Resisting the allure of a larger agency

So many people think they know everything about policing, yet no other field of endeavour is more misunderstood by so many. A steady diet of police shows and movies make the public instant experts and every politician overly confident they know the policies and regulations that should be invoked.

For me a recent British newspaper exemplified this phenomenon. The question was whether the 52 police services in England, Scotland and Wales can sufficiently protect the population from terrorists. Cited was an incident where two suspected terrorists were followed from Scotland to London. Each police jurisdiction they passed through had to be notified in case an arrest had to be made within their jurisdiction. This made for a rather unwieldy process and it was felt the more eyes viewing the progression of the surveillance the more likely the confidentiality of it could be broken.

The obvious quick-fix political answer to all of this was to unify all 52 agencies into one police force to better fight terrorism. This concept is so flawed on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin but it does show how myopic some can become when it comes to terrorism.

Firstly police agencies do not, and never have, existed to fight terrorism. At this late stage in that game I have no idea how you would retrofit any police service to do so effectively. Amalgamating agencies simply produces larger bureaucracy and management levels. This is not to say smaller is better but the larger an agency becomes, the more difficulty it has in keeping a co-ordinated ear to the ground. And keeping an ear to the ground is the largest value of policing.

The intelligence gathering capabilities of smaller agencies was recognized shortly after 9/11, when the CIA and FBI acknowledged the invaluable assistance of small sheriffs departments and police services across the country. Who else would know better what was unusual in their neighbourhoods? The biggest challenge in fighting terrorism is coordinating and sifting through the accumulated knowledge gathered by local cops on beats across the country.

The best information can sometimes come from the smallest of sources. The Oklahoma City bomber was captured by a traffic cop who noticed a car about an hour and a half after the bombing had an expired validation sticker . I still recall the numerous occasions when homicide detectives asked local parking enforcement and radar officers to supply all their tickets issued within a certain location and dates. Mind you this was the precomputerization era but many of these requests ended with arrests.

One major case involved a serial rapist captured thanks to information from a meter enforcement officer who continually saw a particular car driving around the block on his beat. Being an unusual car for the area but having no authority to stop vehicles, he noted the plate number and description of the driver. The card he submitted, now looked upon with disdain, caught the eye of a detective who followed through to an arrest.

It can be tempting to see the apparent unlimited resources of a larger agency as the solution to all of society’s needs. Sir Robert Peel’s concept of policing wasn’t entirely radical but it was straightforward and effective in its principles. Communities should be policed by those familiar with it and know the laws and how best to enforce them.

Several years back I was struck by an interviewer asking a police applicant to name all the hospitals in a region and where they were located. Obviously community knowledge was important to them. Around the same time I read a news story about a local historian giving downtown Toronto officers a tour of the St. Lawrence Market area. He pointed out the significant areas of their beats and explained why certain neighbourhoods were designed as they were. Most were quite familiar with the main arterial roads patrolled in their cars but knew little about many of the back laneways where only local hoodlums could walk about with impunity. The crime rate in the area quickly tumbled.

In my beat-walking days I recall being told about a small hole in the bank of the Humber River which was the entrance way to a small cavern. Local thieves had used it for some time to stow away shoplifted items from local stores. A local merchant discovered it by simply following a youth who stole something from his shop. He reported it to me and I got a major theft ring liquidated.

Every community is different in its style and need for police coverage. There is no such thing as one style fits all. The only constant is the lack of consistency. Just when you think you have the playing field figured out it can all change. Larger police agencies are not known for their adapatibility. Experience tells us the level of rigidity increases in direct proportion to size.

Police services are by nature reactionary, deterring crime by tight enforcement and their mere presence. The true strength of policing, however, is how resilient they are after a tragedy occurs; like a successful prizefighter, it is more important to recover quickly from a hit and still be able to return a punishing blow. Being good at one but not the other is a recipe for failure.

Police services are not about catching terrorists or eliminating organized crime. Some other level must handle this job and be given the tools and legislation to accomplish it. They must co-ordinate their efforts with local police and set up systems which make the co-ordination and co-operation as smooth as possible.

In the British situation, the haste to make policing all things to all people runs the danger of forcing local police to lose contact with the common person on the street. This is their most valuable information source.

Just like looking at the horizon can cause you to stumble over the stone at your feet, the rush to create a larger agency could make you stumble over the stacks of administrators it takes to maintain it.