Buying Police Access With a Pre-Paid Cell Phone J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 13, 2004

We come across an article in this Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle, headlined “Community Buys Into Cleaning Up Its Streets.” An awful idea emerges. 

“A community anti-crime group has come to the aid of the cash-strapped Oakland Police Department and made it easier to contact officers by buying a special cell phone for a police team in North Oakland,” it reads, in part. “The purchase, which comes with an unlimited-use plan, is believed to be the first time that private citizens have purchased such items for the city’s police department, which recently eliminated mobile phones for most beat officers for budget reasons. … The community group [which was unnamed in the article] represents residential neighborhoods near the city’s Auto Row on Broadway. … The cell phone is not designed to replace 911 calls or traditional non-emergency calls but instead will make it easier for residents to update officers about crime problems near their homes… The phone number will not be released to the general public but will be shared with community groups or crime victims who are on the lookout for specific suspects or activities, said Lt. Lawrence Green, who oversees patrols and crime reduction teams in North Oakland.” 

Like any institution put together by humans, the Oakland Police Department plays favorites in whom it responds to, and how (see the response to the Barzaghi domestic problems, for recent reference). But up until now, they have at least made the pretense of doing this unofficially, and not with newspaper announcements. But we’re crossing into new territory, even for this odd land which we’ve come to call “community policing.” 

I know this is really old school, but my idea of community policing has always come from those old ‘40s and ‘50s black-and-white RKO movies where the beat cops patrolled the neighborhoods on foot—never in patrol cars. They knew everybody they passed, and spoke. “Good morning, Mrs. Conners.” “Good morning, Officer Bradley. How’s Mrs. Bradley?” If they saw a crowd of kids hanging out on a stoop skipping school, they could call each one by name, pick out the ringleaders, and know which button to push to get their attention. “You’ll break your mother’s heart, you don’t graduate this year, son.” Coming across another crowd of older men on a corner, they knew the real bad-asses from the guys who just look like bad-asses. These beat cops knew the neighborhood because they were from the neighborhood, or else had worked it so long, that they might as well have been from it. They learned the neighborhood on their feet. They kept down crime as much by their knowledge as by any threat of force of arms. They thought of the neighborhood as a whole—a community—and so they could properly be called “community police.” 

I’m not sure if this ideal world of policing ever existed in Oakland. If it did, it got itself subverted, long ago. Instead of walking neighborhood patrols, we have what you might call a mobile strike force approach to policing—the police roam the neighborhoods in cars, staring expressionless as they pass, shining their spotlights on suspicious characters, responding either to observed trouble or 911 calls. Some of the more street-smart residents can recognize the most infamous of the police—calling them usually by combat- or professional wrestler-type nicknames—but for the rest of us, the Oakland Police are generally merely uniformed authority: faceless, nameless, endlessly interchangeable. Make a call, a who knows who will show up. 

This was recognized by John Cascio, the neighborhood resident credited with spearheading the effort, as reported in the Chronicle article: “He said it made more sense for citizens to be able to contact the same officers who were already familiar with a neighborhood problem than trying to explain everything all over again to an unfamiliar cop.” 

Anyhow, somewhere along the way, the term “community policing” in Oakland began to get applied solely to police liaison to neighborhood groups, rather than entire communities. 

Sometimes these were official Neighborhood Watch groups, formed specifically to monitor crime and other suspicious activity, and to act as a liaison with the police. Other times, they were existing organizations formed for general community betterment, safety being one of their many issues. In either event, they became convenient, mini-communities for the police officers, making their jobs infinitely easier. Instead of having to study, understand, and get to know an entire community, the police only had to get to know 25-30 people in a single group, people who were thoughtful enough to put their names and phone numbers and addresses on a list, and who came out once a month to a church or neighborhood center to voice their concerns to the police. Much more convenient for the cops than stopping to chat on the street with every interested soul they passed. And going one better, most patrol officers didn’t even have to attend these police-community meetings. Instead, the department designated a regular liaison officer—someone like Lt. Green of North Oakland—articulate, personable representatives who could stand up before groups and make presentations, note down community concerns on a yellow pad, and then take them back to the squad for implementation. 

These community groups were not exclusionary—anyone could come if they wanted and had the time—but neither were they necessarily representative of the communities in which they functioned. There was no election, and no provision for reporting back to the remaining citizens of their neighborhoods. 25 to 50 people whose concerns were made primary over hundreds, sometimes thousands. 

No one should take this as a criticism of these community organizations. They are made up—for the most part—of citizens with legitimate community concerns, good people who often volunteer time and money to benefit their neighborhoods-and they deserve to be responded to by the police. The problem is, so do the rest of us. A taxpaying citizen should not have to attend 12 four-hour meetings a year so that their names become known, and they can, therefore, qualify for special attention and service. 

And so we have crossed a line here, with these good folks in that unnamed community group around Auto Row in North Oakland. A private group collects money and buys cell phone service for the police, giving them a direct line to police officers that none of the rest of us have. We are descending—now officially—into a system of two tiers of police service: one for people who buy the police a phone, another for people who rely on the regular office numbers. Am I the only one who sees a problem with that? 

“I hope other neighborhood groups follow our lead,” says Mr. Cascio. 

I hope not. We already bought the police telephones. Every single one they use down at the police station.