Pulling the Plug on Violence With Problem-Solving Policing : Law enforcement got involved in the neighborhoods to allay public fear. The program has been growing ever since.


A decade ago, two murders rocked the relative tranquillity of rural Baltimore County.

One man was robbed and killed while riding a motorcycle near his home; another was shot to death during a robbery at his family's sporting goods store.

Even though the murderers were quickly captured and prosecuted, fear lingered throughout the county--fear that would not be quelled even by the police chief's announcement that more officers would be added to the force.

So profound was the reaction that police officials were forced to face the possibility that conventional crime-fighting tactics--arresting criminals and locking them in jail--were not enough to make residents feel secure.

It was that recognition that compelled them to become the first police force in the nation to institute a new approach to law enforcement. They established what came to be known as "problem-solving policing."

In the words of one of its advocates, University of Wisconsin lawyer Herman Goldstein, that approach to law enforcement means police examine all facets of a neighborhood problem and use a variety of social services to solve it.

Baltimore County considers its program--inaugurated on July 19, 1982--a success. Surveys conducted by the county police indicate that satisfaction with police service has risen 16% in the areas where the program operates.

Police departments across the nation--in San Diego, Newport News, Va; Houston, and Tampa, Fla.--have borrowed some of the methods.

To be sure, skepticism remains. Some police officers and county officials question whether police should or can mediate community disputes or get involved in social service projects.

Nevertheless, the police department here has continued to expand the program.

"The challenge is to break the bonds of 911 slavery, to find officers time to engage in problem-solving activities," said Maj. Donald L. Shinnamon, who commands the largest of three police units involved in the program.

This large, horseshoe-shaped county wraps around the city of Baltimore and stretches virtually from the northern border of the District of Columbia to the southern border of Pennsylvania. The jurisdiction of the county's 1,400 sworn officers includes affluent horse farms and poverty-level housing projects, 170 miles of waterfront along the Chesapeake Bay and acres of forests.

Murders Outraged Community

"In Baltimore County we get no more than 30 murders a year," Shinnamon said. "But those two murders (a decade ago) so outraged the community that the county gave the department 45 new officers to fight crime."

The public outcry forced Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan to consider a perplexing problem: Why did county residents still feel at risk, even though the killers had been apprehended?

"That's when we asked ourselves, 'Whose job is it to attack fear?' " Behan wrote, describing the development of Baltimore County's community policing program in a 1986 article published in Public Management, a trade publication. "The answer is that it wasn't being done, and we concluded that it was our job."

Behan invited Goldstein to study the Baltimore County Police Department and to suggest how the officers could put his ideas into use in their daily routine. The resulting plan called for a team of specially trained officers.

"Initially, we went door-to-door and talked to people about safety and things like that," Shinnamon said.

Within a year or so, however, the officers discovered they could apply creative solutions to community concerns. A breakthrough occurred when an officer was able to ease racial tensions at a school bus stop where black and white students had been fighting almost daily.

The officer persuaded a county agency to reroute the buses, in effect eliminating the point of friction. The officer then called meetings with school officials, students and neighborhood residents to impress upon all concerned that student violence would not be tolerated. Shortly thereafter, the bus stop was resumed and there were no further incidents.

Drug Market Closed

In another example of COPE (Citizen-Oriented Police Enforcement) problem-solving, officers closed an open-air drug market at Fontana Village Townhomes, a low-income community of two-story apartment buildings.

Drug dealers had taken over an adjacent park that was overgrown with weeds. In addition to arresting the dealers, the officers urged the community to clean up the park. Some, such as Officer John Winterstein, even helped to paint over graffiti. Others set up folding chairs alongside the dealers to dampen their business and drive them out of the park.

"We impressed upon this community that we, as police officers, are not going to be here today and gone tomorrow," Winterstein said. "When the residents saw and understood that, they responded by welcoming us."

This idea of problem-solving policing is less a full-scale revolution than a contemporary blending of out-of-fashion, independent police precincts that were common in most major cities at the turn of the century and the community services still offered by police in many small and rural towns.

"It's hard to get a handle on what's exactly going on in these police departments," said Jerry Wilson, senior vice president of the Crime Control Research Corp., a private, Washington-based police-oriented think tank and research firm. "We have seen in the past cycles of things called 'community relations,' 'community empowerment' and such. It's all a re-emphasizing of things that had fallen out of favor."

Wilson, who was police chief in Washington, D.C., from 1969 to 1974, said there is an almost predictable, generational cycle of 30 years between high and low levels of lawlessness and renewed police community involvement intended to stem it.

He said that in the late 1920s, police developed boys' clubs and police athletic leagues to counteract Prohibition-era criminals.

In the 1960s, he said, urban police departments opened store-front offices in minority neighborhoods after inner-city riots exposed widespread anger toward police officers in those communities.

Now, a generation later, police are grappling with drug-driven crime, most notably in the crack trade.

"The police are saying, in effect, we are now going to emphasize our connection with the community again," he said. " . . . There's nothing really new about it; this is what police used to do before they became so preoccupied with fighting crime."

That view is shared by David Kennedy, a research fellow in criminal justice at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and co-author of a recently published book on the developing police trend.

He said police departments in the past "maintained and enforced conditions that seemed suitable to the communities that were being policed," including collecting garbage, settling disputes without arrests, running soup kitchens and providing overnight accommodations to luckless wayfarers.

Few Willing to Change

Now, Kennedy said, relatively few of the more than 25,000 local police departments in the United States are willing to make the organizational and operational changes to incorporate problem-solving into their view of their jobs.

"Most police departments still see themselves as the first step in the criminal justice system," he said. "Their job was to catch and deliver criminals to the courts. In the past, the role of policing in American society was much broader, and law enforcement was just one of the things in their bag of tricks.

"I can't accurately quantify the number of departments that are moving in this direction," Kennedy added. "Five years ago, maybe a dozen were experimenting with it. Now, there are at least five times that many with some form of community policing policies. It's become the stylish thing that everybody will say 'Yes, we're doing it,' even when they're not."

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