Special Book Excerpt: Chapter 2 – Societal Mores and the Emergence of the Modern Day Police Force

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Note: The following is part of the series of full chapter excerpts from my latest book, a collaborative effort with television’s Cop Doc, Dr. Richard Weinblatt, Tasers, Abortions and Parenting: Behind the Curtain of Policing America. Click on the title to obtain your copy of the complete book today.

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“We liked him. He made us laugh because of his funny German accent.”

Aron Trask, East of Eden circa 1917

One of the more interesting examples of a shift in societal mores occurs in the movie East of Eden which was set in 1917 Salinas, California.

After the First World War breaks out, and both the tragedy and toll in terms of the loss of so many of Salinas’s sons begins to hit home, the townspeople turn on someone they at one time considered to be a good neighbor whose “funny accent” made them smile.

In a fit of now prejudiced rage, they begin to vandalize the German immigrant Gustav Albrecht’s home even though he has been in America since well before the outbreak of hostilities overseas.

It is no small irony that Sam the Sheriff disarmingly intervenes on behalf of the under siege Albrecht to diffuse a situation that could have been much worse than the destruction of a fence and cherished rose garden.

Nor is it a small irony that a man born of German immigrant parents, August “Gus” Vollmer” who became the Town Marshall of another California Town during the same era in which the movie East of Eden was set, is today considered to be “the father of modern law enforcement.”

Following the air crash investigative model referenced in the previous chapter, in which the crash site serves as the starting point towards gaining the ultimate understanding of the circumstances that led to the present day situation, there was no shortage of possible starting points for this book’s review of Policing in America.

Certainly the United States Marshals Service and its 94 presidentially appointed U.S. Marshals and their career service deputy U.S. Marshals, who according to their website “have served as instruments of civil authority used by all three branches of government” for over 200 years, warrant consideration. The fact that many equate the history of the Marshals, who jockey for credit as being the oldest federal law enforcers with the United States Postal Inspectors, with how the “American people govern themselves” would lend its own creditability for using this important representative of American law enforcement as the initial reference point. One could examine the changes that happened to the Marshals and their organization and see a tangible manifestation of the changes reflective of the increasing sophistication of law enforcement in the nation.

However, this book is not singularly focused on the evolution of law enforcement in America but is instead taking a broader perspective that extends to include the influences of society on our police and the policies to which they adhere. For these reasons the regional or local representation of law enforcement that makes up the greater whole, serves a much better purpose in terms of capturing and understanding the nuances of policing what is known has the great melting pot that is the United States.

Indeed, the absence of a national police force in the United States (contrary to popular belief the FBI is not a police force; they are an investigative agency), unlike in other countries, lends the policing model to the independent, home rule philosophy of governance. To most Americans, the fragmented, local law enforcement agencies, particularly at the county and municipal levels, are the most visible display of the government.

It is the jurisdictional consideration of everyday law enforcement which provides us with the countless and varied points of access to examples of police and citizen interaction like the Seattle jaywalking incident, that adds to both the richness and insight we seek to share with you the reader. Indeed, we see that what may fly in Seattle with both the people and their police, might not in Houston and vice versa. The nuances in policing adapt to the local social mores.

It is through this all-encompassing lens that Vollmer adds the greater perspective, which includes a small town sensibility resulting from his election as Berkley’s town marshal on April 10, 1905, to his big city experience albeit short-lived, as police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1923-24. Combined with his innovations including being the first chief to “create a motorized force” and encouraging the “training and employment of female and African American police officers” Vollmer is in the unusual position of being at the crossroads of American law enforcement.

From our perspective, this panorama of both big city and small town policing experience preceding America’s emergence as a global power after the First World War serves as an important juxtaposition between what was an expanding young nation and one coming into its own.

It is also worth noting that it was during this same period of time, and in the years leading up to 1924, that Ellis Island welcomed the world’s huddled masses made famous in Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus, through whom over 100 million Americans today – one third of the total population – can trace their ancestral roots.

Now one might naturally ask what the connection is between this book and to what many outside the world of law enforcement, is an overlooked and perhaps even unknown police chief from early American history.

