20 Mar 2013

Is Professional Always Better: The Policing Reform Era

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The Policing Reform Era – 1930 – 1970 is also known as the Professional Era and the Era of August Vollmer. Why? Simply because this period in U.S. history experienced the most radical change for policing, and he led most of it.

The Badge Guys asked two weeks ago who is the father of law enforcement, and the answer was easily recalled; Sir Robert Peel of England. Less known but equally influential in the United States is and should be Vollmer.

Policewomen, Crime Fighters and Science

My favorite for several reasons other than his history changing innovations to the profession include; he is a Louisiana native (born in New Orleans) and he sat on the very first committee for developing the Uniform Crime Report. Significance? Nearly 80 years later, I sit on the only other committee formed for re-developing the UCR, and also native to the Cajun Country.

While significant, Vollmer was not the only enduring name in American law enforcement. O.W. Wilson and J. Edgar Hoover influenced the occupation and practices guiding today’s application of policing during this era.

The issue of social worker versus crime fighter held over from the Political Era, and additionally included the hiring of females into the service of policing. This was a progressive recommendation and led by Vollmer, seemed to have potential staying power.

Unfortunately, with the rapid advancement of scientific investigative techniques, focus on organizational para-militaristic reform and crime fighting, the social worker paradigm and policewoman’s momentum suffered.

Automobiles and Education

Not to be overshadowed by Vollmer, Wilson, a former student of his at UC Berkley, became the Chief of Police in Wichita, Kansas in 1928. He was the first to require a college education for applicants in an effort to curb the rampant corruption.

He also introduced the use of automobiles and two-way mobile radios for patrol work. His attention to the scientific processes of increasing the efficiency of policing led to many practices in place today. These advances, combined with the implementation of the telephone provided an emphasis on response and less on quality of services delivered.

Citizens were relegated from partners in fighting crime, to observers and anonymous reporters over the telephone. The beat cop knew more about navigation than neighborhoods, and knowing the name of officers was replaced by copying police unit numbers.

Law enforcement wrapped itself in an isolationist bubble of glass and steel police cruisers where communicating with the public was no longer of importance. Despite results from the Wickersham and the National Institute on Police and Community Relations movements calling for improved police – community relations, law enforcement focused more on scientific application than human interaction.

Despite the next era of police / community relations, law enforcement remains entrenched in the segregationist fraternity. The ideal of the thin blue line separates cops from anyone who is not a cop. Today’s principles of community oriented policing are unknown to the majority of police senior executives and even more officers.

Civil Service and Unit Specializations

This era also saw the creation of the civil service system and an extensive body of academic criminal justice literature. Both contributed to the ideologies forming the scientific theory of administration, limitations on discretion and specialized policing units such as traffic and investigations.

The majority of my career was spent working for a Louisiana Sheriff where the state constitution provides for serving “at the pleasure” of the Sheriff. Not much protection there. The value of earnest efforts and not the protection of mediocrity afforded by civil service systems provide professional security.

The limitations on officer discretion were emphasized during this period for minimizing opportunities of corruption and favoritism. Discretion is critical to the humanization of policing and street-level decision-making.

There are agencies today mandating that if you stop a violator, a citation must be issued. You know what happens? Officers avoid making traffic stops because of the absence of professional decision-making opportunities.

Ultimately the public is victimized twice. First, if stopped for the most minor of offenses they are cited. Second, traffic safety, a major cause of serious injury and deaths is neglected because officers are not addressing traffic violations.

Response Times Over Quality of Service

I believe the Reform (Professional) Era was well intentioned, but ultimately served policing more than benefiting the public. The benchmark of rapid response times was promoted as a quantitative measure of operational response efficiency. Individual officer effectiveness was counted by each arrest made, along with the number of miles driven.

While the Political Era was rooted in patronage, it was the earliest attempts for serving the public with direct interpersonal communications. To dismiss it by claiming it was fraught with corruption is to imply that there was no more corruption once the era ended. Can you share a recent case of police corruption in the Comments Section? Sure you can, but will you?

This Week’s Debate; Is Reform Better Than Political

Does civil service protect mediocre performance? Have we sacrificed quality public service for the sake of quickening response times?

Which is better suited for serving your community; Social Worker or Crime Fighter?

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