Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Police Section
Volume 2 Number 2 Pp. 409-413 June 1992
MAKING THE POLICE PROACTIVE:
An Impossible Task for Improbable Reasons
Carl P. Wagoner
California State University-San Bernardino
The standard position today, heard from both the public and the police, is that our crime problem is getting out of hand. Begging the question of whether we actually have a crime wave or a media-based crime reporting wave (Fishman, 1977), we propose to discuss the issue of what society can do about crime in the context of police reform and police services. With some ideological exceptions, those who study crime and the police are fairly well agreed that police can be: expected to have very little direct effect on crime and criminality and that, further, preventing crime is not really the function of the police.
Unfortunately, neither the public nor their quasi-elected officials share this opinion regarding the function of the police. Their position is grounded in a conservative ideology which stresses deterrence and "taking the handcuffs off police," in addition to advocating the adding of more police and more technological innovation, in order to increase the apprehension of offenders. However, there is abundant evidence to the effect that crime is not reduced nor apprehension increased by adding police or, for example, by eliminating the exclusionary rule (Walker, 1989).
This resistance to evidence that police, by themselves, can do hide about crime is itself an interesting situation. As noted above, we suspect that it is based in the current conservative mentality and movement, the political utility of crime in providing a "mantle of law and order" and, ironically, the police themselves. This latter source is intriguing because both the rise and fall of crime rates have long been used as a political ploy by law enforcement to gain access to greater resources (Weis and Milakovich, 1974). The latent function of such a ploy, however, is that police departments then invite the public to hold them accountable for crime itself.
The connection between "doing something" about crime and recent calls for proactive policing has created an expectation that police should indeed, engage in proactive crime prevention. Historically, there is some merit to this expectation. The origins of modern policing lie in the private forces created by the Bow Street merchants of London and the Thames River police of the West Indies Merchants Association. These forces were clearly proactive in their approach to "crime." Yet, as police forces became public entities, they became more reactive in approach and lost their direct connection to citizens. This is further illustrated by the changing nature of the police role in the movement from mechanical to organic solidarity, and the corresponding changes in the nature of criminals and the increasing rates of crime (Lundman, 1980).
In short, police forces evolved concurrently with the state's emergence under the social contract in the dual role of victim and enforcer of restitution. This process resulted in a police role as chief enforcer of the social contract and, in modern times, placed the police directly as a servant of the government, not as a servant of the people. The point here is that modem police are reactive in nature and respond directly to government rather than to the citizenry. Indirectly, of course, police do respond to the people through the representatives of government.
This is not to suggest that the police are completely devoid of an ability to be proactive. It is the case that both in law enforcement situations and in order maintenance situations police can take the initiative. However, when they do so it is usually in response to internal pressure from top administration, which is often acting in response to external pressure.
When a call is issued to "do something about crime; " government (local or otherwise) instructs its law enforcement agent to respond, either with action or with explanations. Unfortunately, the police are not for the most part, designed as proactive agents. This is illustrated in the limited success of community crime prevention programs ("neighborhood watch," "operation identification;" and home security surveys) have had (Currie. 1985: Turk and Grimes, 1992). Even more problematic from our viewpoint is that the type of response which is demanded from law enforcement, and the form of response generated varies by the type of "public" making the demand.
A common observation is that power (or potential power) defines the type of public and the form of response. Thus, demands that the police respond to crime take various forms and precipitate commensurate demands for change in police philosophy and structure.
The primary intent of this essay is to critique proactive policing and calls for police change. To do this, we will explore the relationship between crime, proactive policies, and three "ideal types" of public, which we will refer to as citizens, interest groups, and elites. A secondary intent is to stimulate discussion on the issue of police change in a proactive direction. As a result, we have chosen to eschew an objective and carefully documented approach in favor of a more subjective and controversial one.