It may even be a fair question to ask how the Ellis Island gateway ties into “Policing America,” let alone “Tasers, Abortions and Parenting?”

The obvious and most immediate link can be found in the following question; is society a reflection of the police force or is the police force a reflection of society? From the public’s perspective are the attitudes and conduct of law enforcement really an expression of what we think and believe? Or conversely, and keeping in mind the universal tendency of most people to tighten their grip on the steering wheel and slow down even if they are driving within the posted speed limit whenever a marked cruiser comes into view, to what degree does a police presence have on the everyday citizen?

Certainly there are numerous examples of how law enforcement makes its presence felt in society, as illustrated by an article titled “The Psychological Influence of the Police Uniform.”

In the opening paragraphs from his March 2001 post Richard R. Johnson, a former Indiana State Trooper and military police officer observed that “most people can identify with law enforcement officers by their official uniform.” He went on to state that “The crisp uniform of the police officer conveys power and authority. When officers put on their uniforms, citizens believe that they embody stereotypes about all police officers.”

Referencing past research, which according to Johnson suggests “that clothing has a powerful impact on how people perceive each other, the former State Trooper expressed the opinion that “the police officer’s uniform has a profound psychological impact on others, and even slight alterations to the style of the uniform may change how citizens perceive them.” An influence, according to Johnson that dates as far back as 1829, when the London Metropolitan Police became the first force to don “standard police apparel.”

The weight of the authority portrayed by “the uniform” of law enforcement can even transcend the police department. One such example is in Ottawa, Canada where the same cut and color of the local police has been standardized to a number of areas of civic services including ambulance and emergency staff, as well as the “affectionately” referred to green hornets or parking authority officers.

In the latter instance, the move to a police-type uniform was largely predicated by the rising and sometimes physical confrontations between irate citizens and the men and women responsible for issuing tickets when the meter expired. The thinking, which aligns with the premise of the Johnson article, was to leverage or perhaps trade on the response of the public to the law enforcement uniform.

After all, according to Johnson “Most people can identify law enforcement officers by their official police uniform. When citizens on a busy street need help, they scan the crowd of pedestrians looking for the distinctive uniform of a police officer.”

Studies have also been done that show that a large component of officer safety is derived from the wearing of a neatly worn and tailored uniform. Individuals in prison have routinely reported that their decision to attack an officer is preceded by a “sizing up” of the officer based in great part on his or her uniform appearance.

As further testimony to the impact and power of the uniform, basic police academy curriculum teach similar variations on the use of force continuum with deadly force being at the upper end of the range. At the lower end, interestingly to our point, is “officer presence.” What this means in practical street enforcement terms, is that law enforcement legal and tactical experts recognize the power of the officer or deputy sheriff in uniform to alter behavior even without the use of verbal commands or other escalation up the use of force continuum.

Even police academy recruits apparently “relish the day when they finally wear their official uniforms.” In fact, cadets all across the country have to be routinely cautioned to take care in their uniformed public interactions as the public expects them to operate at the professional officer level that they are still aspiring towards. They have to learn that the uniform, though a powerful symbol that can affect the behavior of others, is only a surface aspect of a professional law enforcer. That competent professional is comprised of a sharp uniform appearance backed up by the substance of experience, education, and training,

Outside of the uniform itself, law enforcement in whatever outwardly manifested form it takes, implies an adherence to order and civil obedience.

Take the opening paragraphs of this chapter, and our reference to the fictional, albeit powerful account of societal prejudices being influenced – or perhaps controlled would be a better word, by a local sheriff who restored law and order sans uniform.

But what happens when a tidal wave of public opinion is so strong that it becomes the defining factor of policing and, at what point does this occur?

One can only surmise the degree of challenge and influence that the symbiotic interplay of different cultural backgrounds and societal mores presents to those in law enforcement in both the movie and Vollmer’s real-life era, as well as in today’s more complex world.

In fact, a 2005 paper titled “Building Relationships: Using Volunteers to Address the Needs of Multicultural Communities,” points to the enduring nature of the challenges associated with policing in what are truly divergent communities.

