Are security cameras the answer for Lansing?
I say no - by Bonnie Bucqueroux
Mayor Virg Bernero’s new crime-fighting plan holds out the hope that modern technology can provide a quick fix for Lansing’s crime problems. Invest $350,000 in 11 community security cameras and Lansing will be safer.
As a colleague of the late Dr. Bob Trojanowicz, widely acclaimed as the visionary who shaped community policing reform in the 1980s and ‘90s, in these situations, I often find myself asking, “What would Trojo do?”
First, he would undoubtedly be more politic than I will be. Second, he would remind people that the bottom line in fighting crime is that, “Nothing can outperform dedicated human beings working together. What we need are police officers stationed in neighborhoods who combine the courage of Dirty Harry with the compassion and caring of Mother Theresa.”
Security cameras are reactive. They help police identify the doers after the crimes are committed. Community policing instead works proactively, by involving police in efforts to prevent crime and deal with the dynamics that perpetuate problems.
The theory is simple. It is the community, with its enormous power of informal social control, that has the real ability to make us safer. We can never have enough police officers to break up every street-corner drug deal, to stop every bar fight from escalating into a murderous brawl, to prevent a drunken father from beating his wife and child yet again.
Community-based problem-solving allows people and their police to work together to deal with the social and physical disorder such as graffiti, prostitution and low-level drug-dealing that make neighborhoods magnets for increasing crime. The problem is not just catching the bad guys, but changing the dynamics that produce more of them and reducing the harm that their actions inflict on us all.
By working together face-to-face, the mutual trust that develops between people and police also encourages individuals to share what they know about the bad actors among us. Having officers stationed permanently in communities also provides opportunities for people to share information without drawing attention to themselves as “snitches.”
Lansing was once a local laboratory for Trojo’s best ideas. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, dedicated Lansing community policing officers like Don Christy served as a mini-police chief and mayor for the residents in small, defined neighborhood beats. Christy also directed the now-defunct Neighborhood Network Center, housed in the old State of Michigan Library, where other social service agencies worked alongside the police.
In a 1991 article in Time magazine, Officer Christy reminded us that “the good people far outnumber the bad” in even the toughest neighborhoods. The challenge lies in giving the people who want to make a positive difference the support they need. They can push back against the so-called petty crimes that not only make people’s lives miserable but that send a signal that neighborhoods are out of control. Trojanowicz founded the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice in the mid-‘80s to promote ideas incubated and tested in places like Lansing and Flint.
In a particularly cruel irony, it was supportive citizens like Carol Wood and her mother, recent murder victim Ruth Hallman, who continued to push the Lansing Police Department to do whatever it took to deploy officers in beats around the city. Even before she was elected to Lansing City Council, Wood would challenge the conventional wisdom back then that investing in computers was the easier and better answer.
Research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice has since confirmed that community policing can help reduce crime and violence in cities nationwide. For example, Jowanne Barnes-Coney, then a sergeant with the Flint Police Department, invented the curfew incentive program because she was concerned about kids out on the street late at night.
Instead of pushing for a new curfew law, Barnes-Coney allowed parents in her beat to set an individual curfew for each of their kids. The parents would report to her at the end of each month, and youngsters with a perfect record got a “treat.” Sometimes it was a picnic in a park or a trip to the museum.
The program exemplified community policing’s win-win-win philosophy. It was the parents, not the police, who solved the problem. The role of the police was to shore up parental authority. Even better was that the strategy solved the problem without putting more people into the (always expensive and overwhelmed) criminal justice system.
It is not nostalgia that compels me to revisit stories about community policing’s successes.
The truth is that those strategies are still the best answer today. A city as strapped for cash as Lansing should never spend $350,000 on technology before it has made an investment in restructuring the department to give people what they want and need — officers in neighborhoods trained to solve community problems.
The question the community must ask the mayor and the police chief is: Has the Police Department done everything it can to provide officers the time, opportunity and continuity to work directly with people in neighborhoods?
I spent the early ’90s as associate director of the center that Trojanowicz ran. For 18 months, I was part of a community policing team funded by the U.S. departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Affairs to work on reducing violence in 60 public housing developments nationwide. This was at a time when the number of homicides in the United States hovered around 23,000 each year.
Through efforts such as community policing and other factors, the number of homicides has since dropped to 16,700 in 2005, though the population is far larger. Part of our role was to arm residents in high-crime communities with follow-up questions for the police and the politicians about the changes it takes to put officers back into the community as problem solvers:
Putting officers on bicycles is not community policing. The issue isn’t the means of locomotion but the structured opportunities for sustained interaction with community residents and targeted training in collaborative problem solving.
Community policing, on the other hand, is tricky to implement, and it involves a long-term commitment. Fellow officers who feel stressed running from call to call can also resent seeing these “lollicops” get all the glory for putting on a street fair or working with kids to plant flowers.
But, at the end of the day, it is community policing that produces results. Community cameras may make sense to look for terrorists in London, but can they outperform having people work directly with their own beat officers in Lansing’s troubled neighborhoods?
I remember when Ruth Hallman graciously invited me into her home years ago to talk about crime prevention with her daughter, Carol. Would any of the murders have been prevented if Lansing had maintained its momentum? For instance, two of the women murdered in Lansing this summer were believed to have been involved in prostitution at some point.
Community policing success often rests on encouraging officers to gather information and intelligence from people in all walks of life. Officer Christy once told me that he spent his first few weeks on the job chasing prostitutes on foot (and wondering why the department had taken his car away). Over time, he saw the challenge differently. Sometimes he worked to connect the women to job opportunities to get them off the street. Those he couldn’t convert, he persuaded to move their business away from the residential streets that kids frequented. The women were grateful for his concern and compassion and, in return, they often shared information about people in the community to keep an eye on.
The yardstick that I have always used to measure police success in Lansing involves the story that one woman who lived near downtown told years ago. She talked about looking out the window each day around lunch time, when a young girl about 12 years old would appear on her bicycle. The girl would ride in circles in the quiet intersection, as her pimp sat on the curb, ready to negotiate with the clients who would arrive in their business suits.
The woman would call the police and a patrol car would often arrive shortly, thereafter. But the pimp was smart enough to make sure he and the girl were long gone by then. Time after time, the officers would shake their heads, telling the woman, “Sorry, there’s just nothing we can do.”
The woman would repeatedly ask, “How can the police claim success if they don’t have any help for that little girl?”
Community officers like Don Christy understood that you keep trying until you solve the problem, engaging the community to help. Security cameras might be a nicety after the LPD tackles putting officers back in neighborhoods, but installing expensive new cameras by themselves will do little more than push the problem a few blocks away.
Bonnie Bucqueroux was associate director for the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University. In the dozen years since she left that position, she has been coordinator of the Victims and the Media Program at MSU’s School of Journalism. She continues to consult with national police organizations and write about community policing through Policing.com.