NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Big budget cuts are forcing police departments across the country to make tough decisions. Camden, New Jersey, may eliminate its entire force and ask the county to police the city. Two years ago, 80 police officers and 21 cadets were laid off in Oakland. As a result, fewer and fewer resources are available for community policing, the law enforcement approach that put cops back on the corner 20 years ago and emphasized crime prevention through local citizen involvement.
In a recent piece in The New Republic, Sudhir Venkatesh pointed to an unlikely accomplice in the death of community policing: the federal government and its variety of joint task forces. It's shaping up to be the biggest challenge to liberal governance and local autonomy that we've seen in some time, he wrote.
We want to hear from those of you who work in law enforcement. What's changing for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, if you've ever sent or received a message in a bottle, send us a note by email this time. The address is talk@ npr.org. But first, Commander Leo Schmitz joins us from his office in Chicago. He's commander of the Englewood District of the Chicago Police Department, former commander of Chicago's Gang Enforcement Unit. Nice to have you with us today.
COMMANDER LEO SCHMITZ: Thank you.
CONAN: And is community policing alive and well in Chicago, or is it threatened?
SCHMITZ: Well, it's alive and well in the Seventh District here, Englewood. We use it all the time, and I couldn't imagine not having it here and having people help us.
CONAN: Are there examples you can tell us about where it's made a difference?
SCHMITZ: Sure, sure, there's many examples. But one that comes to mind right off the bat is I was having problems with two gangs murdering each other, going after each other and shootings. And our coalition we have with our pastors and clergy here in the Seventh District - which is part of our Chicago policing, alternative policing - we got together, we had a meeting, we went out and marched in the area, and they got a hold of the people in the area over there, and the good people of the Englewood District. And since we've marched, and we're talking months and months now, we haven't had another one.
CONAN: Well, that's fantastic news, but sadly that's not true across the city of Chicago as a whole.
SCHMITZ: Well, I wouldn't know that. I'm - my district I know all about, but other districts are doing the same thing. I talk with other commanders, cops and working with the people in the neighborhood are paramount to what we need to get done if we're going to stop shootings and murders.
CONAN: Are the federal joint task forces also in evidence in Chicago, in your district?
SCHMITZ: Yes, yes, they work all over Chicago, and I read that article, it was a good article. What we do have is help from our federal partners. And we still do the abundance, the majority, almost all the community policing that's needed to be done in concert with that.
That's not hurting our efforts here in the Seventh District, and I can speak of the Seventh District because that's where I'm at, but actually that has not hurt us in any way. I do understand what he was writing about, that the task forces with the federal people, but we still on a daily basis deal with our people in the neighborhoods, and without them, it would make our job even tougher.
CONAN: So you're - the feds aren't taking up all the oxygen in the room, so to speak?
SCHMITZ: No, absolutely not, and that's a good way of putting it.
CONAN: Sudhir Venkatesh joins us now. He's a professor of sociology at Columbia University, and his article, "How the Federal Government is Killing Community Policing," ran last month in the New Republic. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
SUDHIR VENKATESH: It's great to be here, thank you.
CONAN: And do you hear any contradiction between what you were writing about and what Commander Schmitz is telling us?
VENKATESH: I wouldn't call it a contradiction, but just to put some context on it, I think there are places in Chicago and Chicago as a whole that probably experience a smoother relationship between local and federal government, in part because the city has more resources to work with to ensure that the two are cooperating.
But there's something that's happening across the country that's facing Chicago and elsewhere which is just that youth violence is on the rise, and as it gets on the rise, it overwhelms local police. And in places, as you cited, Camden and Oakland, where they can't sustain the kind of involvement that's happening in Englewood in Chicago, you have a very different situation.
You have a situation in which a police chief or a commander has to make very, very challenging decisions: how long to stay with a case? When do I call for federal assistance? And those decisions have consequences because it changes the kind of policing, and it changes the community's relationship to the cops in the neighborhood.
CONAN: The relationship to the cops in the neighborhood, Commander Schmitz, that you would think would be critical to your operations.
SCHMITZ: Yeah, absolutely, and by the way, that was a good article. I saw a lot of things he wrote in there, having come from the other side, a lot of good points. But I will tell you this. For us, if we're not connected with the people that we're dealing with every day, we're in trouble. And what we do here in Seven and in other districts in the city, we do a lot of walk and talks, we call.
