March 05, 2008

Call a Cab Cause a Cab Will Come Quicker

Let's see if I can't resuscitate this here blog with a short little book review. Judging by the blurbs, Peter Moskos's Cop in the Hood—about a sociologist who spends a year as a police officer in Baltimore's Eastern District—is going to be marketed to people who watch HBO's The Wire. And that's apt: There's plenty that's familiar here, from the slang ("hoppers," "real-PO-lice") to the descriptions of how drug corners are run. You can read the book's first chapter online. But the book also hits a lot of new terrain.

The police subplots of The Wire emphasize the futility of current drug-war tactics. Moskos agrees, and suggests that most Baltimore cops share this view, although many seem to believe the answer is more arrests, rather than fewer (morality and "asserting control" are often seen as higher goals than reducing crime). But The Wire's main characters are detectives in Homicide and Major Crimes, people investigating stuff. Moskos focuses on patrol officers, and has a slightly different argument about the ineffectiveness of much of what they do, day-in and day-out. Some background:
The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, "scientific" police management, social migration, and social science theories on the "causes" of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a "watchman" approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area. In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios. ...

Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather then enforce their own "arbitrary" concepts of "acceptable" behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile… Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911.
So, here we are today, and a patrol officer's top priority is to respond to any and all 911 calls ASAP. Problem is, a hefty number of calls are "bullshit calls"—pranks or people dialing in to harass enemies—or drug calls, wherein an officer pulls up to a corner, the dealers take a walk around the block, and return when the cop is gone. Stops and arrests are made, but less often than you might think. (Officers routinely take longer to handle a drug call just so that they can remain "out of service" and finish paperwork or eat lunch or avoid "bad" calls—a dead body, say.) Obviously there are serious 911 calls, too, but Moskos contends that there's way too much chaff:
Even when there aren't calls coming in, the possibility of receiving a call officers prevents officers from doing foot patrol, in-depth investigations, or any activity that may cause an officer to stray too far from the patrol car. Police isolated in squad cars will not know the community.

Yet dealing with problem people before they commit a crime, though perhaps undesirable, is a police officer's job. This isn't possible in an era of rapid-response.

With fewer cars and a de-emphasis of rapid response, police officers could better mitigate the problems of the drug corner. A better system would require police dispatchers or police officers to exercise professional judgment and separate legitimate from illegitimate calls (and affirm current legal protection for good-faith errors). Free from the tyranny of dispatch, officers could focus on quality rather than quantity of response. Walking the beat, officers would learn their area and gain the trust of more citizens. Freeing police resources would make response more consistent and reliable, even faster, for the very rare serious crime in progress.
That makes sense at a glance, especially if it's true that "motorized patrol... has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction." But wouldn’t people start complaining if the police weren't responding to all 911 calls as quickly as possible? This seems like a political issue. I wonder if there are cities out there that have tried this.

More: Peter Moskos responds in comments with some additional points that are very much worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 7:13 AM || ||