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The Puzzle Waiting for the New Chief

When Bernard C. Parks takes on the nearly mythical job of chief of the LAPD, he will face an intriguing puzzle. Solving this puzzle may determine the success or failure of his administration.

The puzzle goes like this: All across the land, crime rates are dropping. Indeed, the past few years have proved to be the best of times--unless you were Willie Williams--to have served as the police chief for a major American city.

But the decline has not been uniform. In some cities, such as New York, the drop has been precipitous, almost miraculous. In other cities, less so.

Los Angeles falls into the second-tier category. Over the past four years the murder rate here has dropped 34%. You might say that’s great, and it is. Except in New York murders have dropped 49%.

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You can see the same result in other categories: L.A. burglaries are down 28%, New York’s 38%. L.A. robberies are down 34%, New York’s 42%. L.A. assaults are down 16%, New York’s 27%.

Hence the puzzle: What has produced the difference in results, and how can Parks push L.A. into the first tier of crime-fighting cities?

This issue looms so large because the first-tier cities--Boston, Baltimore and Seattle also share in the success--have undergone a kind of rebirth in the ‘90s as their streets have grown safer. Just ask any friend who has recently returned from New York and witnessed its newly enlivened police force. They will speak as if they have just visited Lourdes.

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For urban mayors, this euphoria promises to pay off at the ballot box. “In New York it means Rudy Giuliani will be reelected mayor with numbers usually reserved for the pope,” says Wally Knox, a Los Angeles assemblyman who has studied the crime rate phenomenon.

Does anyone doubt that Richard Riordan would like to bask in the same glow?

Does the bear. . . . Oh, never mind.

In any case, the pressure will be on Parks to solve the puzzle. And the first place to look for a clue is in the different ways cities have carried out that Holy Grail of the ‘90s known as “community policing.”

For some cities, like L.A., it has meant little more than a wavering commitment to seem open to neighborhood needs. We’ve put a few cops on bicycles and dressed some in shorts. Among squad car officers it was given the delightful and apt title of “drive and wave.”

In other cities community policing has grown into a much more muscular strategy. They have followed the philosophy described in the now-famous magazine article “Broken Windows,” which suggested police needed to pay more attention to small crimes such as street drunkenness and aggressive panhandling if they want to roll back the numbers on major crimes like murder and assault. The authors, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, argued that a permissive attitude toward small crimes is exactly what encourages the lawless to commit big crimes.

“If you want to turn things around, you must show the bad guys that the good guys are in control,” says Wilson, now a professor at UCLA. “You do that by paying attention to small crimes.”

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New York adopted that strategy with a vengeance. It worked. In Boston, probation officers were put in patrol cars with precinct cops to check on probation violations by gang members. That strategy worked too. Last year, Boston did not have a single gang-related murder.

No one claims that our national wave of lawfulness stems completely from police department behavior. But the evidence suggests that the New York and Boston experiments have succeeded better than anyone expected, and that these cities are onto something good.

So why can’t we join the parade of winners? In truth, Parks will confront some special problems. First, the Los Angeles Police Department will never have the sheer troop strength of New York or other eastern cities. Second, the LAPD’s paramilitary past could well come back to haunt an effort to crack down on small crimes here.

But all cities face one problem or another. Until the mid-'90s the NYPD was known largely for its doughnut consumption and its corruption. And Boston did not have a clue how to proceed until the Police Department joined forces with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the ideas began to flow.

Here in L.A., the mayor is known to be a fan of the small crimes strategy. And Wilson, one of the founders of the “Broken Windows” movement, teaches at UCLA.

If Boston can join forces with Harvard, there seems no reason why L.A. can’t build an alliance with UCLA and the Wilson crowd to develop police methods that would work on our own mean streets.

What have we got to lose, except our reputation as a city that can’t quite get it together?

That’s a loss most of us could tolerate, I think. And let’s hope the new chief can too.

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