When policing doesn't pay

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      These days, much emphasis is placed on cutting budgets. While cuts are painful, Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing Inc. (POP Center), agrees police budgets rise and fall, mirroring the general economy — but says there's more to the story.

   Scott describes there also is a constant push and pull as new demands are made of the police. He gives examples: Going back to the mid-19th century, police commonly provided various social services. Viewed as local government agents able to do whatever needed, the police ran homeless shelters, operated ambulances and cleaned streets. In the 1930s, the police began pushing back, saying they couldn't be effective if they tried to be all things to all people. They argued they needed to focus on the core mission — law enforcement and crime fighting. They tried systematically to get themselves out of all other functions until the 1970s, when they expanded their function to help the community. They began running youth recreation programs, helping with neighborhood cleanups teaching in schools, and more.

   "To some extent, 'What do we want the police to do?' is a never-settled question," says Scott, a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. "You might conclude that police ought to be doing more with respect to one problem. With respect to another problem, you might say the police ought to be doing less and somebody else ought to be doing more."

   Today's economy should compel agencies to rethink the public's expectations of police service. Sometimes police managers don't understand that if they spend resources doing A, B and C, they might not be able to do D, E and F. If the latter would actually be more productive, create a better crime prevention value and a safer community, Scott says. "You have to ask: 'How do we get out of doing A, B and C?' " Could someone other than the police take on the responsibility (or at least part) and be more effective at it?

Economic analysis

   One issue almost always raised is who should bear the cost of a problem. Should the cost be borne primarily by police responding to crimes or should the cost be borne by businesses and private entities taking crime prevention measures?

   When the two sides cannot agree, Scott says an economic analysis of the matter is often helpful. This analysis can reveal the efficiencies and inefficiencies of different approaches to addressing a problem. It's not that economic analysis must always prevail, he notes. Problem-oriented policing encourages various kinds of problem analysis. He says, parties should ask: "Who can achieve the desired result more economically?"

   Economic analysis could and maybe should be routine, but Scott says it seldom is, suggesting one reason for that is there are deeply held assumptions about the role of the police. Because the police are public, he says: "It's very easy and natural for people in businesses to say, 'We pay tax dollars for the police to do their job. That entitles us to have the police do certain things like respond to crimes when they happen.' "

   Since the cost of the police is spread out among taxpayers, there's a sense that the financial burden is being evenly shared by the community. It strikes some people as unfair when police suggest one sector of society (like banks or convenience stores, for example) should bear some of the costs, when they are the crime victims. At some level, there's an intuitive argument that says police are supposed to help victims, not make them pay.

   Yet an analysis of crime problems shows crime typically does not spread evenly throughout a community; rather it is heavily concentrated in a few places. Why then should the whole community have to pay for arguably the neglect or bad practices of a relatively small number of businesses or citizens?

   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."

   In the first 10 months of 2008, Salem Police responded to 903 calls concerning locked vehicles, and City of Salem Communications Director Mike Stevens says they were almost always non-emergency situations.

An answer to dealing with property problems

   In January, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department stopped accepting found items. Chief Daniel Isom makes it clear, he's not talking about lost weapons or computers, which if they have serial numbers and have been reported stolen can be reunited with their owners, nor is he talking about items (like a discarded purse) that look like they could be evidence. Isom says most of the found items had no value to police (or evidently their owners, who didn't reclaim them). They included broken electronic equipment, mangled car parts and children's bicycles, and in 2007, totaled 27,000 items. When citizens called, often a police officer would stop by, pick them up and store them along with evidence in the property custody area. Over time, items have piled up and filled old jail cells and just about every space imaginable, he describes.

   Steps the department is taking to fix the problems in property custody include initiating the legal process to send unclaimed found property to auction. (The law does not mandate the Metropolitan Police Department to accept found property. Missouri law says citizens who find property worth more than $10 must file an affidavit with a circuit clerk, promising the property is still in the same condition. If the property is valued at $20 or more, the finder must advertise it in a daily newspaper for three weeks. Eventually, if no one claims the property, the finder can keep it.)

   Isom concludes the department was happy to reunite children with their bikes but they're even happier when stored evidence helps lead to successful prosecution of a criminal.