On Patrol

COMMENTARY Crime and Justice

On Patrol

Jun 1st, 2001 17 min read

The tough job of police officer gets more complicated every day

Bored after writing a few traffic tickets, throwing a foul-mouthed malingerer out of a hospital, and grabbing a bite to eat, Fort Myers patrol officer Rebecca Prince heads toward "the crack McDonald's." That's what she calls a run-down heap of leaky garden apartments on Bramen Avenue, just off a commercial corridor cluttered with gas stations, rent-to-own furniture stores, and taco stands. Even on a January night just a few degrees above freezing, it takes Prince only five minutes to find a wrongdoer.

On a side street, Christine Bosewell, a prostitute whom Prince has arrested "20 or 30 times, minimum" makes an appearance. Bosewell, a computer check confirms, has a thick pile of warrants--enough for an arrest--for failing to pay the loitering tickets Prince writes. Prince calls another officer for backup and searches Bosewell thoroughly. She finds a crack pipe in Bosewell's bra, a can of mace in her pocket, and a knife in her purse. Prince smashes the pipe and tosses the knife down a sewer, then handcuffs Bosewell and takes her back to the city's police station for booking and lockup.

As the crackling police radio grows silent around 9 p.m., Prince answers a false burglar alarm, yells at a gas station owner who lets drug dealing go on in his parking lot, and takes time to chat with a storekeeper grown weary of his neighborhood addicts.

Around 11, Prince stops a dented maroon Cadillac running a red light. A cloud of marijuana smoke strong enough to make a visitor dizzy hits Prince's face as soon as she opens the door. The smoke provides probable cause for a search. Prince calls for other officers, and four more cruisers soon appear. The search turns up a bag of cocaine, some crack, and a package of marijuana. The drug-using driver goes back to the station.

The evening didn't include the violence or physical danger that cops on TV face nearly every episode. Indeed, because of the unusual cold the night brought less action than typical. But for a good cop like Prince it was a fairly normal turn at the office. And thanks to her efforts, the neighborhood immediately became a little less ugly and dangerous.

Last year marked the ninth consecutive year of declining crime in America, though the drop was the smallest since rates started falling, and in the South crime actually rose. Still, the last decade represents the longest sustained period of crime reduction since our nation started keeping systematic statistics in 1934. Increased imprisonment, successful campaigns against drug use, favorable demographic trends, improvements in urban design, a revival of civil society in some inner cities, the peaking of underclass illegitimacy, and the end of cash-entitlement welfare have all helped to reduce crime. But great strides in the way police operate have also helped.

With an eye toward documenting crime fighting today, TAE recently researched the twin cities of Fort Myers and Cape Coral, Florida. Located on opposite sides of the Caloosahatchee River in southwestern Florida, Fort Myers and Cape Coral reveal how American crime is evolving, and how police are responding.

Fort Myers is a fairly typical U.S. city--centralized around a downtown, racially diverse, a bit stressed and chaotic, but fairly prosperous. The town's population of around 48,000 is about 30 percent black and 8 percent Latino, with whites (many of them retirees) making up the balance. Around 15 percent of residents live in poverty.

Florida has the highest crime rate of any American state-about twice the national average. While crime fell in the state during the 1990s, Florida still has a long way to go. Several of its cities rank among America's most dangerous.

Fort Myers in particular is an extremely high-crime area by national standards. In 2000, it experienced 125 serious reported crimes per 1,000 residents. That makes it around three times more dangerous than New York City, about twice as dangerous as Chicago, about the same as St. Louis, the most crime ridden large city (over 100,000 population) in the country. Fort Myers' crime rates are about four times the national average.

Like some other southern cities, Fort Myers de-incorporated certain black areas during the 1950s in order to keep newly enfranchised African Americans out of city politics. The unincorporated areas--poor and crime-ridden--resemble numerous little islands floating deep inside city boundaries. They present headaches for the police, because city officers cannot make arrests or conduct investigations in the unincorporated neighborhoods without calling in the Lee County Sheriff. Criminals know this and sometimes conduct their business on the jurisdictional boundaries, fleeing one way if a city cruiser pulls up, and another way if it's a sheriff's car.

