Police put public more in the know

A recent arrest in Toronto shows how communities can join incrime-solving.

It would be unfair to say that residents of this city's Scarborough section used to roll up their sidewalks at night. But they did often turn their porch lights off before they went to bed, or even earlier.

That's changed, however, and police hope it stays changed. As this community in northeastern Toronto has been terrorized - and galvanized - by a string of break-ins and sexual assaults over the past few months, a "Light the Night" campaign, simple as it sounds, has been a key element in involving the public in helping catch the predator. Residents were encouraged to leave exterior lights on from dusk to dawn.

Now that a suspect has been arrested, the case is being seen as an example of significantly changed police practice, both in their sharing information with the public and in their involving residents in fighting crime.

Demand for accountability

This is a broad trend across North America - a trend involving more public demand for accountability from all government entities. But the issue of police openness has a particular edge here: Last year a woman identified only as Jane Doe won a long-pending lawsuit against the Toronto police. She claimed negligence and violation of her constitutional rights because they had failed to inform her and her community about the activities of "the balcony rapist," who had been striking repeatedly downtown in the mid-1980s.

"Jane Doe can take credit for a lot," says Julian Roberts, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa. "She did a great service to all women."

In the present case, the police have held regular community meetings and news conferences. They also have used an automated telephone message-distribution list - "Reverse 911," as it's called in some jurisdictions - to update residents on developments in the case. And they are seeing their communities as partners, not nuisances.

Police are recognizing the need to be "as responsive to the community as to the one who has just been victimized," says Mr. Roberts.

Some experts see greater police openness as part of "a larger social movement toward more government accountability," as Stephen Holmes, a criminologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, puts it. "For too long, the focus has been on controlling crime rather than on crime prevention."

As that changes as part of the trend toward "community policing," law-enforcement officers are seeing that it may be "more important to let the community know what's going on than to apprehend the perpetrator - to get a good collar," he says.

In a similar vein, Edward Flynn, chief of police in Arlington, Va., recalls his days on the undercover squad in Jersey City, N.J.: "We were waiting for people to get mugged so that we could lock up the bad guys." In those days, police were more willing to accept "collateral damage," he says.

In the case of Jane Doe's "balcony rapist" in Toronto, the police were "worried that they would sow panic among women of the community" if they released information about the ongoing crimes, Roberts says. He calls this attitude "paternalistic." They also thought, he says, that "if they could keep their heads down, he would strike again," and they would have a better chance of catching the criminal - a policy he describes as "a strategic mistake."

Search for perpetrator

At a community meeting last week, James Bamford, superintendent of Division 42, reassured the public that this had not happened again. Despite weeks of work by a special task force, literally beating the bushes in the ravines that are part of the Toronto landscape, the suspect had only very recently been identified. But "this wasn't something we had been working on" for a long time, he stressed.

Asked at a press conference how the Jane Doe lawsuit had affected police handling of the current case, Joe Hunter, deputy chief of police, said, "I can certainly say most corporations and businesses do business differently today than they did 10 years ago." He cited new technologies and specialized training in handling of sexual assault and stalking that his officers have had. "We try to be on the leading edge."

A staff member at the Toronto Rape Crisis Center faults the police, however, for still being too much oriented toward arrest and prosecution rather than prevention. "The police are afraid that if they let out information, the rapist will go away. Well, yeah," she says, leaving the next sentence unspoken: "That's the idea."

Jane Doe herself, though she calls the "Light the Night program" "excellent," nonetheless faults the police for an approach she calls "hysterical" and "fear-based": "They're telling us, 'Don't go out, don't take the bus alone....' Women already don't do these things.... Why is it acceptable that half the population lives as second-class citizens? Who benefits?"

She says the police should release more specific information: "warnings that give the when, the where, the how - and the who would be great, too." She adds, "There are adequate warnings that can be given that don't interfere" with ongoing police investigations.

As she is quick to note, though, the police can't release information they don't have.

In the present case, police released a composite sketch that was widely criticized for seeming to identify no one in particular but to cast suspicion on black men in general. Police Inspector Tony Warr acknowledged the controversy by saying the sketch was "released after a lot of soul-searching," and adding that the arrested suspect is black - "a fact that we cannot change."

Public demand for composites

Despite the problems with such composites, says Mr. Holmes, the Florida criminologist, the trend is for the public to demand their release, not just in the case of sex crimes, which "galvanize" a community, but even of home burglaries.

With new mapping technologies and the ubiquity of the Internet, local governments can track crime data - or potholes or overdue library books, for that matter - virtually street by street and house by house, and can serve the public better.

But to release data below the precinct level can be "problematic," Holmes says. If police are too free with data, they might find themselves hit with liability lawsuits for not protecting their residents. "It opens a Pandora's box, and I don't know who's the keeper of the key."

Others concur with the assessment of heightened public expectations of the police. As one resident put it at this week's community meeting, "There's too much crime in Scarborough, and I don't care what the charts say."

Sandra Bass, a criminologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, says, "There's a fine line that has to be toed." Police have to weigh release of information against the possibility of "increasing public fears to an unmanageable level," she adds, with the result that people either are afraid to go out at night or start to think about vigilante action, both courses she describes as "counterproductive."

Mapping programs are also used to help implement various states' "Megan's laws," and similar statutes requiring that communities be notified if sex offenders and other convicted criminals move into town. Such laws are part of the broad North American trend toward more information being demanded of the police. But on this specific point, Canadians part company with Americans. Canada has long had a stronger tradition of advocacy for prisoners' rights, and sentencing is less a political issue than in the United States, says Ottawa criminologist Roberts.

Proposals for a Canadian "Megan's law" have not been well received. Says Roberts, "There's a feeling that the more attention [ex-offenders] get, the likelier they are to get into trouble again, and that at some point the door has to close" on someone's troubled past.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.