Community Policing

THE Los Angeles Police Department is the focus of renewed criticism because of charges that it was slow to respond to the riots that erupted after the Rodney King verdict. An investigation headed by former FBI and CIA chief William H. Webster will look into those charges.

His purpose, Mr. Webster made clear, is not to assign blame, but to assess the police response so that any weaknesses in the department can be addressed. This emphasis on improving police work should extend to the broader question of how officers can best protect law-abiding citizens in tense, high-crime urban neighborhoods.

In most large cities in the United States, including Los Angeles, this question is being answered by a philosophy called "community policing."

Mini-stations may be set up in neighborhoods, more officers put on foot patrols, and efforts made to build rapport with local people and help them get needed services. The policeman becomes someone known and respected in the community instead of someone who occasionally sweeps in, sirens blaring, as emergencies demand.

Many officers are reluctant to leave their cruisers and walk a beat, but they find that closer knowledge of the community actually enhances confidence and safety, according to advocates of the philosophy. Better understanding between police and inner-city residents can be an indispensable tool in averting law-breaking, including the kind of civil unrest experienced by L.A.

Evaluations of community policing programs have indicated a drop in fear of crime, better relations between police and the poor, and a decline in disorderly behavior. Only half the cities studied showed a decrease in crime, though these statistics may be affected by citizens' increased willingness to report crimes when they feel less intimidated by the police.

Skeptics may wonder whether community policing implies "going soft" on crime. But no one is underplaying the importance of investigative work, arrests, and the selective use of force. Police working in gang-infested areas like South-Central Los Angeles often face war-zone conditions. But community policing makes it more likely that officers will have the people as allies.

That alliance is difficult to form in economically devastated districts gripped by crime and fear. L.A.'s police force encompasses one of the most ethnically complex and turbulent urban landscapes in the country. Like forces in other large cities, it can only become even more effective as its ties to those it serves are strengthened.

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