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Goldmark: Policing and the new realities

Photo Credit: Photo by Howard Schnapp

The Nassau County and New York City police departments have been under fire lately.

There are few things harder than running a police department. In my career, I've only had direct responsibility for one -- that of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- but I've been in jobs where I've been able to watch other departments and commissioners up close. So the questions being raised today ring familiar bells for me.

In New York City, the controversy simmering just below the surface is whether the police department is abusing New York's strong stop-and-frisk law by using it to harass or, worse, entrap youth in minority neighborhoods. The Nassau department is undergoing wrenching changes on two fronts: It's being asked to cut spending, and charges of corruption greet the new police commissioner, Thomas Dale, who comes from the NYPD.

For many years, the Nassau police operated according to what James Q. Wilson called the "service model." (Wilson, who died last month, was this country's pre-eminent analyst of police culture and organization.) In the service model, as distinct from the "watchman" or "legalistic" models, the police have a cozy relationship with the community -- usually a predominantly middle-class community; they defend well-understood values and protect the neighborhood against outside intruders, often intervening informally to "handle" troublesome behavior.

Today the Nassau police department faces an agenda of challenge and change: cutting back budgets, including consolidation of facilities; wrestling with costly staffing rules and overtime practices; and cleaning up a pattern of alleged corruption whose extent at this point is unclear.

Most police departments, including Nassau and NYPD, are closed, inward-facing organizations. The primary allegiance of many beat cops is toward each other, and the line of conduct they observe with the greatest loyalty is often "the blue line" rather than the law or more abstract standards of professional behavior. In our society, the police officer is the last line of defense between us and chaos, danger and lawlessness. When we're unsure as a society what to do about a problem, we often fob it off on the police to deal with, because no one else will; we did that with homelessness for many years.

Officers quickly learn that the people they can rely on most are other police, whether the danger is an armed assailant, or outside criticism or political interference. The courts, the public, the media, politicians -- sometimes even the top brass of the department -- are perceived to have agendas that may not be in the police officer's interest.

The arc of police policy and behavior continues to evolve, and two trends have contributed nationally to reduced crime rates over the past two decades. The introduction of community policing (also a product of Wilson's prolific mind) has meant early intervention by police in situations that once would have been downplayed as "disorderly conduct," such as graffiti, turnstile-jumping, or begging at red lights by squeegee men.

Wilson predicted that intervening in response to these minor infractions would deter more serious crime, and he's been proven right. And more frequent arrest of youth for possession of weapons or drugs -- aka getting them off the street -- has led to charges in New York City that the police are unfairly harassing and sometimes entrapping and arresting youth in low-income neighborhoods. This debate will become more intense in the months ahead, as candidates in next year's mayoral election position themselves as supporters or critics of the policies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Stay tuned. Both Nassau County and New York City will be wrestling publicly -- and noisily -- with issues that are central to local government and relevant throughout the country.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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