Calling Someone Other Than the Cops

Many kinds of urban disorder would be better addressed by people who aren't police officers.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

The simplest way to reduce the number of Americans who are abused by police officers is not to retrain cops or to reform their subculture. It is to significantly reduce the number of adversarial interactions people have with police.

Questions about how frequently Americans ought to interact with law enforcement are often associated with the debate over Broken Windows theory. Its proponents champion a model of policing where foot patrolmen are a regular presence in high-crime neighborhoods, vigilantly guarding against the sorts of low-level disorder that ostensibly leads to more serious crime if left unchecked.

For now, let's defer debate about Broken Windows theory.

Even if it is correct, there are still a number of reforms that would reduce adversarial contacts with police officers without increasing disorder on the streets.

Begin with the traffic stop. Here is a police officer who pulls over a 70-year-old man for having expired tags and then shoots him upon mistaking his cane for a gun:

I've seen enough dash-cam videos like this to suspect that fielding police forces bereft of too-easily-frightened cops is impossible. Luckily, an expired tag or a "fix it" citation for a broken taillight doesn't require human contact between driver and officer. Police cruisers have dash-cams. Cars have license plates on the back. Our addresses are on file. Why send a possibly frightened cop to my window on a roadside where he's also liable to get hit by a passing truck? Going forward, perhaps we could even develop ways to identify drivers without physically handing over one's license so that basic moving violations like a speeding ticket or a rolled stop could proceed without a cop at one's window. They don't like the element of danger in approaching an unfamiliar vehicle. We don't like the element of danger of interacting with unknown police officers.

Why not arrange to keep both to a bare minimum?

Now consider the mentally ill. Here's a video of policemen called by the mother of a schizophrenic man who was off his medication. He was holding a screwdriver.

They killed him:

If I encountered a mentally ill man menacing people with a gun or knife in my neighborhood I'd call the cops. But surely the ideal responder for a schizophrenic off his medication at his family's home or a man ranting incoherently in a coffee shop is someone better trained to deal with mental-health issues than a full-time cop ever will be. Yes, we can and should give police basic training for interacting with the mentally ill, but better that the people most commonly dispatched in these situations are not armed criminal-stoppers.

Next consider the public school system.

Alexis Karteron, an ACLU attorney, cites a class action lawsuit challenging "the N.Y.P.D.'s aggressive presence in New York City schools" to highlight "numerous incidents in which children were needlessly manhandled, slammed against walls and thrown to the floor in incidents that began as minor disciplinary infractions." He asserts that school cops are "guided by policies and practices that may be suitable for fighting crime on the streets but are completely inappropriate for working with children in a learning environment," arguing that "a police presence can make schools less safe for students."

As an example, albeit one from outside New York City, here is a girl in eighth grade being thrown into a wall and having her arm broken by an Akron, Ohio, police officer:

The logic of minimizing contact with police even extends to animals.

Below is a police officer who had no business being sent  to deal with a couple of loose family pets on a residential street. He shoots a black lab, leaving it to die in a snowy driveway while issuing its devastated owner a $100 off-leash ticket:

Better to have sent someone trained to deal with dogs, like an animal-control staffer. In this case, any mail carrier, UPS driver, or meter reader would've done better. With a few gentle words and a couple of bacon treats those dogs would've calmed down. Even a non-cop who feared dogs might've stayed in the car and used the loudspeaker to call out the dog's owner. Call a policeman, however, and you might well get someone who'd rather use their gun than back away, a recurring theme in the many YouTube videos of misbehaving cops.

To me, minimizing the number of police interactions that relate to minor traffic violations, the mentally ill, children at school, and pets seem like no-brainers. What ever made us think that we should involve the cops in all those situations as if they're better, not worse than average at deescalation and restraint?

Keeping order on urban streets is a trickier subject, especially in high crime areas where drug and gang related murders pose a far greater threat than police officers, who are relied upon by locals to identify and arrest violent criminals. Bastardizations of Broken Windows policing, like New York City's Stop and Frisk, are rightly decried as blatantly unconstitutional by activists who correctly point out that black and brown people in some neighborhoods are harassed almost daily even when they're doing nothing illegal or even suspicious.

Even some defenders of Broken Windows, like Ross Douthat, acknowledge that if a municipality is to rely on a style of policing that requires frequent, on-the-street interactions between cops and people the quality of policing needs to be high. "Some liberals have decided these tactics haven’t made a difference, or that they aren’t needed anymore," he wrote. "I think this view is naïve, and dangerously so. But to sustain this kind of police work, it’s necessary to restrain the excesses associated with it; to restrain those excesses, it’s necessary to hold cops accountable. And that can only happen if we reckon with the ways in which police unions... can align against the public."

