Two things — something that happened in my neighborhood last week and the school slaughter in Parkland, Florida — have conspired to reignite a line of thought plaguing me on and off over the last year or so. I’m thinking about the principle of community policing.
I used to believe in it. I’m not so sure I do anymore.
There is no comparison or parallel between the neighborhood incident and what happened in Parkland. The thing here was merely an alert on the online neighborhood bulletin board warning about a deranged man who had come to a neighbor’s front door and tried unsuccessfully to get the neighbor to let him in. Police arrived, detained the man briefly and then let him go, to the consternation of my neighbor.
The only link is an assumption of mental illness. President Donald Trump tweeted about the Parkland child-murderer: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior.”
Had Trump lived in my neighborhood last week before the Parkland murders occurred, had the Parkland child-murderer come to his door and tried to get him to let him in while acting weird, had the police come and detained the soon-to-be Parkland child-murderer, the police would have let that guy go, too.
He didn’t get in. It’s not against the law to ask to be let in. It’s not against the law to act weird. But there’s another much larger principle at work here. It’s not within the mission or capacity of armed police to solve the country’s totally unresolved mental health problems.
So what does that have to do with so-called community policing? Everything, I’m afraid, and it’s why I may not even believe in it anymore. But first, let’s do a quick backstory.
When I was a young reporter in Detroit a very long time ago, the concepts that are now bundled as community policing were not quite on the horizon yet. What we had then was white policing.
A series of violent urban uprisings in American cities in the last quarter of the 20th century exposed the reality that most big-city police forces were way more white than the populace of the cities. The unspoken mission of the police was to protect the white folks from the black folks. Police often operated outside the rule of law and without political legitimacy. The consequence was riots.
Policing split into two distinct schools after that. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, who later went to prison, earned fame and plaudits for an aggressive zero-tolerance policy known popularly as stop-and-frisk.
Police departments like Dallas went 180 degrees the other way. Under chiefs like David Kunkle, the Dallas Police Department searched for cadets called to the profession by a desire to serve and protect. Under Kunkle, rank-and-file patrol officers were encouraged to build relationships in the neighborhoods. Often when those efforts were successful, law-abiding neighbors became invaluable sources of intelligence for police.
There was also a kind of cultural and hierarchical aspect of community policing that seemed to put the horse properly before the cart: The police work for the community. The community should be in charge of the police. Community policing felt like the proper order of things.
But that brings us to today, to the weird guy trying to get my neighbor to let him in the front door, and, yes, to the child-murderer in Florida. In all of these years, we have done nothing effective to provide the kind of expensive, universal, all-encompassing social safety net that would have to be in place in order to catch, hold and help people who have mental problems.
While overall crime rates have fallen in recent years, we have done nothing to solve other effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. Meanwhile, we’re doing everything we can to make sure everybody is well armed. And for all of these issues, our go-to solution is the same. Let the cops handle it.
On July 11, 2016, four days after the July 7 gun murders of five police officers in downtown Dallas, David Brown, then Dallas’s police chief, gave a speech in which he bemoaned a reflexive desire to rely on the police to solve problems way above their pay-grade.
“Not enough mental health funding,” Brown said, “let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas, we have a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs.
“Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women, let’s give it to the cops to solve as well.
“That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems. I just ask other parts of our democracy along with the free press to help us.”
Before he gave that speech and before the July 7 police murders downtown, Brown and I had a personal conversation in which we talked about community policing. Brown had inherited the department from Kunkle. He was, he said, a staunch advocate of the same principles of community policing.
But he told me something else as well. He was a lifelong Dallas cop. He had come back from college in the early 1980s, a half-year before graduating, to join the police force because he wanted to save his neighborhood from the depredations of Jamaican drug gangs. He is a cop’s cop. He told me what a cop knows about community policing.
Brown told me he knew that every time a recent police academy graduate gets into the patrol car with the veteran officer who is to be his on-the-street trainer, the trainer sticks a finger on his or her chest and tells the rookie to forget all that crap from the academy about community policing.
The main concern of the veteran officer, Brown told me, is going home in one piece that night. And what does that mean for the cop? The first thing it means is that she or he must have 360-degree vision, telepathic radar and eyes in the back of the head every time the officer rolls up on a scene.
On Feb. 10, two police officers in Westerville, Ohio, were shot and killed the moment they walked into an apartment in answer to a potential domestic disturbance call. The man who killed them was an ex-con legally barred from buying a firearm. He had persuaded somebody else to buy it for him.
So you tell me. If you or I were a police officer, would we be rolling into every scene calling everyone sir and ma’am and thinking first about solving their mental and emotional problems? Not me. I’d be too scared. Every time I got out of the car, I would want everybody on the scene to worry that if they winked at me wrong I’d shoot them.
I believe most police officers do way better than that. They’re much better at it than I would be — better able to keep their cool and treat people decently when possible. That’s why they’re doing it and I’m not.
But we’re still left with this larger societal problem of thinking that the police, wearing badges, armed with guns and carrying handcuffs, are going to go out there, as Brown said, and take care of all the societal problems that we have failed so utterly to take care of as a society.
The cops can’t do it. They shouldn’t try, and they’re not going to try. They’re going to try to go home in one piece at night and not wind up dead or crippled. And frankly, that’s not always going to be a pretty picture, as you or I may find out one night if we ever get on their really bad side.
I would never offer excuses for bad, oppressive, racist or unjust policing. The kind of policing I saw as a young reporter in Detroit — white policing — was a slow-fused nightmare that only drove hatred and the potential for explosion deeper into the heart of the community. Everything that Kunkle achieved here and that Brown continued to support has made this a stronger, better place to live.
But policing, even at its very best, is cleanup duty. Big, basic problems and shortcomings in the society have to be addressed with big, basic solutions, not cleanup.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Already a certain line is emerging on the Florida murders, suggesting that the cops ignored red flags. No, the community ignored red flags. The community should have figured out long ago that there was no broad, effective safety net in place for mentally troubled people and that bad things are going to continue to occur as long as that is true.
Horrors like Parkland won’t be fixed or prevented by keeping people with mental illness from buying guns. The answer is to keep mentally ill people from going without compassionate, effective treatment, from being lost and on their own. The answer is to provide serious and effective social and health services for people with mental illness.
We need drug treatment, racial integration, better public schools, economic opportunity, true social justice. We’re stupid if we think we can solve these problems by sending the cops out there to fix them for us with something called community policing.
Look, if community policing is only meant to be a step up from white policing, if that’s all we’re trying to achieve, then great. All for it. But if community policing is counting on the cops to take care of our social messes for us, then that’s just seriously and morally wrong-headed. And guess what else? Ain’t gonna happen.