Our first concern is to determine the type of response that would be required in order to generate proactive policing under our three types of publics. A demand from citizens requires a more diffuse and broader response(s) than from the other types of publics. In fact, for such a demand to be made is itself an extraordinary event, since the "public" is not often united or does not often see the world through the same colored glasses, particularly in an heterogeneous, urban/ industrial society. In keeping with the nature of the demand, tire police response will likely result in substantial resource expenditure (if this is possible in an era of steady state or decreasing resources), perhaps even requiring major structural and philosophical changes. The likelihood of such changes is minimal since, as we will note later, law enforcement organizations are particularly resistant to change.
Demands from interest groups, on the other hand, are commonplace and often require little adaptation on the part of the police, other than the shifting of focus and resources from one area of concern to another. Our form of government is well adapted to interest groups and, thus, one might even argue that police structure and philosophy are currently products designed to meet this form of public demand. The chief characteristic we expect here is that the demands are individualistic and specific.
The elite demand requires a non-specific response by the police. In fact, the nature of the response is unlikely to be directly generated by the police themselves. Instead, the response is likely to be in the form of police reaction to new laws or political philosophies. Such responses can be profound and far reaching, but will tend to produce new enforcement strategies and/or directions of activity aimed at particular segments of society rather than changes in police philosophy or organizational structure. In short, we see citizen demands as resulting in a return to a more mechanical style of policing (as opposed to a contemporary organic style), interest group responses as service-oriented, and elite demands as selective repression.
Because of the changing nature of society, as well as the changing nature and increased amount of crime, many have argued that change of the police is both desirable and/or eminent (Currie, 1985:Germann, 1985; Wilson, 1985:Goldstein, 1979). If so, our second concern is to describe the form that changes might take under our three types of publics. Under the citizen type of demand we believe that any police change would be toward development into a more citizen responsive force, and oriented to a closer relationship with the community. Such a change, if real rather than superficial, would require a substantial increase in new resources and recommitment of current resources, significant changes in philosophy, and potentially massive restructuring of police organizations.
The term interest group as used here refers to associations and coalitions of persons with a common concern which binds them together. Their effectiveness is determined by the degree of pressure they can bring to the police directly or indirectly through other governmental agencies. It needs to be noted that many such interest groups are transitory in nature, and are often issue specific. Interest-group demands would produce change oriented toward specific services such as peace-keeping and enclave protection. Further, because the nature of interest groups is both pluralistic and individualistic, change to meet their demands would entail a certain amount of decentralization in order to quickly respond to shifting priorities and allegiances. Critical variables influencing the extent of change arc the degree of resources dispersed among the interest groups the form of those resources, and the temporal nature of those resources.
Elite demands would result in selective repression of those who constitute a threat to the existing social order. Thus, change in policing requires a reordering of priorities and, potentially, some degree of new organizational structure. Because some older parts of the structure can be dispensed with, structural changes may merely mean reshuffling of resources and reorganization. Centralized authority and the drain of command would remain important due to the necessity of ensuring the transmission of the new priorities and the preparation for, and the development of, new attitudes of the part of the rank and file in regard to the “new” threat. Critical variables here include the extent of police agreement with the values to be defended, perceptions police have of the newly criminalized community, and the relative threat of the existing social order.
Given these potential avenues of change, the question is not what police organizations will become but to what directions have the police already responded? A few brief examples will serve to demonstrate an irony that the triad of publics does indeed affect the nature of policing and, at the same time, produces conflict that results to little actual change.
The clearest example of reaction to this power source is the development of community policing. Although by 1990 more than 300 police departments in the United States had reported some form of community policing, there remains today a relative lack of understanding as to what constitutes community policing (Strecher, 1991). At times it has been substituted for what is still a community‑relations approach, at times it has been synonymous with "problem‑oriented policing," and at times foot patrol has been equated with community policing (Trojanowicz and Bucqueroux, 1990).