And our officers are getting out of the squad cars and walking down the blocks and meeting people. Now for instance, you won't immediately get to know people and gain their trust, but if you're doing it a lot, after a few weeks or so they start to meet you, and they start talking to you, and that's basically how we get our boots on the ground. We get to talk to the people in the neighborhoods.
CONAN: And Sudhir Venkatesh, you argued in that piece that policies like that, policies like the march with the - led by the local ministers, those things are critical, and those are the kinds of things that aren't being done in some places where community policing resources are no longer available.
VENKATESH: That's right, and from the standpoint of a community, when you have both the dramatic rise in crime, and you have the compromised state of police with respect to the resources that they have, you have a very difficult decision for a family, a parent, et cetera, to make. And that decision is taking place around the country, which is that if I don't know whether the police are going to come, do I try to solve this situation myself?
Do I go to a clergy member? Do I find some other kind of resource? And what's happening around the country is that you'll see mediation, dispute resolution, people starting to take matters into their own hands because there's a lack of confidence, or they're unsure whether some police car is going to come and respond.
You know, that can be productive, there's a history of kind of self-reliance in American society, but I think you can imagine that that can also be - make police very nervous and neighbors very nervous that people are taking the law into their own hands. And so it's tense in some places outside of Chicago.
CONAN: Commander Schmitz, is there any evidence of a trend in that direction in Englewood in Chicago?
SCHMITZ: No, as a matter of fact, I understand what he's saying, and people have always done that, by the way. Let's not kid ourselves. There's a resolution. People take care of things on their block if they can. Why not? If nobody gets hurt, and it's something maybe the parents get involved if it's the kids, or there's something where somebody says, hey, you can't be doing that around here. And that's fine, and that's all part of what's done internally in neighborhoods anyway.
But in our case, we basically - we basically have meetings with them if there's something that's coming up, if there's something that just didn't happen right now. If it's a continuing problem, they bring it up in our beat meetings or other meetings that we have, and we address it.
I'd like to say that our officers have a rapport with their community, and we're always trying to make it better. We can always be better, but I've seen it happen in the last several months here where people are talking, my officers are talking to people where they didn't used to do that, and now they're seeing the advantage of dealing with the people directly helps.
CONAN: Commander Schmitz, one of the things, as you know, Sudhir Venkatesh wrote about in his piece is that criminals are acquiring better weaponry, better electronics. They're operating across jurisdictions. Do you call in - do you feel the need to call in the federal government to avoid being, as he says, overwhelmed sometimes.
SCHMITZ: Well, I'm going to tell you, here in Chicago we're the best department in the country. We can handle anything. Our officers are well-trained, we've got an organized crime division. We're very good at what we do. But with that being said, I have a lot of friends and a lot of people that work on the federal side, they can only help and enhance what we do.
So I would never discount what they do, but as a police department, we can do just about anything we need to.
CONAN: And Sudhir Venkatesh, Sudhir Venkatesh, again, resources available in Chicago, maybe not be the same case in other places.
VENKATESH: That's right, and I think there's a complexity here where they're - that - imagine this: a street gang member in a community shoots somebody else. But that street gang member doesn't live there, and he lives, he or she lives maybe miles away. It may not be so easy for a small town or a small city police commander to follow that street gang member, to have the resources to continue the investigation as the commander might do in a big city like Chicago.
How do they track them down? What if there's a prison connection, and the gang is working out of a prison and taking its commands there? It can get very complicated, and one of the things that the federal government I'd say has done very well with task forces - again Toledo; Austin, Texas; Charlotte; areas where the resources may not be as great - is to say we're here to help you local police. We're here to give you the intelligence you need and to enhance your powers.
And there may be a const to doing that, but we see the federal government stepping in in cases where crime has gotten so complex that local agencies aren't able to really follow, investigate and prosecute themselves.
CONAN: Commander Schmitz, we're going to let you go in just a minute, but if there was thing that you could - kind of help that you could get, what would it be?
SCHMITZ: More help from the community. I'm going to tell you, it's a force multiplier for us. The more the people let us know what the problems are and what's going on in the neighborhood, it's like I'm having more officers on the street. We're well-trained here in the city, our officers are hardworking people, that's our biggest asset here in Chicago, are the police officers that work for us. We're lucky to have those guys.
But when the people get involved, it's unbelievable how much more we can get done. I'm just telling you, from my point of view, the more we can get people involved, the better off we are and the less crime. And to add something that - what he said a few minutes ago, suburban departments and smaller jurisdictions do call us for our help on things, too. So what he's saying is right on, because here in Chicago, we have the assets to go after people, where in smaller jurisdictions it might be harder.
