I just read two articles that struck a chord in me. It’s a chord that seems to be striking often these days.
Both of these articles, the first from the Chicago Tribune and the second found on the website Law Enforcement Today, are exceptionally researched and written. They lay out facts, figures and realities about law enforcement and community violence. They speculate about the past, present and future in an effort to identify why community violence exists and how to stop it. And both, to some degree, obviously put much of the responsibility on police.
What prompted the articles is the spike in violence, and, in particular murders, in Chicago and Baltimore over the past three years. The rates in Chicago rival those of the 1990s. For Baltimore? It’s a record for the most murders ever.
39,000 homicides: Retracing 60 years of murder in Chicago in the Tribune by Bentle, Berlin, Marx and Rumore does exactly what the title implies: They analyze the history of murder in the Windy City from 1957 through 2017. They do their best to establish reasons the city averaged over 650 homicides a year during that period.
“Many factors are behind the spike,” the authors note, “including access to guns, the fracturing and fractioning of street gangs, and poverty and disinvestment in the most effected communities.”
These conclusions, however, are the familiar, safe, and rarely challenged reasons cited by countless others to explain why violence has been permeating certain communities since the 1960s.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel regularly bemoans the lax gun laws in Indiana and Wisconsin and points to poverty to explain why his city experiences two murders and twelve shootings daily. But guns and poverty don’t answer the question completely. Indiana and Wisconsin have no universal violence problems, despite the number of guns there. As for poverty, if it was a main driver of violence it too would be universal among poor communities and consistent over time. It’s not.
Gangs and territories and “ex-convicts” roaming the streets? A “willingness by criminals to settle disputes with guns”? Yes, the authors address these factors, but they present them much like you might address the weather. It is, as they say, what it is.
The Baltimore article, Community Leader—Bring Back the Cops! by Leonard Sipes is partly a “commentary” from a Baltimore minister who is pleading for a return to proactive policing.
The article discusses the aftermath of the Freddie Gray incident: his death, the arrest and prosecution of six police officers, their acquittals and reinstatement. It also honestly addresses the abuse all Baltimore officers took from members of the community since then.
Sipes writes, “Many American police officers believe that the cops in the Freddie Gray incident did nothing wrong; they suggest that if cops were charged with murder for doing what they do every day, they could be charged as well.”
So the cops stopped being proactive. The result? For the third year in a row Baltimore has had more than 300 murders a year, and there’s no end in sight. I don’t think it’s coincidental.
Sipes holds a post-Masters’ certificate of advanced study from John Hopkins University. He does a nice job trying to come to some sort of resolution between the community and the cops. He is clearly a very intelligent and thoughtful man. But he’s never been a cop. Much of what he believes will work, I believe, will not. And I say that in large part because I have been a cop.
“There need to be rules of engagements in every high crime community as to what we want cops to do and how we want them to do it. Let every distressed community spell out what it wants done on their behalf. Let it be in writing.” Sounds great.
But in practice? I once watched a community meeting in one of Chicago’s more violent neighborhoods on television. A reporter at the meeting suggested that the community didn’t want police stopping and frisking on their streets. A mother bristled at the comment. “We want them (police) to do stop-and-frisk,” she said. “We just want them to stop the right people.”
Think about that challenge for a moment.
Sipes continues, “Too many confrontations start out as police enforcing minor traffic or criminal violations. This needs to stop unless communities tell cops otherwise. Let the community tell police when enforcement should change.”
The community does just that when they call dispatch. Most calls are for noncriminal nuisances—speeding autos, loud mufflers, illegal parking, suspicious people hanging around, and so on. Calls from citizens to 9-1-1 describe the community’s wants and needs.
Here’s the thing. There’s a gap between what works in theory and what happens in practice. In theory, people don’t want marijuana laws to be criminal. Unless the people are smoking dope in front of your house where your kids play. Drunk guys passing out? No problem—unless they pass out on your lawn (usually after urinating on it). So the cops get called. Now what?
Sipes mentions a “minor DWI.” What’s that? Deaths from drunk drivers have been drastically reduced over the last 30 years through enforcement and punishment. And still people are killed by drunk drivers rather routinely. Sipes mentions “minor domestic violence.” What’s that? Back in the 80s we went to mandatory arrests on domestics because women refused to sign complaints. We should stop that?
The community has a part to play in reducing crime. The demand over the past six years or so in many communities has been for police to be less proactive and enforce fewer minor crimes. At least that’s what’s said in public. In private, I believe, there’s another story. Most citizens want to live in safe neighborhoods. As for the police, the can’t be hired mercenaries and instead must see themselves, and be seen, as part of the community. I do believe most cops work hard and do good work. Seldom is that recognized. And when a mistake or, heaven forbid, a criminal action is committed by a police officer, the entire profession is demonized. What do you expect would be the reaction by the police, as a whole, of those characterizations?
Bottom line: Suggesting simple solutions to complex problems gets us nowhere (but it makes us feel good). Ditto in the pointing fingers and making blanket accusations. If we want to come together, now might be the time to do it. Otherwise, I’m afraid, more innocents will pay for our refusals.