Instead, community policing requires a substantial change in both structure and form, including attitudinal, organizational, and sub-cultural change. It represents a "new" philosophy of policing whereby police officers and the community work together to solve community problems of crime and related social ills. This means giving citizens of the community a direct say in the solutions and activities that regulate crime. Community policing also requires an organizational structure which is flattened, with horizontal as well as vertical communication. Centralized authority is minimized, with area captains becoming "mini‑chiefs" with full decision making authority, and with individual community-policing officers sharing decision making, particularly on their own beat. Police officers are given authority to not only create their own solutions to problems but also contact and request assistance from other governmental agencies and private entities. In short, police officers become citizens of their own neighborhoods and combine with residents to produce a healthy neighborhood.
Thus the problems here are that real community policing requires a radical restructuring of police organizations and a new sense of function. All we know of organizational theory tells us that such change will be resisted. A project manager of one of the five sites for the national community policing experiment aptly described the adaptations required of police officers and the organization as “traumatic” (McPherson, 1992). Further, as Van Horn and Van Meter (1977), among others, have noted, the predisposition of the people in the agency to support the implementation of new policy is a crucial variable in determining the success of the policy.
Other governmental agencies also play a key role in the success of this transformation. If they have different agendas, or see the "citizen mandate" as conflicting, responses to the requests of individual community police officers will be problematic. These agencies can defeat community policing philosophies either by failing to participate or simply by dragging their feet on requests. The probability of all affected government agencies buying into the same citizen-oriented philosophy is exceedingly low.
Similarly, because police officers will come and go in neighborhoods (and of course there will be several shifts involved), officers themselves cannot be responsible for community policing-the community itself must be. Getting a community to realize this in today's specialized world is no small feat, in and of itself. In effect, the ultimate feasibility and success of community policing is beyond the control of the police. The five-site national experiment has demonstrated the way in which these difficulties have combined to effectively disassemble the citizen-oriented approach. Only one of the sites (San Diego) remains committed to community policing and that site had an existing heritage of a community orientation. The other four have not only fallen by the wayside, but in one case the experiment caused the downfall of the chief of police (McPherson, 1992).
Reactions to this power source require the ability to make swift responses to potentially immediate concerns of changing interest groups. We suggest this can result in the creation of decentralized teams to police and protect the various interest groups. In operation such decentralized teams (such as an anti-gang task force with the responsibility of quickly moving into an aria, conducting a sweep for possible law violators and then moving out) may be responding to interest groups such as the "public at large" or to the organized interests of a particular neighborhood. Further, such interest groups may demand or require other than purely law enforcement activities on the part of police. Wilson (1968) has written at length on the "interests" of particular communities centering around service functions.
While this service orientation may share appearances, and even some techniques, with community based-policing, or with problem oriented policing, the reality is that the police organization is merely responding to various pressures brought about by various special-interest groups. Therefore, the result is policy based on short-term decisions and assignments, with ever-increasing resources devoted to immediate problems. Such a situation leads to relative chaos and the inability of police to respond to changing conditions in the community at large.
With squandered resources and a lack of organized policy and planning, a reasonable expectation is that geographic enclaves derived from the more powerful and long-term interest groups will develop. We refer to these as "enclaves" because the concept of enclaved and walled communities, whether based on cultural factors or on environmental design, is an excellent exemplar. Residents identify with the area and non-residents are seen as intruders and potential criminals. Emergent police responses to the enclave movement are concerned with maintaining the enclave community at the expense of the larger community. Examples of the form of policing required here include stopping of blacks who are in an enclave where they "do not ordinarily belong" (e.g., Jamal Wilkes, former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star being detained "on suspicion” while driving his Rolls Royce in the “Wilshire Corridor" in Los Angeles; an episode of LA Law where a black attorney jogging in an upper-class neighborhood was accosted and arrested by police).
Neighborhood Watch programs exemplify the response of police organizations to this source of governmental power. In a real sense, these programs arc not oriented toward protecting citizens of the general community, but rather are a method of focusing service on selective areas. Those who have been in police departments operating neighborhood watch programs tell us that, when a "neighborhood" is advised of a possible displacement effect on crime, the invariable response from residents is that they don't care, they just want their neighborhood safe from crime. This is analogous to the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) phenomenon which routinely occurs in prison site selection.