CONAN: Commander Schmitz, thanks very much for your time today. We'll let you get back to work.
SCHMITZ: OK, thank you.
CONAN: Leo Schmitz joined us from his office in Chicago, where he commands the Englewood District of the Chicago Police Department. We're talking with police officers today about the shift away from community policing, which is happening in some areas. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Sudhir Venkatesh spent two years visiting FBI field offices as an advisor to the agency. Rather than tension with local cops, which he expected, he found a growing number of joint city-federal task forces and other partnerships, many of which work well, but he warns, have unintended consequences.
Across the country, he wrote, the town cop who walks a beat and relies on trust with locals may be a thing of the past. Your neighborhood police investigation is increasingly likely to be a federal initiative built on cooperation between your local police department and Washington, D.C.
In fact, with feds and local cops increasing their collaborations and seeking funding to expand their joint investigations, we may be seeing the end of community policing as we've known it.
We've posted a link at npr.org to his recent piece, "How the Federal Government is Killing Community Policing." Sudhir Venkatesh is also professor of sociology at Columbia University, author of the book "Gang Leader for A Day." We want to hear from those of you who work in law enforcement. What's changing for you? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
George(ph) is on the line, calling us from Farmington in Michigan.
GEORGE: Yeah, I was a police officer for 27 years, and the last 17 of the 27 I was heavily involved in community policing. And I worked for a city department that closed up the community policing completely and even sent grant money back to Washington.
And it was just a terrible thing because we had programs that were working. I kept a lot of statistics on the program I was involved with, which was gang intervention and gang education. And we saw a drop in gang activity by about a 70-percent drop in gang-related incidences after inception of our gang education program in the schools.
Now this, of course, was backed up by a multijurisdictional gang team that was going out and arresting the hardcore gang members in the neighboring community. And the kids would hear about this, they'd see it in the paper, and then they'd have a cop inside the classroom talking to them saying this is what you've got to do to avoid this kind of activity.
CONAN: Why did the department end programs like that?
GEORGE: Well, they had a police chief they got rid of because they discovered he did some nasty things when he was a chief in another jurisdiction before he got hired here. So they didn't do a good background investigation on him. And they brought back an old retired deputy chief, out of retirement, to run the department while they did a search for a new chief.
At the same time, the city was going through some budget cuts. They had to reduce the level of officers in the department. So they offered an early retirement, and 25 people took it and took the early retirement. And they had to, of course, backfill those officers. So they said well, gee, there's 25 people in community policing.
So instead of cutting the budget with a scalpel, he got it with an axe and just closed up community policing, sent grand money back to the feds and put these cops back in the streets in the cars and stuff.
CONAN: And the upshot is?
GEORGE: Well, I think (unintelligible), we really won't know, because they killed the program when it was doing good. What really surprised me is there was no big hue and cry in the community, saying what the heck are you guys doing. The schools complained about it. They liked us being in the schools because we were making inroads in the middle school with the gang program and the elementary school with the drug program, and these were all proven federal programs getting federal funding.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, George, appreciate it.
GEORGE: Sure, thank you.
CONAN: And Sudhir Venkatesh, you were writing about how these joint federal-local operations, well, effectively the feds are leasing the local police and taking them away from other duties like community policing. But budget cuts are doing that also.
VENKATESH: That's right. I mean, you cited two cities where we're seeing this play out, Camden and Oakland, but it's a story that's national. And one of the things I think that we should be observant of, because we're at a watershed moment here, because these cuts are just starting to take place - is that when community policing, when beat-style policing where cops walk the street, make connections, when that starts to dissipate, you have a vacuum.
That vacuum is going to be filled in some way. It is almost impossible for the federal government, as well as they're operating, to be able to be on the ground in all of these places where a community policing initiative or police used to be.
So what takes place there? Well, you have a lot of citizen patrols. You have a lot of neighborhood watches. You have people coming together, and that can be wonderful. You know, we've seen the dark side of that, if you will. We've also seen, in the case of Trayvon Martin, for example, in Sanford, Florida, in which taking matters into your own hands, policing yourselves can lead to some extremely unfortunate and tragic circumstances.
Now, one could argue that that's an exception, that that's one place that had a particular kind of dynamic. But I think we would need to be really mindful as we look across the country, as people are starting to cut the programs that work, cut police from - to lower police presence. We should being close attention to make sure that the consequences are not a decrease in public safety in the months and years to follow.