I always believed the ‘Blame Game’ was used politicians in the absence of ‘Responsibility & Accountability’ at various levels. The idea that law enforcement was the solution to every social ill, man-made and otherwise was nothing more than a deflection of failed social policies, programs, and ideologies at every level and in the face of those failures, “Call the police and blame them for their response” is their usual response instead of examining the real root causes of social dysfunction and the culpability of those behind it. The challenges of modern day law enforcement are insurmountable given the unrealistic social and media fueled expectation. Unfortunately, as much as we would love the public to understand what is required of this profession, most of the public is satisfied to get their police training and expertise watching TV series and bias driven news reporting and then make judgements on this profession. Law Enforcement is an honorable and professional career punctuated by ugly, horrible, and tragic situations with impactful consequences, and yet we ask these professional to do it everyday again and again, sometimes with both hands tied behind their back. I suspect soon we will be asking them to do it on one leg…
When a “community” sees everything through hyper-tribal lenses, nothing short of a magic wand will solve the problem. Add to this the political opportunism of those who benefit by blaming everyone except the guilty, and there is no solution in sight. A complete change in the culture of these communities is necessary, and that is unlikely to happen. I think that all I am doing is expressing what Mr. Glennon said but with more pessimism.
You nailed it on the head.
Hi Jim: Thanks for the compliments. I have been a police officer and I’ve been in law enforcement support positions as a spokesperson for most of my professional life. I can’t disagree with your assessments; yes, what I wrote is a bit confusing. I guess I’m tired of police officers getting the “blame” for community problems and my thought was to put the responsibility of crime where it belongs, on the shoulders of community members. If cops are being surrounded by profane community people and filming them with smartphones via proactive policing, then it’s time to stop “unless” the community specifically asks for it. But every community in this country wants some control over which laws are enforced (why we have elected sheriffs). I ride my four wheel drive vehicle on local roads in my mountain community but it’s illegal for me to do this. Local officers just wave because they understand what the community wants. All I’m suggesting is that communities understand that they have the responsibility for crime control and that they should have a voice in the kind of law enforcement they want for proactive minor violations. Officers would be happier and safer if everyone understood the rules of engagement and the reasons why. Yep, the devil is in the details, but community assessment tools are inexpensive and available to anyone. Best, Len.
100% and glad that you took my thoughts the way I took yours. Both of us are trying to figure out how to fix this divide. A very complex issue but it seems as though politicians want it to be a simple problem so they can find a simple solution. Seems as though they come up with the solution (implicit bias for example) before they delve into the complexity of the problem. In theory I agree with ll you wrote, we need to understand and be a part of the community we serve. The domestic violence issue is an example. There was a rush in the late 80s to mandate arrests no matter what the victim says. While some believe that has worked, and it has to some degree and for some people, in many ways it backfired. Women simply stopped calling the cops because they couldn’t afford to have their husbands arrested. Just an example. Thanks again.
Thanks Jim: Yes, it’s a very complicated question.
In my day, domestic violence and DWI arrests were rare depending on what happened and the state of intoxication. I was warned by field training officers that arrests involved risk and I had to make sure that the circumstances warranted an arrest. If all hell broke loose, I was told that the first question from investigators would be why I stopped the person. The emphasis was on making good arrests that no one could question. Proactive policing was far in the future.
But beyond that, cops are leaving and recruitment is difficult. We are asking them to do the impossible. They are taking way too much abuse. It needs to stop and communities need to shoulder a fair share of the responsibility.
I know the issues in Chicago, Baltimore and other cities are not simple, but sometimes solutions start with simple steps, such as a return to Bobby Peel and nine principles of policing. You call out one of them in your article – communities are the police and police are the community. Somehow we’ve moved away from this, listening instead to the siren songs of local politics and federal funding streams.
Excellent work Jim, and cool that you and Mr. Sipes were able to communicate. You and I have each spent three decades on the job and we’ve seen our share of what works and what does not. That said, the bigger issue here is that society is drifting (I would say “falling”) further and further away from the biblical principles this country was founded on. Evil is being allowed to flourish on multiple fronts while we (the police) are restrained from being “ministers [servants] for good and a terror against evil” (Romans 13:1-4). Yes, in our system of government we are in fact servants of the people, but don’t ask us to take an oath to serve, protect and defend while at the same time asking us to not enforce the laws that are part of that oath. Moreover, don’t ask us to the do the job we’ve been trained to do and then prosecute us for doing EXACTLY what we’ve been trained to do. Blessings brother.
Outstanding article! Thank you Mr. Sipes for your efforts. Sadly this no contact, no complaint mentality will continue because we keep having officers indicted for doing their job. In the heat of a foot chase with a suspect holding a gun, your partner’s body cam catches it. Frame by frame shows the suspect dropping the gun less than a second after you fire a third shot. The gun had not hit the ground. The first two shots were deemed justified, but that one frame on body cam is enough to indict and try an officer for murder? Thankfully he was found not guilty. We are not robots. These abuses of officers send a shockwave through law enforcement across the country. When an officer gets charged and put on trial for a justified shooting, the mindset of every officer in the country is they are the ones on trial because it could happen to them at any time.