Weakening police unions is an important reform. Body cameras are an important reform. Better training is an important reform. And if there is a way to change police subculture, that is important too. But even when it comes to keeping order on an urban block, some aspects of what George Kelling and James Q. Wilson wanted done in their 1982 article on Broken Windows theory needn't necessarily be done by police officers (though cops are necessary for other parts).

They wrote that beyond the fear of violence, many people fear being bothered by "disreputable, or obstreperous, or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed." They spoke admiringly of a police officer whose job, as he saw it, "was to keep an eye on strangers, and make certain that the disreputable regulars observed some informal but widely understood rules. Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden."

They observed that these rules were "defined and enforced in collaboration with the 'regulars' on the street." If someone violated them, regulars not only turned to the police officer for help "but also ridiculed the violator." The foot patrolman  sometimes did what could be described as "enforcing the law," but just as often, his salutary role "involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order."

As they saw it, failing to keep order in this fashion is dangerous:

A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change... to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish... But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. "Don't get involved." For some residents, this growing atomization will matter little, because the neighborhood is not their "home" but "the place where they live." Their interests are elsewhere; they are cosmopolitans. But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments rather than worldly involvement; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet.

Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes' customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully...

That muggings will occur.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that this analysis is correct, a question still looms. I can imagine a beat cop safeguarding order in my neighborhood, where aggressive homeless people sometimes yell at women on the street. Then again, a skilled social worker walking my block might have as much success and would certainly develop a sense of when the cops should be called.

What about a city like Baltimore?

Given the quality of the police officers that it has actually been able to attract, would order on its streets be most effectively kept by partnered-up patrolmen enforcing order on a foot beat? Or would the community place more trust in a pair of middle-aged residents who walked the block in bright vests armed with nothing but experience, the support of their neighbors, and their cell phone cameras? I am not suggesting that men like that could mostly replace the police. But they wouldn't be there to enforce all law per se, so much as to make everyone feel safer by virtue of their eyes on the street and willingness to intervene if rowdy teens are harassing an old woman or to testify if someone known in the neighborhood robs a local business. One can imagine a neighborhood association paying them a modest sum  or volunteers organized by a local church.

Would they do more good than cops on a block where many people mistrust most police officers? Certainly they could work with property owners to fix broken windows and clean up grafitti. I suspect that they could outperform the Baltimore police in at least a subset of tasks that the police are presently assigned.

The bar is set pretty low.

When Virginia Postrel aired a variation on this idea after the Los Angeles riots, she wrote, "Figuring out even a trial model is tricky. But a citizen-based supplement to regular policing seems to offer both cost-effective crime deterrence and an essential bridge between the police department and the community it serves. A program of citizen-patrols takes violence-prone neighborhoods seriously, both as places to be protected and as sources of protection. It asks residents both what their city can do for them and what they can do for their city." More important still, "it established a relationship based on respect."

Obviously it would be imperative to prevent this sort of approach from morphing into George Zimmermans asserting themselves on the block, but I'm imagining organizing people to walk their neighborhoods with the mindset and demeanor of a typical crossing guard, not a wannabe cop or vigilante. Indeed, it would be vital that these community members not be thought of as cop equivalents.

Would there be a danger of bad apples joining?

Of course. But I don't posit that interactions with these people would all be perfect, just that they'd be much better, on average, than interacting with Baltimore cops, where the danger of bad apples joining strikes me as much higher.

Certainly the consequences are more dire.

Police officers will always be needed to deal with violent crime or even to step in when citizens fail to, say, shame the meth addict into leaving the kiddy playground. And I have no objection to foot patrols by cops on a neighborhood beat where they get to know the locals if enough skilled cops can be found for such duty. That might be the one context in which more interactions reduce misconduct. It's easier to ignore the humanity of a community if you mostly see it through the windows of a squad car that only stops in adversarial situations.

But Freddie Gray wouldn't have run from forty-something neighbors of his wearing bright green vests. Eric Garner might be alive today too if he'd been approached and asked to go on his way by a few neighbors rather than a police officer who perhaps triggered reflexive resistance to cops and definitely escalated the encounter. As Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum told the New York Times, “People aren’t buying our brand. If it was a product, we’d take it out of the marketplace and re-engineer it. We’ve lost the confidence of the American people.” Efforts to bring about better policing are one necessary response. Assigning fewer jobs to police officers may be another one.