When policing doesn't pay

Some problems could be better addressed by private entities (at least in part)


   The alarm industry has said the police are trying to abdicate their responsibilities in making the public safe by not responding to alarms. Yet in most communities, a small percentage of citizens own alarms, which are subsidized by a large number of citizens. Most alarm calls are false — typically 95 percent or higher. In "False Burglar Alarms," the writer suggests that it makes sense to find more effective and efficient solutions to what in many communities has become the top call for police service. Among the solutions is requiring alarm companies to verify alarm legitimacy before calling the police. This solution is in place in more than 20 U.S. communities, resulting in a 90-percent reduction in alarm calls.

POP Center Guides

   POP Guides provide considerations for an effective response strategy to a specific problem. Many recommend responses for others to do or promote strategic partnerships to address a problem.

   Some entail a shifting of costs and responsibilities. For example, in "Abandoned Vehicles," Mike Maxfield says the problem of abandoned vehicles, which are unsightly and contribute to signs of disorder and decay, is not primarily a police problem. Most strategies for dealing with abandoned vehicles require coordination with agencies and other organizations beyond police, Maxfield says.

   Each POP Guide lists "stakeholders" who can play a part in crime prevention. The question "Who owns the problem?" is addressed in a POP manual for experienced crime analysts written by Ronald Clarke and John Eck titled, "Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps." The manual says: "When a problem is located in a specific place, it is usually easy to identify who is responsible. The owner of the problem is the owner of the location. If there is a special group of individuals — the elderly, children with special needs or victims of domestic violence — and these individuals are targets of crime or disorder, the potential owners of the problem are family members or agencies charged with seeing to the well-being of these special groups, these service agencies are possible co-owners of the problems."

   Police cannot always just tell a citizen, group or company, "here, this is your problem: Deal with it," and walk away. How then can police persuade others to assume crime prevention responsibility it reasonably ought to bear?

   "Methods for Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems," a response guide written by Scott and the father of problem-oriented policing, Herman Goldstein, invites the police to think more about how to get others to do things that are in the best interests of controlling crime. The methods for convincing others to accept responsibility for community problems range from education to civil action, depending on if there is conflict and its extent.

   It's important to note the same problem could require civil action in one community but be solved easily with one or two discussions in another. Each community varies in size, has a different tax base and different size police force and different competing problems that demand police attention. Individual agencies must ask themselves, "When does it not make sense to spend money taking actions to control a problem?"

   "Money talks," Scott reminds police officials. "Learn to speak the language of money, which many important people in your community understand and speak." And by "money," he means cost-effectiveness as well as budgets.

   "If you, the police, can get better at doing cost-benefit analysis, you're likely to be much more persuasive when you make arguments that somebody else ought to be doing something," he says.

   That investment will prove valuable when you can reallocate tax dollars to address a problem only police officers can respond to effectively and efficiently.

   Rebecca Kanable, a freelance writer, has written about police topics for more than a decade. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

Unlocking vehicles

   For years, the Salem Police Department in Virginia was one of the only localities to open vehicle doors when citizens inadvertently locked themselves out.

   "We will not quit answering a call of need from our citizens," says Salem Police Chief James Bryant. But since February, officers respond by providing a list of locksmiths and the information they need to get into their vehicle safely rather than by using tools that could damage a vehicle.

   "The advanced engineering techniques have gotten so technical that it's really impossible for us to [unlock vehicles] safely and effectively," Bryant says. "If officers come across an emergency like a child locked inside a car, then they will take appropriate action. We just can no longer arbitrarily open car doors."

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