume that those elected will act in the best interests of the people when choosing programs and philosophies that will ultimately measure police productivity. This is not a valid assumption. Politicians will sacrifice the integrity of their police departments in an attempt to be elected.

If anyone wants to know what the role of the police is, just read the criminal statutes that exist for the geographical area that the department operates in. The laws the police are to enforce are listed along with procedural matters such as arrests. The police should be judged on their ability to accomplish these tasks while protecting the rights and civil liberties of those they come in contact with.

As policing grew in the United States, politicians realized that they were very inefficient in doing their jobs. The police had a lot of down time between assignments. Tasks that were more appropriately done by social workers were assigned to the police. In the sixties, LEAA was established which was the first major funding of programs for local police by the federal government. This allowed local politicians to create or accept programs that appealed to their constituents. Many politicians in the inner cities began to redefine the police role as crime prevention and community activist. Making more arrests and imprisoning more of their voter base was not good politics. They let the public assume that the police had already fulfilled their legal mandate and could add on these other duties.

A number of programs were pushed including neighborhood policing, differential response, and in the nineties, Community Oriented Policing (COP). During the time of LEAA, politicians were constrained to specific programs. With COP, they are able to create their own programs, perfectly tailored to their voter base, because it is a philosophy. COP is whatever the beholder believes it to be. The beauty of this is that the measurement of success may also be created and may have nothing to do with enforcing the criminal law. The politicians had also learned that little would happen to those who received funds if they were misspent.

Politicians were able to focus on making the community feel good about their police and at the same time, drop physical, mental, and ethical standards for new hires. Jobs could be given to the same class of people that was being arrested twenty years ago. The public is still mesmerized by the police, primarily because of the police shows on television that show highly intelligent, trained, and dedicated officers solving crime within an hour. The Law & Order franchise could have its own channel. On the other hand, civil liability concerns have increased by hiring and promoting the incompetent.

Now COP is on the way out. After 911, money was directed towards Homeland Security at the federal level. All of those programs that allowed the locals to hire more officers, buy equipment, etc. are fading away and the locals are howling.

There are some parts of COP that are worth keeping. Not surprisingly, those programs that actually affect the police role, such as Problem Oriented Policing (POP) make sense. POP identifies situations that continue to be repetitive and mandates that purposeful police attention is given to the problem until it is dramatically reduced. This is the proper use of police time because it disrupts potential criminal activity.

Politicians have done for the police, what they have done for public education. Those that can afford send their children to private schools. In a number of cases, these are the same politicians that vote against vouchers. Some public school systems are so broken that they can't be fixed. Politicians must appeal to their base and free education, like free policing, is a given. The growth of private policing has been at a higher rate than public policing the past ten years. At some point, some taxpayers may opt to pay for a private police force.

In many public school systems, the unions have fought against teacher accountability, standards, etc. This mirrors the same strategy that is occurring in police departments. Educating students is an honorable profession, but it may be impossible to do in a public school. Enforcing the law fairly and efficiently is an honorable profession in a democracy, but may be impossible in a public police agency.

Instead of raising police officer standards, politicians have substituted feel good programs. Instead of focusing productivity on arrests and making cases, which is the role of police in the criminal justice system, politicians have substituted programs and philosophies that run long enough to get themselves re-elected. These same politicians react with surprise when their agencies are found to be corrupt. The river flows from the source of the water.