June 1, 2001 | Commentary on Crime
The tough job of police officer gets more complicated every
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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)