Cape Coral is entirely different. It began one day in 1957 when Jack and Leonard Rosen--Baltimore cosmetics manufacturers turned hardball swampland salesmen--staked out a Florida field of dreams. Within ten years a community of 50,000 people grew up; the 100,000th resident moved in last year. Though in population it is now a bigger "city" than neighboring Fort Myers, Cape Coral remains mostly a sprawling bedroom community, with some commercial strip malls strung along the main highways--a classic suburbanized sunbelt creation, full of transplants and retirees occupying low-slung single-family houses that front a grid of numbered streets and canals. The city has little poverty. About 95 percent of residents are white, though an increasing number of blacks have purchased homes in recent years to escape Fort Myers' urban ills. There are no terrible neighborhoods, and the "bad" parts of town consist of short stretches of cheesy tract homes with unkempt lawns and trash in the yards.

Yet, like most of Florida, Cape Coral has more crime than comparable communities in other parts of America. It reported 37 serious crimes per 1,000 residents in 2000 (compared to Fort Myers' 125). That puts Cape Coral just about at the national average--which is high for a low-poverty bedroom community. And while crime rates fell a bit last year in Fort Myers, they rose in Cape Coral.

Cape Coral and Fort Myers both have professional police departments with dynamic, well-respected chiefs at the top. Fort Myers Chief Larry Hart is known nationally for urging the use of big-city community policing strategies in mid-sized cities. Cape Coral Chief Arnold Gibbs takes great pride in his department's certification from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Neither department, however, does anything truly extraordinary. Each has about 160 sworn officers authorized to use weapons and make arrests.

Police work is a helping profession that sometimes involves the use of violence. Police arrest murderers, hunt down missing children, stop unsafe motorists, settle quarrels between neighbors, collar shoplifters, and scatter unruly crowds. They do these things better than other citizens because they are authorized to apply force if necessary. Police must walk a fine line between being gentle enough to inspire trust and confidence while being sturdy enough to deter crime by force if pushed into that. The police thus have a nearly impossible task: They must use fear to mitigate fear.

The latest and most promising attempt to manage this difficult assignment is something called "community policing," which aims to prevent crime by working with the community to keep order. As the twentieth century unfolded, the need for courtesy, pre-emptive problem-solving, and community partnerships tended to get lost in other police priorities. Responding quickly to emergency calls became the chief goal, and so rapid mobility in cars, new technologies, reactive investigations, and paramilitary command structures were emphasized.

Today, police departments again emphasize human skills, for even the most routine police activities can demand a good deal of interpersonal deftness. At 7:30 on a quiet Thursday night, Cape Coral patrol officer Steve Petrovich responds to a radio call about a car accident. A gray-haired man in a sweatshirt has crinkled the sheet metal of his Oldsmobile by pulling in front of a pickup truck. A Taurus, trying to avoid the pile up, has run off the road. Petrovich helps a colleague administer a series of field sobriety tests.

The Oldsmobile driver, obviously inebriated, goes through a long series of kindergarten-like exercises. Asked to count backwards from 76, he recites, "76, 78, 73, 72, 75." He misses several times when asked to touch his finger to his nose. "Those tests must look pretty silly" remarks Petrovich. "But if we don't do them, we don't get the people, or we don't make good arrests It's that simple" As he is being handcuffed, the man quietly admits to drunk driving.

While the procedures of DWI stops can be taught fairly easily, a failure to follow them can cause enormous problems and some aspects of patrol work require far more discretion. Later that evening, Petrovich is called to a subdivided ranch house on a barren lot. A woman and her live-in boyfriend have gotten into a serious fight over his failure to accompany their daughter to receive an award at school. Their well-furnished but messy home, littered with fast_food packages, empty beer cans, and Harlequin romances, smells heavily of alcohol. The woman seems drunker than her boyfriend. Petrovich and another officer who assists refer to everyone as "sir" and "ma'am" and are consistently respectful to the intoxicated couple.

The man and woman tell contradictory stories: She complains he sexually propositioned a neighbor, while he says she hit him in a rage. The officers' professional attitude calms the angry couple and wins the trust of their dark-haired, dark-eyed daughter. Standing a few feet away from her parents in the kitchen, the daughter quickly warms to Petrovich. He questions her gently, sounding more like a teacher than a cop as he gracefully mixes concern and sternness.