The irony here is that as services are continually focused on the interest group enclaves, the proactive nature of police crime prevention can serve to displace crime into the larger non-enclaved community, thus creating a "battle-ground" and greater demands of protection from the enclaves. The cycle of demand for protection and focus of resources has the potential to render impotent the police organization and to destroy the enclaves themselves.
Changes in police derived from this power base require selective enforcement of laws, proliferation of special interest laws, and order maintenance exerted on the masses. All are based on a re-emphasis of basic (elite) values in society and the emergence of a strident conservatism. A number of current modifications of police structure are predicated on the drug war and are, in some sense, a reorientation of the earlier war on crime of the 1970s. For example, resource allocations from the federal government, designed to encourage and reward police departments for their crime fighting efforts, were moved into drunken driving campaigns and now have been moved into the drug war. Police departments, as a result, have eliminated some older crime fighting units and substituted drug enforcement programs.
This most recent phase, the war on drugs, has once again succeeded in connecting drug use with crime, thus providing a rationale for police to adopt the ideology of the new drug war. In addition, the war has succeeded in criminalizing (and thus delegitimizing) a major portion of those who might threaten the elite value system. In part because drug use has been associated with the liberal values of the 1960s, elite conservative values have been able to dominate the present era. Moreover, both an emphasis on the repression of drug users and the advent of work place drug testing have been used to resolve elite concerns about societal productivity.
It is likely that in a democratic society there will ultimately be a reaction, and there will be attempts to shift power (at least momentarily) in efforts to liberalize the laws concerning drug possession and use. Thus, it could be argued that repression contains the seeds of its own overthrow and may ultimately result in image problems for the police, as well as distrust and greater regulation of police activity. The police themselves have been placed in a quandary of having to eliminate a large number of otherwise desirable recruits because of a history of drug use. A recent recruiting solution has been to ask about the kind of drugs and make selective decisions while ignoring the presumptive illegality of all drug use.
While some change is undoubtedly taking place among police and in police organizations, the current situation leads us to believe that nothing substantial is taking place except, perhaps, in idiosyncratic circumstances and isolated instances. Further, our separation of the public into three types is misleading in the sense that each appears to be acting independently. Actually, all three types act in concert, with the more powerful having the greatest potential effect. Each one, however, tends to offset the others and dissipates the entire effect of change. The most probable approach to police change is that there will be a mixture of all these variations, in response to the mixture of the public types. This means that none of the potential approaches above will become commonplace, none will he logically and systematically approached, and in the end police will not become proactive. We predict that the police will maintain their current paramilitary form and bureaucratic structure. In the face of conflicting masters and differential demands, informal organizational goals serving survival will yield resistance to change and no viable new alternatives will emerge. We do not, however, rule out incremental change, particularly that change associated with larger societal concerns.
The most likely scenario is that crime will decrease by the turn of the century, largely due to demographic changes. The decrease in crime will, in turn, take pressure off the police to "do something about it." Thus, through the end of this decade, there will be minor modifications to policing, all of which will be strongly resisted, or modified to such an extent that the consequences will be minimal or nonexistent.
This, however, belies the function of the police and takes as granted the fact that police can affect crime. We believe there is sufficient evidence to support the assertion that any reduction of crime must come from outside the police. Therefore, the real question is not whether the police can prevent and control crime but, instead, whether and how efficiently and effectively the police can react to crime. Our constructed scenarios for proactive police roles are all unlikely, or else undesirable, in our present society. We would do well, then, to focus on the police as a reactive force and, if enhancement of this function is desirable, find methods of stripping proactive pretense from police organizations. If we must have a specific proactive force to control and prevent crime, a far better choice is to create an agency specifically responsible for that function and empower it to respond to crime on a far larger scope. Such an agency would presumably engage in the improvement of education, health, recreation, community renovation, and the myriad of other factors associated with the emergence of crime in our society. The police, however, should simply be assigned the task of reacting in crime as, or after, it is committed.