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All That Money, Too Few Terrorists

Police in a democracy belong to the people they serve. Yet one would be hard pressed to picture today's police departments even approximating the ideal of a "people's police."
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It was inevitable. In the aftermath of 9/11, the federal government started distributing dollars -- 40 billion of them, to date -- to local jurisdictions for the purpose of combating terrorism. Yet it was apparent from the beginning that most local police agencies had little or no use for the money. Until they found one. And now the "homeland" is less secure.

And the institution of policing has been forever altered, not for the better.

As Radley Balko wrote in his superb, deeply troubling piece in these pages, the federal government has not only shoveled a bundle of money at local communities, it has also "claimed a number of new policing powers in the name of protecting the country from terrorism, often at the expense of civil liberties." Mr. Balko nails it in the next sentence: "But once claimed, those powers are overwhelmingly used in the war on drugs."

Balko writes of the bruising of our civil liberties, particularly the Fourth Amendment. He cites examples of local law enforcement in some of the tiniest towns in the land fielding SWAT units, donning camouflage or battle dress uniforms, motoring around in military vehicles, sporting military weaponry, and going after every form of nonviolent offender imaginable, from student loan scofflaws to poker players, all with military zeal.

But there is another casualty of this undemocratic, mission-creeping, institutionalized madness: community policing.

I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy, "PR" definitions of community policing, a fraud perpetrated in the name of political correctness (and as an avenue to pre-9/11 federal grants).

Genuine community policing rejects this sentimentalized, superficial version of police work in favor of an authentic partnership. One characterized by joint community-police efforts to identify and solve crime, traffic and other problems; formulate or refine operational policies and procedures; manage crises and carry out rigorous, effective civilian oversight to assure police transparency and accountability.

In other words, community policing demands, for its long-term success, the dismantling of the police paramilitary bureaucracy. Baby steps in that direction were underway in a small number of departments during the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

Cue 9/11.

Pretty much everything reformers had been working on to accomplish that transformation was wiped out on one tragic morning in the nation's history.

Police critics of true community policing -- their numbers are legion -- suddenly found a vastly different, much friendlier landscape. The language of partnerships and problem solving gave way to a new, distinctly military lexicon, and mentality.

In the worst case, a police department's "partners" were no longer welcome at HQ or in the precincts. After all, some of them wore burqas and long, loose-fitting clothing. Moreover, police departments were busy, preoccupied with a new mission. The procurement of military hardware, and training in its use, took time.

Indeed, my former colleagues tell me that training for a potential terrorist threat was frantic, all-consuming in the days following 9/11. They tell me "real police work" was back-burnered for months, years.

Some cities, most notably New York, have put some of that training and equipment money to good use. Serious threats have been thwarted. (I am a fan of NYPD's anti-terrorism organization and preparedness, not so high on its marijuana enforcement policies and practices.) Yet the vast majority of U.S. cities and towns have not had a single credible terrorist threat in 10 years, or in the last hundred.

So what to do with all that training, the equipment, the BDUs? There is a legitimate, limited place for military-like appearance and tactics: armed bank jobs, home invasion robberies, barricaded suspects, life-threatening hostage situations. These were the kinds of 9-1-1 calls SWAT was created to handle in the first place. It was never intended to raid a family's home on an anonymous tip of half a lid of grass.

Police in a democracy belong to the people they serve; if there is a senior partner in the relationship, it's the citizenry. Yet one would be hard pressed to picture today's police departments even approximating the ideal of a "people's police."

To cops who've not forgotten why they are here, who perform their peacekeeping roles responsibly, often heroically, I say thank you. Especially since I know you are successful in spite of the system, not because of it.

Tragically, too many police departments are, in the language of sixties activists, a repressive military force, uniformed and geared up to occupy, not serve, America's neighborhoods.

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