Recognizing what the paper referred to as the “unique challenges to law enforcement” presented by cities that are “increasing in both size and diversity,” relationships between police and members of the community are often strained as a result of “language barriers, cultural misperceptions, fear of authority figures, as well as immigration issues.” This has lead a growing number of law enforcement agencies to adopt new policing policies and strategies in an effort to better understand the requirements of the people and communities they serve.

This idea has particular power in our news today as the new immigration laws at the state level enacted in Arizona spark contentious debate. Some contend that such a law further exacerbates the chasm between law enforcement and those that they police by hindering information needed for criminal investigations.

The growing chasm to which we are referring was reported in a June 5th, 2010 Reuters article titled “Arizona police officer challenges migrant law.” Specifically, Tucson police officer Martin Escobar lamented the fact that despite working hard to “build relationships of trust in the working class Mexican-American neighborhood he patrols, the just passed Arizona immigration law cracking down on illegal immigrants will most likely prevent some residents from “coming forward to report crimes like robberies and domestic violence, for fear of being arrested.”

With this in mind, and establishing yet another connection of continuity to Vollmer’s time, one does gain an even greater appreciation for the vision he pursued in his efforts to establish a more educated and diversified police force as a means of responding to and perhaps mirroring the shifting realities of a rapidly changing country.

To what degree his specific initiatives continue to influence current day law enforcement practices remains to be seen. However it is clear that the legacy of the era in which Vollmer served has undoubtedly contributed to the shaping of the key interactive elements between the public and police in the here and now.

For example, and as alluded to earlier, Vollmer was the first police chief to “create a motorized force, placing officers on motorcycles and in cars so that they could patrol a broader area with greater efficiency.” He also introduced radios in patrol cars.

What is interesting to note however is that Vollmer’s introduction of the concept of a motorized force in and of itself remains valid to this day. However, the utilization of this resource has at times been the source of considerable debate. The community interaction of an earlier era in policing, which was replaced by officers whizzing by, windows closed in air-conditioned cruisers, communicating only when dealing directly at the scenes of calls for police service is just one instance of this disconnect that immediately comes to mind.

In yet another ironic turn, the very contradiction between Vollmer’s effectiveness in the small town of Berkley versus his short, and somewhat frustrating tenure as the chief of the metropolitan Los Angeles police department, represents perhaps the unresolved origins of the continuing debate regarding the effectiveness of police response versus police presence (i.e. the uniform) as a viable strategy.

Take for example the seminal Kansas City Preventive Patrol experiment in 1972 and 1973 which was based on the assumption that the reactive approach to policing which was the standard modus operandi since the advent of the two-way radio and telephone in the 1920’s was largely ineffective.

The premise was fairly straight forward in that it centered on the assumption that the presence or potential presence of police officers would reduce the likelihood of a crime being committed.

Perhaps surprisingly, and in contrast to the views presented in the Johnson article, the major findings from the Kansas City experiment were as follows:

1. Citizens did not notice the difference when the frequency of patrols was changed.

2. Increasing or decreasing the level of patrol had no significant effect on resident and commercial burglaries, auto thefts, larcenies involving auto accessories, robberies, or vandalism–crimes.

3. The rate at which crimes were reported did not differ significantly across the experimental beats.

4. Citizen reported fear of crime was not affected by different levels of patrol.

5. Citizen satisfaction with police did not vary.

The final conclusion was that the “routine preventive patrol in marked police cars” did little to dissuade crime or alleviate public concerns surrounding safety.

But is this necessarily the case in all circumstances?

Does the size of the community in which a presence and subsequently a more direct and daily interaction between law enforcement and the community have an impact on the success of an initiative such as the one undertaken in Kansas City in 1972-73?

Let’s refer once again to the “Building Relationships” paper, and more specifically the case example of how the Delray Beach Police Department “DBPD” initiated a “community outreach program” to combat a rise in crime and victimization rates associated with the influx of Haitian refugees.

The outreach program was launched with both police and community leaders visiting Haitian churches to “build partnerships and enhance communication” within the rapidly expanding community. This included the creation of the citizen police academy or “CPA,” in which participants would be trained as part of the new Haitian Roving Patrol team.

Used as a means to “supplement the law enforcement efforts of the DBPD, upon completing a 10-week training program HARP volunteers would work in pairs patrolling the Haitian neighborhoods in specially marked vehicles.

