A 21st-Century Model of Law Enforcement

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Two developments in the past week, one in Washington and one in New York City, have underscored the high and lows of America's fight against crime, and brought to mind remarks I gave at the National Community Policing Conference early this summer.

The high was the report by the federal Department of Justice indicating that nationally rates of property crime and violent crime other than homicides have declined to their lowest levels since the federal government began measuring them in 1973.
One can also see it as a measure of progress in broad terms that homicides increased just 1 percent in 2003, from 2002, the last year for which complete statistics are available.

The low, however, reminds us in the most tragic way that crime still bedevils our communities, and that police officers themselves often bear the most extraordinary risk.

Last week two veteran New York City police detectives, well-liked by their colleagues and well-respected in the community they served, were shot to death while responding to a mother's pleas to prevent her 28-year-old son from repeatedly taking her car without her permission. News reports pointed out that the officers were mourned not only by their fellow police officers but also by numerous community residents.

The murder of partners Detective Robert Parker and Detective Patrick Rafferty sadly emphasizes the enormous mental tension police officers must endure on the job: they can never be sure that even a seemingly routine performance of their duty of public service will not escalate to the highest level of violence.

However, the grief expressed by community residents—the only silver lining in this despairing story—is a measure of the trust they placed in those officers, a measure of their feeling they could count on them.

From its beginning a decade ago the federally-sponsored Community Oriented Policing Services program has had that as its twin goals—reducing crime, and building the trust of citizens in the police officers; and in that time it has re-affirmed the old wisdom about policing: that citizens' trust in the police is an essential ingredient to preventing as well as solving crime.

As Mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2001, I saw firsthand the positive difference COPS program funds can make in bringing new officers, new equipment and new techniques of law enforcement to a community that felt itself under siege from crime. It helped New Orleans reduce crime overall, give up its unwanted title of "Murder Capital of America,"and, equally important, make more law-abiding citizens and more police see each other as partners in fighting crime.

The pursuit of those goals is more important than ever now as America faces the added threat of terrorism on the home front. For that reason, and because far too many communities are yet marked by high crime rates, the lessons from a decade's existence of the COPS program can help us think creatively, strategically and practically about what a 21st-century model of law enforcement should look like.

First, there must be even more emphasis on better training, and higher educational standards for hiring and promotion. We must continually re-affirm that being in law enforcement—being a police officer, a sheriff – is not just a job but a commitment to public service and a profession, a profession of dignity and honor.

Secondly, we must recognize that the necessity of diversity in policing is a must, now more than ever, if police agencies are to build and maintain the trust of all the communities they serve.

Third, there must be a greater focus put on law enforcement partnerships with community religious institutions, businesses and shops, and other local organizations n ways that make it apparent that the police department is, as they are, another foundation of the community's and individuals' public safety .

We also must think more seriously about allowing law enforcement officers such things as career sabbaticals and different kinds of early-retirement options. There's no doubt that the new national-security concerns of law enforcement—which now touch virtually every police officer the country—have sharply intensified what was already a high-stress profession. That should spur us to consider ways of making policing more attractive to those contemplating it as a career as well as helping those who've chosen it manage dealing with the stress while on the job.
Finally, we must make a renewed commitment to reject racial profiling in law enforcement. It is not a rational or effective tool of preventing crime or terrorism—but it can destroy trust between law enforcement and those groups of Americans who are victimized by it. This is another reason diversity in hiring and community oriented policing—which is built building trust between law enforcement and community institutions and individuals—is so critical.

It can be a bulwark, for both the police and the community, in protecting the civil rights and civil liberties we deserve as it protects from the crime and terrorism that threatens us. Peace officers and law-abiding citizens deserve no less.

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