The Need for a Decentralized Police

Why can’t police chiefs speak the truth? We all know why—because the 24/7 media blob would destroy them for their political incorrectness.

Fortunately, chiefs ultimately retire and can be more forthcoming.

District of Columbia Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier is retiring after serving a decade at the top and she kindly granted the Washington Post a long exit interview, the highlight of which was the admission: “The criminal justice system in this city is broken. It is beyond broken.”

Lanier has been a popular leader and claims that crime has been reduced under her leadership but asked, “Where the hell is the outrage? People are being victimized who shouldn’t be.” Residents “want more police. They want more arrests. But if we’re arresting the same people over and over again, there’s got to be some questions being asked.” Where is the indignation over a system that continuously puts violent offenders back into neighborhoods?

She specifically mentioned the arrest of a man on home detention who, when his “GPS tracking device broke down,” then went on a violent robbery, shooting, and car-theft spree starting in nearby Maryland and into D.C. where an innocent bystander was critically injured. “The agency that supervises that person didn’t tell anybody or do anything with it. That shouldn’t happen. And it’s happening over and over and over again. You can’t police the city if the rest of the justice system is not accountable.”

Lanier’s main complaint was a large number of local and federal agencies all pulling in different directions. She complained about federal control of bail, detention, the filing of charges, and the monitoring of suspects under court supervision. But there are good arguments for a different authority to oversee some of these matters. As Council Judiciary Committee Chairman Kenyan R. McDuffie responded, the people “aren’t interested in hearing that one agency within the system of criminal justice didn’t do its part. They ultimately want the system to function.”

The chief’s community outreach program has received acclaim for defusing anger at police. She predicted that police work will become “much more service-oriented and much more collaborative than it is now” and urged that many present police duties be shifted to other social agencies as “not the police department’s job,” such as dealing with the mentally ill and dealing with those guilty of minor rule violations. “A lot of the things we deal with right now, you don’t need a police officer. And it is putting us in confrontational positions with people who are not criminals that are causing a lot of the turmoil we see right now.” She urged the community at large to take up part of the burden.

It was a bravura performance. But it seems a bit inconsistent. If there are too many agencies pulling in different directions now, what happens when present police functions are moved to another agency? The police department would perhaps have fewer headaches but the community would be thrown from one agency to another even more bureaucratically than it is now. The problem is that the community needs to be brought together rather than divided further.

What is needed, in a word, is real community—not more narrow professionalism, which our good Progressive friends gave us at the local as well as national level. The pioneer of the pro-community reaction to centralized professionalism was Indiana University Professor Vincent Ostrom’s classic The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration (1973), who together with his Nobel-winning spouse Elinor, reintroduced the value of local government and community into academic discussion, at least among those in the academy without closed minds.

Ostrom lauded local governing institutions as closer to the facts of the situation, and thus able to minimize communication problems. Being closer to those who gain and lose from decisions means that costs and benefits can be evaluated properly. Small governments compete with neighboring communities and if they are not successful, citizens can easily exit and live elsewhere. As Ostrom taught, central institutions simply issue orders to underlings based on superior power but with extremely limited local knowledge, while community and local governmental associations must deal with the facts before them and compromise as equals with competing local agencies.

Stephen Goldsmith , the former mayor of Indianapolis and vice mayor of New York, has promoted what he calls “municipal federalism,” to break cities into smaller community units that can better handle their local needs. Leading sub-municipal advocate George W. Liebmann has identified dozens of possible types: neighborhood associations, street governance committees, amenity cooperatives, neighborhood councils, street-closing regimes, block associations and readjustments, and the most popular, Residential Community Associations, where more people live than live in cities of 200,000 or more in population. Liebmann’s Neighborhood Futures (2004) argues that smaller groups that must meet face-to-face are more likely to deal with issues and to compromise.

The community organization for the police is a constable-based system. Certainly the need for fundamental reform is critical for many central cities, especially the big ones in the United States. The murder rate per capita shows Baltimore passing Detroit for first place with Lanier’s Washington next. Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington are alone responsible for half the recent increase in murders in the 30 largest cities. Radical change is even more essential in the wake of the  so-called Ferguson effect, a “blame it on the police” backlash that has led the police to cut back drastically on proactive policing, with the perverse effect of especially harming young black men for whom murder is the leading cause of death between ages 15 and 34.