An extension of Vollmer’s motorized force concept, program volunteers believe that the patrols have “brought the community together,” while serving as a liaison in terms of “expressing community concerns to the police and, by extension the city” as well.

One of the keys to HARP’s success according to the city’s chief of police is the fact that besides proactively initiating contact with the Haitian community, the DBPD-led program helped to “bridge the cultural divide.”

In re-examining the results from the Kansas City experiment, which focused solely on a police presence, the Delray Beach program reached out to include members of the community in their efforts to create visibility. While the Kansas City program had a negligible impact on crimes such as auto theft and robberies, Delray Beach saw a “large decrease in these types of crimes” almost immediately following the program’s inception.

The mutual influence between the public and the police (and even between members of the public itself) associated with the effectiveness of the Delray Beach program leads to two very basic questions; is citizen involvement along the lines of a community or neighborhood policing strategy the key difference in terms of the success of the Delray Beach initiative versus the Kansas City experiment, and can programs such as Delray Beach’s HARP work in larger urban centers?

With an estimated population of less than 60,000 in 1996 (according to a 2000 census there were 60,020) when the DBPD program was launched, what influence did the close geographic proximity of Delray Beach residents to one another have on the engagement and implementation of HARP?

Conversely, a 1974 book (The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment; Kelling, Pate, Dieckman and Brown) presented the argument that “because of its large geographical area and relatively low population Kansas City was not representative of the more populous urban areas of the United States.” While the authors offer an interesting postulation, suggesting that Kansas City’s population of 470,000 covering an area of 316 square miles somehow disqualified it as a large city reference, at nearly 8 times the size of the Delray Beach community, it is in terms of the comparison being made in this book a much larger center.

Like the chasmic differences in the success Vollmer had achieved when he was the police chief in Berkley versus his time in a similar capacity with the Los Angeles Police Department, is productive community influence, interaction, and involvement the sole domain of the smaller center? The results seem to indicate that factors such presence is indeed better suited to less populated cities.

The “Building Relationships” paper would seem to support this conclusion based on the results from initiatives similar to the one introduced in Delray Beach that have been launched in larger communities such as Colorado Springs.

A city with a population of 350,000, the Colorado Springs Police Department reached out to their indigenous Hispanic population through the establishment of the Español Service Program or “ESP.” While the results in terms of a tangible decrease in crime could be determined in the Delray Beach example, similar results have been much harder to define beyond improved community relations in Colorado Springs.

Even though there is a general and persisting belief that a combined police and citizen presence was an effective means of reducing crime in Colorado, it would appear that population density is perhaps more influential than cultural diversity within a community.

In this what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander scenario, it is interesting to note that George L. Kelling, who co-authored the above referenced 1974 book about the Kansas City experiment, went on to co-author the seminal text “Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities.” In this later work, and perhaps influenced by the knowledge he gained from the Kansas City experiment, Kelling’s “broken windows” approach which has been adopted by major US cities such as New York, addresses the differences associated with how citizens within large urban centers view and respond to law enforcement versus the response of their counterparts in small town USA.

Rather than focusing on the community presence associated with the Kansas City experiment, or the community involvement approach of the Delray Beach initiative, Kelling’s 1997 book forwarded the premise that controlling or clamping down on disorderly behavior in large cities such as fare dodging and easier arrest processing would ultimately prevent serious crimes.

Unlike Vollmer, whose policy of “leniency towards petty offenders” although criticized by some, was nonetheless effective during his Berkley tenure , Kelling’s view which is more in line with the axiom give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile, gave no quarter to any criminal act.

The findings associated with Problem-Oriented Policing or “POP” would tend to support Kelling’s differentiation and therefore his broken windows approach.

POP, which was coined by Herman Goldstein a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is based on the “identification and analysis” of specific crime and disorder problems in an effort to develop a suitable response by police.

The strategy, which can be considered an objective lens through which law enforcement effectiveness can be both viewed and managed regardless of population size, places a greater emphasis on research and analysis, along with an increased focus on crime prevention through the engagement of both public and private sector organizations.

