Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Law Enforcement- What Are We Doing, Anyway?

I've been thinking a lot (insert cliche about how that's dangerous) about what enforcement means, what gets enforced, and why. When I moved from working in the non-profit animal welfare world to the law enforcement side, I was all gung-ho about community policing. Oh boy, I naively thought, policing has moved forward: we can work WITH the community and local agencies, instead of working ON the community. I had worked at another animal control facility, but this was in a laid back, much more rural area, and the officers were under the sheriffs department. The community was a agricultural and tourist area, and really didn't face many challenges of an urban environment. Maybe they needed community policing, maybe not. I wasn't an officer then, though I worked closely with them.

Now, I think a lot about enforcement and building bridges with other agencies and service providers. And I'm learning that while great in theory, it's extremely difficult in practice. I know and have relationships with some great beat officers who know everyone in their area and treat them with great respect: when there's a problem, they know who to call and do their best to help. But cities are fragmented places and bureaucracy is deeply entrenched. Even these great cops can't get a whole lot done when they're working in the system. They can call on me, the animal control officer, to help with animal issues, because they know I will help. They can call adult protective services and hope for the best. But bottom line, the system often fails. And these are the officers who are working the best to work the system. The system is bigger than all of us.

I've been thinking about this for a lot of reasons. The great Oakland North blog (follow it if you're not) recently had a blogger do a ride-along all day with a unit in Oakland charged with dealing with underage sex workers. The blogger, Mary Flynn did, depending on your view of reporting, a good job of leaving responses to this type of policing up to the reader. Basically, a whole bunch of OPD resources are tied up on officers tailing and arresting juvenile sex workers. They do not arrest any men soliciting the prostitutes (I prefer "sex workers") and they do not arrest any pimps. The cops acknowledge some of the problems- the pimps will beat the shit out of the women later, these arrests won't stop the problem, the program is costly, and the women will either be released very quickly back to the same problem environment or held in jail (not a great idea either) for weeks. But the cops don't react to these problems, or Flynn doesn't include their reactions.

So what's the point? And what's community oriented about this? Yes, they take the arrested women to a "staging area" and offer the women resources, but the cops know that few will take advantage of these services. So is the point to round up sex workers by arresting them and force them to "get help" through what seems to me like "reeducation camps?" Hardly community oriented. Technically, Oakland believes in Community Policing. Are the police the last line of defense in this situation or the first? Could police be working more effectively with the groups mentioned in the blog- why are they arresting women to bring them to the groups? Seems counter-intuitive.

I have turned into a person who calls the cops. I never would have done this before: I was more of a live and let live kind of person. I don't know what happened to me- maybe it's just more comfort around uniforms. Last week I was walking the dog and there was a man in a full suit sitting, legs stretched out in front of him, with an old skool boom box and a suitcase, in my neighborhood. We don't live in a neighborhood where men in suits with boomboxes sit on the ground. He appeared to be talking or singing. I decided if he was still there after my walk I would call the police. Fifteen minutes later he was on the other side of the street, still in a suit, still with a boombox. It was an odd sight. He was definitely singing now. I couldn't tell if he was drunk or mentally ill, but he was out of place. He needed help. My first line of defense is to call the police in this situation. I called the non-emergency line and the police came. He was taken to jail.

This is not ideal. Why should a drunk man (if he was deemed mentally ill, he would have been taken to a psych facility) be taken to jail? Historically, this is true- think of all the movies and books you've read where drunk guys are taken to a cell to sober up. But really, a) why should I have to call the police to report a random dude in a suit in my neighborhood and b) why should random drunk dude in a suit have to go to jail because he's had too much to drink? Sure, I could have tried to talk to him, but I live in a sort of dangerous place. And I had Mac. If he was someone I recognized from the neighborhood, I would have. And I had to call the police, because like in the sex worker case, I *don't know who else to call.* Is there a hotline for a group who helps intoxicated people on the street? I don't know. If there is, it's not easily accessible or well advertised. And why do the police have to take drunk man to jail? If he doesn't have anywhere else to go, why don't they have anywhere else to take him? Is this really community based policing?

Note: I'm not picking on Oakland here. Oakland has a lot of faults (I could pick on Oakland), but I don't think these issues are specific to Oakland. I think a lot of cities do roundups of "prostitutes"- it's a traditional strategy. And I would guess the majority of places "throw drunks in the tank" to "dry up." But this is an enforcement strategy, and I don't think these situations (which I'm using as examples) call for enforcement. What does "community based policing" mean? What could it mean? How could we move forward, bypassing bureaucracy, and actually helping people, and helping the community?