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Why Neighborhood Crime Surveys Are Indispensable

<i> David D. Dotson, former assistant chief of police of the Los Angeles Police Department, is working on a book on the history of the department</i>

The current uproar over the Los Angeles Police Department’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood violent-crime surveys recalls an earlier controversy over how statistics should be used to determine where police are deployed in the city.

In the mid-1980s, then-Deputy Chief Jesse A. Brewer ordered a study of police-deployment criteria in his South Bureau. After reading the internal report, Brewer concluded that his command was entitled to a larger share of available resources. Somehow, the study results became public before then-Chief of Police Daryl F. Gates had had an opportunity to review and act on them.

Immediately, residents in South-Central, the major part of the South Bureau, began demanding their “fair share” of police protection. This meant that officers patrolling other areas of the city would have to be reassigned to the South Bureau. The reaction of these other areas, especially the San Fernando Valley, was swift and vociferous. No way! Some went so far as to cast the issue in racial terms: mostly minority South-Central vs. mostly white San Fernando Valley.

Gates was blind-sided, and he understandably reacted in anger. Unfortunately, he did not resolve the deployment questions raised by Brewer’s study.

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Like Gates, Police Chief Willie L. Williams and his staff had not been able to review the neighborhood-survey data before portions were leaked to the public. Although the surveys, yet to be officially released, are apparently not intended for use as a rationale to shift police resources from one area of the city to another, conclusions to that effect are being drawn. Many people, including some politicians who should know better, have seized upon the incomplete data to call for a reassessment of how police resources are distributed in Los Angeles.

But as the department moves toward community policing, these neighborhood-crime analyses, and the numbers they produce, become extremely important. They provide the detailed knowledge necessary for the police and the community to interact effectively in reducing crime and the fear of crime. The LAPD, however, must remain mindful of the wealth of community-policing opportunities that the mere act of performing the analyses provide. The sooner citizens who are directly affected by crime are involved in the planning, the better the chances that a successful policing strategy will be developed.

There is the opportunity to enlarge community involvement to include people who never believed themselves capable of influencing how government serves them. Among this group may be new residents with diverse national and cultural backgrounds; young people; tenants in public housing; the homeless; welfare recipients, and just plain working folks.

There is also the opportunity to broaden the cross section of the traditional stake holders in the community to add representatives of agencies, public and private, social scientists, politicians and ordinary citizens. With community policing, the advisory councils and support groups now selected by police administrators, which tend to be dominated by business and homeowners’ groups, are no longer viable instruments for developing police problem-solving strategies.

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This more inclusive approach would produce fresh perspectives on such stubborn street-crime problems as drug sales and use, and violent gang activities. A better understanding of these problems may lead to development of new and more effective policing operations, if not strategies for improving the social conditions that breed criminal behavior. Clearly, current and past efforts--gang sweeps, targeting drug suppliers--have not abated the crime problem nor alleviated fear of crime.

So far, discussions of community-based policing have focused on decentralization of command responsibility, structure and various enforcement mechanisms. But community policing is not simply a choice between, for example, storefront police offices or foot beats. It is principally an attitude that starts at the top and settles down through the ranks of the entire organization. The importance of attitude cannot be overstated. All the latest crime-fighting weapons, faster patrol cars and a 10% annual raise will not produce effective community policing if the officer on the street perceives the chief and his commanders to be soft on the idea.

Community policing is not a new concept. Sir Robert Peel, English prime minister during the first half of the 19th Century, captured the idea in “Police Principles of the London Metropolitan Police.” He wrote "(T)he police are the public and . . . the public are the police.”

One hundred and fifty years later, LAPD Chief Ed Davis included Peel’s concepts in his “Twenty Management Principles of the Los Angeles Police Department.” The centerpiece of Davis’ approach was the assignment, on a round-the-clock basis, of nine officers to specific areas. In addition to their regular duties, they were charged with helping residents develop community responses to crime. Neighborhood Watch groups were one result. Regrettably, this approach to policing was gutted by subsequent police administrations.

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If the police are truly serious about joining with the community, what better time than now while conducting these crime studies? Statistics are important but in community policing, it is far more important that everyone understand how they were derived and what they mean.*


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