The 12-year-old tells Petrovich that her mother, drunk as usual, started the argument, although not the physical violence. Her father, whom she thinks has a criminal record, hits her mother a lot. After talking also with some neighbors, who frequently hear the couple arguing but aren't sure who threw the first punch this time, Petrovich hauls the man off to the police station. "It's often impossible to tell what happened for sure, but you always have to try to make a solid decision" he explains. "I just believed the girl. She's pretty mature." Petrovich's procedures show a good command of police ethics: He starts without any assumption of guilt or innocence, treats people with respect, and shows special deference toward children.

Many times, the most important part of police work is just to be quick. Around 6:30 one evening Fort Myers patrol officer Joseph Schwartz is called to an area behind a notoriously troublesome liquor store where men and women congregate to drink malt liquor. A fight has just occurred as our cruiser pulls up, in a lot littered with 40-ounce malt liquor bottles and cans. Two women eye each other threateningly. An older man lies on the ground twitching, obviously drunk or on drugs. Nobody in the crowd welcomes Schwartz's presence, and dark stares greet him. The crowd claims the man lying on the ground "hit his head on the sign." Schwartz orders people to clear out. By showing the colors, he scatters the crowd and avoids a situation that could have turned ugly fast.

Even in a high-crime city like Fort Myers, officers often go an entire night without making an arrest. Their activities to prevent crime before it happens, and to collect problem-solving information about crimes that have taken place earlier, can be just as valuable as a collar, though. Police officers have a tremendous amount of latitude in many aspects of their work, and, in trying to squelch crime before and after the fact, professional training can take an officer only so far. The best ones have strong instincts for fixing problems.

Like other proactive cops, Rebecca Prince uses her powers of observation to fight crime. By paying careful attention to little infractions, she often uncovers big ones. The night after Prince arrested Christine Bosewell and the drug-using Cadillac driver, Fort Myers' police headquarters buzzes with news of a two-man burglary ring that broke into nearly 20 homes and businesses over New Year's weekend. During his roll call briefing, Scott Cain, Prince's watch supervisor, asks officers to look out for two African-American men, one taller than average and the other perhaps 6'7".

Thanks to the freakish cold, things remain slow for Prince on that night's patrol. Once again she cruises the area near the crack McDonald's. Soon she comes upon a hard-looking bleached-blonde woman with sun-leathered skin and missing teeth, clearly intoxicated or on drugs. Prince, who often works this area as a hooker decoy in undercover stings, knows her well, and reports she has a closetful of previous citations for prostitution. Unlike Bosewell, who was resigned to spending an evening in jail, this woman badly wants to stay out of lockup. Prince proves willing to deal. "What can you give me?" she asks, shuffling the prostitute into her patrol car. Prince listens to stories about drug dealing at well-known locations. "Give me something better? she demands.

Finally, the hooker comes up with some street information Prince can use: a story of two men, one tall and one very tall, who are running a burglary ring out of a white house at the end of a cul de sac. The house backs up onto a wooded strip separating it from a parking lot on the other side. According to Prince's informant, the men unload their booty in the parking lot and use a shopping cart to transport it to the house. Thinking she's hit pay dirt, Prince gives the prostitute a lift to a sleazy bar (even promising to bring her back home at the end of the night), and heads for the dead-end street.

The house comes into view just as Prince's informant described it: a low-lying white residence with a junky yard, backing perfectly up against a strip of no-man's land that leads to the parking lot on the commercial strip. The driveway is empty late at night. But lights burn inside, and the bed sheets which hang over the windows ripple when Prince shines her patrol car's spotlight on the home's exterior.

Calling for backup, Prince decides to investigate. Another officer comes to wait in the street and Prince walks up to the door. When two young women answer the door, Prince launches into a convincing patter about a complaint from neighbors about a loud stereo. The women, who say they're "baby-sitting for a friend" stand firmly in the doorway, blush and fidget as Prince talks with them and looks over their shoulders. There's no noise from a stereo, yet the women apologize anyway. But they stand blocking her entrance to the house.

Convinced something suspicious is afoot, and hoping her imaginative approach may have broken a bothersome case, Prince calls her supervisor. He has an officer posted on the roof of a nearby building to lie in wait for the burglars to return and start unloading their loot. He also offers a gentle reprimand to Prince: Without knowing it, she had strayed into one of the islands of real estate in the middle of the city that is supposed to be under the sheriff's jurisdiction, not her department's.