Zeroing in on key factors such as repeated incidents that occur within a specific community that appear to share similar characteristics, POP attempts to leverage the observational powers of the rank-and-file officers in the field to move from a reactive enforcement response to one which seeks to understand the root cause and address it. Specifically, POP focuses on curing the problem versus treating the symptoms.

In the case of Delray Beach, the core problem was seen as being one of “proactive” community relations between the authorities and the swelling Haitian community. In New York City, in which the broken windows approach was followed by law enforcement, the core issue centered on the swift “reaction” or response to petty crime.

In the area of proactive versus reactive policing however, issues in the practical application of POP do exist.

Establishing accountability from a managerial standpoint relative to the implementation of a successful initiative is a key area of focus. This move is often a shock to the corporate culture of a police agency, many of whom have historically been framed by their adherence to traditions and customs.

Indeed, even law enforcement officers themselves makes jokes concerning the intransience of law enforcement and its resistance to change and new theories. Local agencies like to joke that state law enforcers represent “60 years of tradition uninterrupted by progress.

In New York City, former police commissioner Dr. Lee P. Brown, an experienced and respected administrator who headed forces in Atlanta, Portland, and Houston, before the NYPD, found himself mired in the muck of tradition. The man who later became the mayor of Houston was unable to change the rigid corporate culture of the 30,000 plus member department.

The practical application of the academic theories behind “Broken Windows” and POP created a never before seen shift. It was only with the rise of Bill Bratton running the New York City Transit Police and then the New York City Police Department on the accountability driven COMSTAT model that change to the policing corporate culture was achieved. Commissioner Bratton later went on to an even more successful tenure as the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Consider large metropolitan areas, and the volume of 911 calls that are received by dispatchers on a 24/7 basis. Within most major North American centers, these calls are concentrated in what are often referred to as “hot spots” or problem neighborhoods, where the incidence of crime is considerably higher than those neighborhoods which are considered to be quieter or more law abiding communities.

The paradox of course is that these low incident communities in which there is a nominal level of crime actually afford police officers with the time to pursue the “genuine problem-solving” techniques championed by POP. On the other hand, and in the hot spot areas where POP would prove to be more beneficial, officers are so busy responding or reacting to crime that they have very little time for pro-active, preventative policing.

This brings us back to the larger question regarding the differences in law enforcement practices in small town America versus big city America. Has large metropolitan policing been reduced to being a reactive, zero tolerance, and sledge hammer response to criminal acts which serve as a deterrent to future crime? If it has, what is the impact on the greater community?

Alternatively is the Andy Griffith aw shucks type of relational policing championed by Vollmer, in which there is a proactive effort to know and engage the community and in the process remove the foundational elements of crime before they become an issue, limited to small towns?

And that’s not to mention the vast swaths of the nation that fall between the geographical compact small towns in which “everybody knows your name” and the big cities that can use large pools of pinpointed resources to put crime statistics to the levels that are akin to those from the 1960s. One of the few areas to experience crime increases, rural America, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) data, has bucked the national trend which is also influenced by other factors such as geographic and demographic population shifts.

Looking beyond the big city versus small town comparison, what are the important differences in policing relative to specific aspects of law enforcement, including problem areas such as illegal drug use, domestic violence or child abuse?

Recent headline grabbing stories such as where a police officer was filmed punching an unruly woman jaywalker, or an agitated foreigner in a Vancouver airport died at the hands of the four Taser-wielding Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who were attempting to subdue him, means that this is a valid question for even the seemingly lesser or more innocuous infractions like disorderly conduct.

Based on the above, the real question for some is at what point does policing America actually begin? How far does one go in terms of prevention versus reaction?

Controversial studies, such as the 2001 paper “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime” by Yale University’s John Donohue and the University of Chicago’s Steven Levitt correlates the legalization of abortion in the 1970s to the reduced crime rates in the 90s. Besides opening up a proverbial can of worms, polarizing studies such as these speak to the complexity of the relationship between societal mores and policing in the 21st century.

Over the remaining chapters of this book, we will examine each of these as well as other aspects of the at times uneasy interactive balance of societal sensibilities and police imperatives including the unique flashpoints that, as is the case with the crash of an airliner, explodes into our collective consciousness.

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