CONAN: And this is an unintended consequence, and you also point out in the piece it's not a simple situation. Those federal task forces, they do good work.
VENKATESH: They do exceptional work. In every place that I was in, the theme was similar to what we just heard in Chicago, which is a great deal of cooperation and collaboration. The interesting place where there's a little bit of tension is also for the police officer, him or herself, who some of the time may be working on a federal investigation, some of the time may be working as a local police officer, helping both parties.
And those - and they might have differing obligations. For example if they see somebody doing something wrong, and it's part of a federal investigation, well, you know that the feds are going to want to arrest that person, get them off the street, disrupt the gang, et cetera.
But for the local cop, or when he or she is a police officer and has a local hat on, they may want to make friends with that person or make them into a confidential informant or get to know, because sometimes the devil you know is better than who might take their place. So it's a very complicated policing situation on the ground.
And for that local police officer, how did they act? Are they a federal agent? Are they a local police officer? It becomes a very difficult situation.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Matt(ph), Matt with us from Raton in New Mexico.
MATT: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I am a prosecutor here in New Mexico working in local government. And it is the situation out here that we experience the full range of problems that you've discussed. Dr. Venkatesh has made reference to the devil you know, is sometimes better than the one you don't. And that is true out here, just like I'm sure it is everywhere else.
As for the issue of the task force, federal and state cooperation, we don't see that very much. What we often see are the feds intervening in matters involving seizures of large amounts of, say, methamphetamine, which is of course the scourge of rural America.
And for instance a lot of the financial help, if you will, our agencies receive come from seizures that happen on the interstate. We cannot - and I would imagine that a great many communities are very similar to my own in that we just are not accustomed to relying on even our own state for support in certain areas, and we depend of course on people who are trafficking money or drugs in order to make good on a lot of the programs that we set out for ourselves.
CONAN: Just to clarify, in other words you're funding a lot of your operations by the seizures of money that are being taken in drug cases.
MATT: Absolutely, absolutely, and the - we do not have a large gang presence, so that is one obvious benefit and what makes this - my remarks different from your discussion, but I will also say that we found low-cost ways of reducing things that contribute to juvenile delinquency like truancy. Truancy is the number one thing that I think today, especially, is a precursor to delinquency, and those matters can be addressed cheaply through the magistrate court system.
In New Mexico we do not have, we do not require that a magistrate judge to be a licensed attorney, but it doesn't really matter because we often have educators or other individuals who fill that role and who are enough aware of the situation and the importance of having children in school to kind of really have our backs on that, and we really do appreciate that.
CONAN: Matt, thank you very much, appreciate the phone call.
MATT: Thank you.
CONAN: And Sudhir Venkatesh, is this primarily an urban phenomenon that you're talking about and close-in suburbs?
VENKATESH: I think so. In some sense it is with respect to the deluge. Let's take a community on the edge of Chicago, Rosalind and West Pullman, they're right next to each other. In this community, it has gone from 32 gun-related shootings in July of 2005, this is just the Chicago police numbers, to 229 in 2011 in the month of July.
That is just an alarming rate, and it is extremely difficult for the local police to be able to respond in that way, and that's occurring in smaller towns and suburbs, as well, but particularly at the edge of these big cities, inner-cities and the ring suburbs of Baltimore, Chicago, et cetera. We're seeing youth violence on the rise.
It's not only almost impossible for the police to respond effectively to each one of the incidents that occur, but those incidents are tied together. They are linked together. They're retaliations for what occurs. And what that means is that police need the intelligence to be able to put that story together. It's very difficult for them to get that intelligence unless they rely on a federal presence.
Once they do, they start to create a dynamic, which your caller alluded to, which is dependence. If you're dependent on the federal government for help and the budgets are great and there's enough resources, wonderful, but, you know, those - the political winds can shift. And then, you know, we know what happens. If all a sudden this kind of task-force policing in which the federal government is establishing relationships falls out of favor, well, that local municipality might be hurt because they can't rely on those systems anymore.
And that's what I think the loss of autonomy locally should make us mindful of, is that there are consequences that we - are unintended but that may start to happen and decrease and compromise the effectiveness of local towns and cities to establish public safety.
CONAN: And there might be a logical disconnect there. We talked about the intelligence picked up by police officers on street, talking to people, the kind of federal intelligence you're talking about is primarily technological; wiretaps, that sort of thing.
VENKATESH: That's right. And really this model started with anti-terrorism, that the belief was that there's something similar happening domestically that we could use the anti-terrorism framework to go after it, which is that domestically gangs are not just the neighborhood gang on the corner that you could approach but rather their cells, their networks. They're complicated. They're spread out. And let's use the terrorist model of nimble task forces that move around and respond to those issues.
