Why we need cops to protect and serve, not stand and wait

Police officers nationwide face daily criticism and scrutiny of their actions; here’s how to ensure this doesn’t lead to ‘de-policing’ at your PD


Effective policing is as much about preventing crime as it is responding to crime. Good cops embrace this mission through strong observation skills and detection of suspicious behavior. Effective cops know how to react to what they observe and are able to articulate it in police reports to ensure prosecution. However what began as a proactive policing method along the lines of acting on reasonable suspicion – in compliance with Terry v Ohio – may have mutated into activity rejected by the general public and the New York State Supreme Court. High-profile incidents have led to harsh criticism of so-called “aggressive policing,” which could cause some cops to retreat to their cars and wait to be dispatched to calls.

There are many problems with a reactive response. Personnel who respond only to calls for service are in essence waiting for something bad to happen. Communities need proactive policing because it prevents or limits harm and loss to victims. Response-driven policing is merely a system of report taking for property crime and calling for medical assistance to attend to victims of violent crime.

Self-initiated police activity can be the precursor to a foot pursuit, vehicle pursuit, violent resistance or even a gun battle. Split-second decision making by the officer(s) involved is essential and, as Graham v Connor determined, the objective reasonableness of any force applied will be examined. Those who question a police officer’s actions may be professional – an internal affairs investigations or a review by the District Attorney, State Attorney General or even the Federal Department of Justice into allegations of unnecessary force, excessive force or wrongful death. Outside critics may be the media, justice advocates or the public. It can be tempting to acquiesce to the harsh criticism and scrutiny given to law enforcement personnel today.

The poet John Milton (1608-1674) said, “They also serve, who only stand and wait.” That is a motto we should not yet embrace in law enforcement. (Photo/PoliceOne)
The poet John Milton (1608-1674) said, “They also serve, who only stand and wait.” That is a motto we should not yet embrace in law enforcement. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Goal-oriented policing

Rather than create a quota or disciplinary action for officers who fail to show enough self-initiated activity, police departments should implement regular enforcement operations that serve meaningful purpose in reducing criminal activity and recidivism by chronic offenders.

Consider that a recent DOJ study showed extremely high recidivism rates (up to 83 percent) within nine years of release from custody. Clearly, this is a segment of the population that requires monitoring, which can be achieved through the following operations.

1. Warrant unit

The low-hanging fruit in any jurisdiction for law enforcement comes in the form of those who have already been arrested, held to answer for their crimes, and perhaps have even been convicted of their crime. They are, of course, absconders who fail to appear for a court hearing, parole board hearing or sentencing. A warrant unit can supply field officers with most information necessary to provide leads toward taking the fugitive into custody. Warrants and linesups can be distributed at roll calls for officers to passively or actively be on the lookout. In addition to the information on the pending crime, officers will have a photograph and criminal history record to prepare them with knowledge of prior arrests, propensity to resist and prior weapons possession.

2. Sex offender unit

Every county has a number of registered sex offenders living in their communities. Registered sex offenders are required to register each year on their birthday with local law enforcement. Parole or probation officers are a great resource in getting a program started or to arrange compliance checks or investigations related to recent sex crimes. Depending on the number of registrants in your jurisdiction, packets may be distributed for compliance checks between calls for service or to actively search for those out of compliance.

3. Gang injunctions

Not every city or town has a gang problem, but for those with gang-related crime, gang injunctions may be an effective tool to help disrupt gang activity. Gang injunctions are not punitive, nor are they arbitrary. A tremendous amount of data collection and documentation must be done before a magistrate will sign an injunction. Once acquired, the injunctions allow officers to be pre-emptive under a judges’ order to keep validated gang members from certain areas, certain associates, and from contraband, weapons and offenses.

4. Prohibited firearm owner investigations

Each year, individuals who may have had legal standing to own a firearm, may commit an act that would then make them ineligible to possess them afterwards. Individuals who have been convicted of a felony, domestic violence, or a variety of misdemeanors may be prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm. Those with mental illnesses described in their state and federal codes will be prohibited as well. In California this year, an estimated 10,000 individuals have firearms they cannot legally possess. Several agencies take information from the state database called the Armed Prohibited Persons System.

Federally, the database to run a background check for firearms purchases may be inaccurate or too slow to produce results within the mandated 72-hour time limit. In those cases, firearms may be granted to those who may be found ineligible at a later date. In December 2017, the FBI issued 4,000 seizure notices to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to retrieve guns from purchasers who failed backgrounds checks. Agencies may request lists of prohibited registered firearms owners from their state. Local officers may track and retrieve the weapons.

5. State and federal task forces

Agency management may dispute that they do not get “the bang for the buck” in dedicating personnel from their departments to a state or federal task force. I would counter that the opportunities create situational awareness, open the doors to additional resources and act as force multipliers. State and federal task forces look at the big picture and may have significant impact on crime in your city or county. The budget, technology and access to analysts provided by the task forces will almost certainly be beyond your current capability at your agency. Individuals dedicated from your agency should have regular reporting protocols to keep your agency aware of their activity and intelligence information must be relayed back to your home agency.

6. Code enforcement

In December 2016 a fire erupted at a makeshift community for artists within a large warehouse in Oakland, California, during a rave party. Wooden pallets serving as a stairway and other materials caused the fire to trap dozens of tenants and party attendants, killing 36 individuals. Once the smoke literally cleared, the finger pointing began, with most blaming the Oakland Fire Department for its lack of attention to the hazardous structure, but also the Oakland Police Department, which had visited the warehouse on several occasions on calls for service. Clearly the authority to address fire hazards is in the realm of fire departments, but law enforcement also has a duty to report such obvious and glaring safety hazards.

Code enforcement is a tool agencies can use to shutter abandoned or mismanaged structures that some would use to squat or use for prostitution, drugs and vandalism. Broken windows policing includes addressing blighted areas and to build community efficacy. The city attorney is instrumental in locating the property owner and giving notice that if the problem is not abated, a lien may follow.

In areas where such conditions exist, officers may be given a problem-solving SARA (Scan, Analyze, Respond and Assess) project to take a long-term solution approach to a house with a chronic history of calls for service to determine a strategy. The project may take months to identify, apply a solution and assess the progress toward reaching goals.

Additional programs

There are other valuable ways to engage officers in proactive policing.

The use of automated license plate readers (ALPR) can help detect and recover not only stolen autos, but may also be programmed to identify vehicles related to other types of crime. They may also be used post-incidents to identify vehicles in the area where a crime has been committed.

Driving under the Influence (DUI) checkpoints are valuable as an enforcement tool, as well as a preventative measure. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the use of DUI checkpoints as lawful as applied to the U.S. Constitution and Fourth Amendment. The checkpoints should show value in detecting impaired drivers in states with legalized marijuana.

While drugs for personal use may be decriminalized or outright legalized in many states, it is universally illegal to sell drugs outside of recognized establishments. Buy-busts or sting operations are still effective in reducing street dealing.

Most parole or probation officers would welcome assistance with compliance checks of chronic offenders. Outside agencies, such as the public health department or mental health clinics may welcome help in dealing with those with mental illness.

Next Steps

Each of the operations listed above has been managed at several departments for years. Further information may be obtained from your county or state resources such as your sheriff’s departments, county solicitor or district attorney, state police and federal agencies (ATF, DEA, FBI, DOJ). The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Center for Problem Oriented Policing have templates for problem solving and enforcement operations.

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