Professional police will always be needed for criminal apprehension and responding to acts of violence or terrorism. They will always be required for what used to be called a “riot squad” to handle major violent threats. But traditionally the local cop was lightly armed; he primarily watched for local emergencies as he walked his beat. In old England the constable was not armed at all, perhaps only with a nightstick. He was of the community and had to rely upon it for his safety.

All of that changed with public mobility, especially the automobile, and the professionalization of policing in the early 1900s Progressive movement, which introduced citywide standard operating procedures for all communities. Even the bravest police soon learned they were safer in a car quickly moving in and out of a neighborhood, rousting those who looked dangerous on the way by. Politicians learned it was cheaper too. Police districts became larger, with more levels of expertise; they became more militarized and distant from knowledge of the community. Today, many policemen dress like android soldiers but the recent New York bomber was discovered asleep in a doorway in little Linden, New Jersey by a passing resident. Eyes on the street are what is missing today, perhaps especially for terrorism. There have been attempts at “community policing” and a few more policemen are walking a beat, but not that many.

Real community policing would return to a true constable system, perhaps one to every city block or smaller in dangerous urban areas. Constables exist in nine states but for very limited purposes. A real community of constables would basically be listeners, learning about the neighborhood, about what is needed to keep it safe and secure, including medical emergencies, domestic disputes, child runaways, intoxication and mental problems, indeed all the little intricacies of neighborhood life, the little rules of civility—to say nothing of keeping an eye on the bad guys, whom the locals know and would complain about if someone were listening. Each constable could have a little basement room with a computer and a list of who could help, including links to his police superiors back at a more traditional headquarters.

Rural areas are the original home of the constable. They could cover much larger areas and still keep in touch where “everyone” knows each other. Suburban areas already have many informal versions. Homeowner associations sometimes serve similar functions, and often hire a person to perform constable functions. It is one reason why suburban areas tend to be much safer. It is the large city that really needs reform. They are so violent because there is no community. Of course, it will not be easy to recreate one, and the election of community representatives, where they have been created, often attracts troublemakers and charlatans. The representatives should be appointed from a list sent by existing local organizations but actually made by the top elected official or even the Governor, both of whom should serve as honorary constables.

Communications with police division headquarters will be critical. The professionals will look down on the constables and be concerned about volunteers or low-paid individuals “replacing” them. We now see this with relations between volunteer and paid fire departments. But many of these do work well and should be learned from. The best police already depend on local informers so this is not a totally new concept. It is the mutual respect that is crucial. Being unarmed, or perhaps with only short-distance stun guns, constables must rely upon the professionals and they in turn need eyes and ears in the community. A good constable would know the locals who could help the police in a real emergency and provide the basis for unarmed posses to calm riots if required. Hundreds of people could be in his or her network.

There would be abuses, of course, but there would also be ways to minimize them. Constables would still have police professionals above them and the legal system beside them to limit them. The constable would have limited power to abuse, basically administering citations that would be heard by justices of the peace, subject to appeal to professional courts. JOPs could have power to dismiss constables too. Multiple constables could check each other. Members of the larger city council and state and higher level local and national representatives could watch too. And, again, the whole higher level professional police would be watching the process. Some communities might be so unsafe as to require direct control, but with this new arrangement, they would have many fewer neighborhoods to police.

A constabulary would energize a plural community that would be forced to interact. A constable system could replace yesterday’s network of local stay-at-home moms that the indispensable Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961) recognized as the glue that held the old city neighborhoods together. Constables could even be recruited from among welfare and disability aid recipients for simply being a good neighbor with no hard duties other than talking, walking (even in a wheelchair), and phone calls, email and texting. They could be granted exemptions from work requirements by not considering this a job—and, more importantly, be given responsibility to build some sense of self-worth that could, in turn, open up opportunities for higher employment for them. Any professional community organizers who complained would be welcome to join the constabulary and help solve the problem.

Of course, when Goldsmith’s (much more modest) reforms were enacted, they were often frustrated by the employee unions and professional disorganizers. This same group would object to a true constable system. Yet, Goldsmith’s limited reforms may explain why New York has been more effective in crime control than other large cities. Much of the traditional police structure would remain under a true constable system; a guaranteed dismissal freeze for the rest should help calm incumbents somewhat.

It would take a brave mayor or Governor to enact such a reform. After just completing his therapy and being declared cancer-free, Maryland’s Governor, Larry Hogan, might just be the one to fit the bill, with Baltimore a great place to begin.