As Cities Move to Expand Police, Experts Raise Flags
WASHINGTON — LAST month, with virtually a snap of the fingers, the Senate doubled the number of new police to be hired nationwide from 50,000 to 100,000 as part of its anticrime package.
But carrying out such a plan, which will be considered by the House when Congress reconvenes next month, won't be so easy. And some experts contend that adding more police doesn't guarantee a reduction in crime.
Washington, D.C., is perhaps the worst-case scenario of what can happen when a police department rushes to bolster its forces. In 1988, as a condition for receiving a large federal appropriation, the district was to increase its police force to nearly 4,000 officers. This meant, over the following two years, the recruitment of 2,125 officers. Background checks were deferred; required test scores were lowered.
Thus it came as little surprise when 12 D.C. police officers were arrested earlier this month on drug distribution and conspiracy charges - and, it turns out, 10 of them had joined the force during the 1989-90 hiring spree.
Jerry Wilson, who served as D.C. police chief from 1969 to 1974, says the scandal demonstrates the challenge of hiring officers who are familiar with the community they will be policing, but not connected to the criminal element that's present.
``D.C. wants to recruit people who are committed to the community and will live there, so they get people out of that community,'' says Chief Wilson, who is now chairman of the Crime Control Institute. ``The problem is, a lot of them are poor and connected to the drug traffickers.''
Indeed, in the recent scandal, many of those arrested were assigned to the districts they came from, where they reportedly had long ties to unsavory elements.
A MAJOR recruitment drive, however, doesn't automatically mean problems, Wilson adds. In his first year and a half as police chief, he says, the D.C. force hired 2,000 new officers and didn't have serious problems. Still, he adds, it's not completely fair to compare the situation 20 years ago with today, with a more intense crime and drug culture.
D.C.'s police problems are certainly not unique. And police corruption is an age-old problem, and an understandable one, given the proximity of cops to criminals and their constant exposure to guns and drugs.
What does all this portend for President Clinton's plan to add 100,000 more police to the nation's forces, which now number 600,000 officers? As long as recruitment and training standards are maintained, such a huge jump in the numbers of police doesn't have to mean a dilution of quality, say experts.
Standards will remain strictly a matter of a local jurisdiction's discretion. Wilson suggests that as the military down-sizes, demobilized soldiers form a ready pool of potential police. Many police jurisdictions are also eliminating upper age limits for new recruits, which opens the possibility of qualified men and women in their 30s and above choosing policing as a second career.
But the American public should not expect miracles from an expansion of the nation's police forces.
It will take at least three years to get the new recruits trained and on the streets. And if past experience is a guide, the numbers of police on a force do not necessarily correlate to a jurisdiction's crime rate. D.C. is a prime example. It has the highest number of police per capita in the country - one officer for every 150 residents - but it also has the highest number of murders per capita.
``I'll be honest - I think we could do the job with what we have,'' R.C. White, commander of D.C.'s Fourth District, said. ``We just need to redefine what we're doing and make sure everyone understands the expectations and be more creative and more aggressive.''
Some police back more use of the concept of community-oriented policing, in which police get out of their squad cars and walk the streets, getting to know a neighborhood and making themselves more effective in crime prevention. Implementation of community policing nationwide is the cornerstone of the Senate crime bill, says a top Senate Democratic aide.