In many quiet neighborhoods and towns across America, good policing may just mean carefully training officers, avoiding corruption, and showing up quickly when people call. But police need more creative strategies in areas with high levels of transience or neighborhood decay, areas experiencing cultural dashes between ethnic groups, places poisoned by replacement of the work ethic with a welfare culture, neighborhoods with weak community standards, or streets infested with gangs or drug dealing. In particular, police have learned they need to partner with the community to stop crime before it happens.

This is an important principle behind "community policing," which nearly every police department in the country now claims to practice. It involves getting to know local residents; searching for long-term solutions to problems like vagrancy, derelict housing, and unsupervised juveniles; and eventually, teaching neighborhoods to police themselves.

Michael Titmuss is a former restaurant and nightclub owner who decided he wanted to help people, became a cop, and eventually a Fort Myers Community Policing Coordinator. Titmuss epitomizes the new type of officer who fixes local problems that breed crime, rather than simply responding to emergency calls on the radio. While he has the same rank and about the same pay as a patrol officer, Titmuss has a far different way of working. He focuses on making allies among local residents and businesspeople, finding the sources of neighborhood crime spikes, and then formulating solutions.

Titmuss begins by keeping in close touch with the foursquare-mile area he's assigned to police. The counterman in a deli greets him by name. When he passes a notorious problem property, he explains chapter and verse the owner's habit of trading sex for rent. Driving through a motel that once provided "offices" for many of the area's prostitutes but now features gurgling fountains, a bronze sculpture of dolphins, and a German-speaking staff catering to tourists, Titmuss launches into a five-minute discourse about an angel developer who has remade many of the worst areas on this beat.

Titmuss doesn't spend all his time on community relations. When a puff of smoke materializes behind railroad tracks, he speeds off to investigate. The fire department takes care of the fire but Titmuss radios in a report on some suspicious-looking youths nearby. "Ultimately, I've got to work with the patrol force," Titmuss says. "If I go to a block-watch meeting and people feel that the police won't do anything, then I can run all the youth programs in the world and it won't make a difference. I've got to know everything a patrol officer does and more."

This philosophy has helped Titmuss mobilize a series of revitalization task forces in his neighborhood. He has spearheaded mass trash pick-ups, set up new programs for children, and gotten abandoned buildings harboring vagrants knocked down. He has spent hundreds of hours compiling lists of the owners and managers of problem properties in the area, many of them out-of-towners. He is currently working to convert a long-closed bowling alley in a commercially critical shopping center into a center for area youth. Inside the mildewed structure he sketches his vision of a police- and city-run activity center with a snack bar, homework rooms, and boxing rings. And with his long background in successful nightclub operations, Titmuss's plans are practical and hard-nosed, not pipe dreams. Describing the uses of high ceilings, he explains "I always liked to use bowling alleys for clubs: lots of floor space with no internal supports."

His approach draws raves from community leaders."It's a professional effort that does what we need them to," says Tony Corsentino, a former diner owner who heads the Palm Beach Boulevard Development Corporation near Titmuss's home base. "I didn't believe it would work out, but when we got a police officer who could coordinate all the city agencies we really did something about crime. The neighborhood is a lot cleaner and a lot safer." Even ordinary citizens notice the local police seem a little more helpful. "I've had problems with the cops in the past," one woman told TAE."But when I call them, they listen."

Titmuss argues that this method of policing creates long-term crime solutions. "I can sometimes arrest someone and they're out on the street the next day. That isn't very efficient. Or I can work with property owners to get him evicted. That solves the problem for that one guy pretty much permanently" In a typical afternoon, Titmuss might spend an hour or so on paperwork, a few more working with area kids, a few minutes chatting with local business owners and landlords, and an hour or two helping some patrol officers plan a raid on a gas station where drug sales have surged. He'll also find time to back up his colleagues on a few calls, take four or five radio calls himself, and maybe even collar a vandal.

Most patrol officers seem to respect the community cops. Some have doubts, however. "A lot of them slack off," complained one patrol officer. "They don't need to do anything; so unless they're naturally energetic, they aren't going to do anything." Working against this skepticism, both Fort Myers and Cape Coral are now trying to make community policing a department-wide philosophy, not just the work of a few specialized officers.