That's great. That's great for those issues. The problem is that most of the things that happened in a town, on a street corner, in a city, in a community are not necessarily of that type. And so we still need to have police officers who know what's happening, who can make some calls, who can have an informal way of making sure the problems don't get out of hand.
CONAN: Let's go next to Brian, and Brian is with us from Rochester, New York.
BRIAN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
BRIAN: I just want to talk a little bit about a story that I was involved in back in 2006 and '07 in Rochester where I helped to lead a church-based initiative that created a partnership with the police department. And the police department and the mayor agreed to put foot patrols in four city neighborhoods. And this initiative lasted for a year, and we got the police to track crime and violent crime in those four city neighborhoods. And it dropped by 70 percent because cops were on the beat eight hours a day, and they were eight hours that the police chose as being most critical to them.
And, you know, and so I can't talk enough about the value of getting cops on the street and having them visible and building relationships with people in neighborhoods, particularly when it's back by institutions like neighborhood churches, you know, that are really helping to, you know, lead an effort to improve public safety.
CONAN: And what's happened to that project?
BRIAN: Well, unfortunately, after a year and after a commitment to continue it, it was ended. And, you know, the city continues to battle with, you know, with problems of violent crime. It's not as bad as it used to be, but clearly, you know, it's not what it could be, we think. And one of the issues to be sure was funding. The city did it in these four neighborhoods, and everybody started clamoring for it and, you know, reasonably so. But the city said we just can't afford to do this everywhere.
The other thing I would say is that the city's police department is - really has this 911 culture embedded in it. That is they drive people to call 911, and they want to respond to calls. And we found it really hard to get them to shift away from that sort of call-and-response kind of culture rather than a sort of more proactive culture.
CONAN: Well, Brian, thanks very much for the call. Interesting. Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Sudhir Venkatesh, professor of sociology at Columbia about his piece "Understanding Kids, Gangs and Guns," which ran on The New York Times, and another one "How the Federal Government is Killing Community Policing" that ran in The New Republic last month. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Sudhir Venkatesh, our last caller was talking about the 911, well, of course, police have to respond to emergencies. There's also a - police like to run up large numbers of arrests. It looks good.
VENKATESH: It does look good. And as long as they can respond and solve those crimes, then they'll be able to face the challenges that their mayors and their public officials place upon them to show results. You know, that's also something that's made more difficult with the receipt of federal resources - who takes credit? How is - how do you share credit for an investigation? It's not so simple anymore. The caller also raised, I think, a really, really important issue that we're facing, which is the increasing presence of the clergy.
In Chicago, I was talking about two neighborhoods on the South Side where there was a dramatic rise in the number of incidents of violence and homicide. The research that I did a few years ago showed that almost 60 percent of those incidents were responded to by a member of the clergy. The most - the best example that we can see of this is the Ten Point Coalition in Boston led by - founded by Reverend Eugene Rivers, in which the church and police go out and they meet these either criminals, would-be criminals, gang members, whatever you want to call them, and try to keep peace on the streets.
Now, should federal government be supporting these initiatives? It raises a very interesting question about the relationship of church and state that's starting to emerge because the clergy are saying, look how good we're doing? We're filling this vacuum in a way that you should be happy about. Well, I'm not sure the ACLU would be entirely happy if we started to fund them. So lots of interesting questions starting to emerge.
CONAN: You also pointed out that during the Clinton administration the feds provided government - money to hire, I think, 100,000 police officers across the country. The funding, federal funding in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations is a lot of money for policing, but it's gone into these federal programs, these joint task forces.
VENKATESH: That's right. And as more and more money goes into federal task forces, you're starting to see police chiefs, local legislators start to get upset and want their fair share. Only 8 percent of the applicants for community policing nationwide - I think it was in 2010 - were granted. You know, there's a huge demand, and we're not able to fulfill it. And the tensions are going to rise if we keep sending our money to the feds
CONAN: Thank you very much for your time today.
VENKATESH: It was great to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: Sudhir Venkatesh, professor of sociology at Columbia University, author of the book "Gang Leader for a Day." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Again, you can find a link to his New Republic piece on community policing at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Up next, Sean Bercaw sent hundreds of messages in bottles. We'll find out why and whether he's gotten any responses. If you've ever sent a message in a bottle or if you've ever received one, call and tell us what happened. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.