If these efforts succeed, the benefits could extend to officers as well as the city. Titmuss says he finds his job satisfying on many levels. "I can go home every day knowing I've made a positive difference in somebody's life. You work patrol long enough, and you swear there's not a decent human being on the face of this earth;" he sighs. "But I can do this job and be convinced people are basically good."

Many traditional patrol officers admit they know only a handful of people on their beats, most of them bad guys. This is particularly a problem in the anonymous residential suburbia of Cape Coral. Despite the generally excellent relations between residents and the police in Cape Coral, officers TAE spoke with struggled to come up with the name of even one citizen in the large swath of tract homes they patrolled each evening.

Poor architecture and city design can do that. The atomized, sidewalk-less world of Cape Coral tends to make casual contact difficult or impossible. Though residential Cape Coral has more neighborhood watches than Fort Myers, its sterile civic grid makes neighborliness difficult. "All over the city we identify neighborhood watches by the chair's home address, because the neighborhoods don't have names" explains Brad Johnson, president of Cape Coral's citywide neighborhood watch federation.

Of course, police-community partnerships can only go so far in preventing crime. When miscreants go on the prowl, the police will still need to respond to protect the population. Finding and eliminating such crimes can be done through conventional sting operations and busts, or through more creative "problem solving" approaches.

Problem-solving policing aims not just to solve individual crimes, but to eliminate conditions that underlie lawbreaking. The focus is not on massive social forces like poverty and racism, which would be fruitless for police to try to battle. Rather, problem-solving police teams attempt to fix localized problems of disorder, decay, idleness, and inadequate oversight. Usually this begins with insights gathered through simple patrol work.

On a quiet Fort Myers side street between an apartment complex and a park lies a small wooden house that has become a hangout for prostitutes. The local community policing coordinator has discovered that the resident owner is a retired New York City cop who is providing a haven in return for sexual favors and drugs. Local officers are keeping a close eye on the place.

When a crowd of cars outside the house attracts her attention during one evening patrol, Rebecca Prince decides to knock on the door and see what happens. The retired cop comes to the door in his bathrobe, trim and courteous. She asks to come in. He isn't obligated to let her, but does anyway. Inside, a surreal scene greets the visitors: Perhaps eight woman lie around the house, some of them in strange postures. The rooms are spic and span, but almost devoid of furniture. A couple snuggles under a blanket. Prince strolls around, politely but firmly giving the owner a piece of her mind. "You see those girls over there ... they have AIDS!" she exclaims. "I know them to be prostitutes. Are you aware of that?" The man protests that the hookers are simply friends whom he rents rooms to. She berates him for a few more minutes for allowing his house to become a serious neighborhood nuisance, then leaves.

Prince knows that any girl she locked up that night for some minor drug or sex offense would likely return to the house within a few days. Frustrated, she brainstorms for a solution. Soon she radios an older, highly experienced officer, fiftyish, with a bit of a beer belly. Meeting him outside a dark building where he was making a burglary check, Prince explains the situation in her neighborhood, says she wants the owner out, and picks her colleague's brain for advice.

After kicking around some complex nuisance-abatement laws, Prince mentions that the proprietor of the cat house said he is renting rooms. The older officer lights up. "You can get him for that" he says. "If he's running a boarding house without a license you can close the place down this week. It ain't a prostitution or drug conviction, but it'll make the problem go away." Her eyes shining, Prince makes a note to start the paperwork the next day with city housing officials.

The new methods of policing ask a lot of officers. They must be less detached, and much more personally involved with individuals. They must find crime before it finds them. They must work in tandem with many other arms of government, as well as with private businesses and civic organizations. At times it can be, like wrestling with jello.

Policing has become a very complex helping profession. It may not match the sophistication of heart surgery, but in its current day-to-day practice, policing is easily as tricky and demanding as teaching or nursing.

But if the police are to become more effective, there is probably no alternative. They must help strengthen the bonds that hold American society together. Healthy civilizations depend on people controlling those impulses that bring them momentary pleasure at the expense of the community's good. The police need to step in when that fails, sometimes with force. But the best cops today use their leverage to help communities heal themselves.

Eli Lehrer was a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation


Originally published in American Enterprise (06/01/01)