You Can’t Have it Both Ways: Community Policing is a Two-Way Street (By SAM HERBERT)

Tuesday August 17, 2004

Mr. Allen-Taylor’s recent article regarding community citizens buying cell phones for their beat officers reveals more about his prejudices about law enforcement than about uneven access to the police. Cell phone use is just one more tool to help solve local problems, not a substitute for any level of traditional police service. Further, responsibility for communication between the police and the community they serve is a two-way street, and only effective when both sides are active participants. 

It is understandable that Mr. Allen-Taylor longs for a simpler time, when individual officers had the luxury of time and limited responsibilities, and could reasonably expect to be able to meet and greet each resident in their district by name. Peace officers working in an environment with little, if any, violent crime, and a much smaller resident population, can do that. By contrast, current beat assignments involve responsibility for densely-populated urban communities, and cover geographical areas too extensive to cover on foot. A typical work day has any given beat officer racing from one location to another, in response to serious, life-threatening incidents. Given the logistical problems of being forced (to try and) be everywhere at once, and be everything to everybody, they are to be congratulated for making the best of whatever resources are available to them. If they find a cell phone handy for improving access to the most up-to-the-minute information, then I am happy they have them. 

It is true that not everyone knows their beat officers equally well. There is a wide range of personal involvement on the part of community members, from fully-involved down to the marginally aware. While those who choose minimal contact with the police have the right to expect an equal response to real needs for solid police services, such as access via dispatch to address actual crimes in progress, they cannot complain about a failure to connect on a personal level if they don’t do their part. 

I am particularly offended by the libelous assertion that “the Oakland Police Department plays favorites in whom it responds to.” By any notion of what a modern police department is supposed to “respond to,” there is of necessity a hierarchy of importance. The decision to send one or more officers to the site of a requested call for service is based on the likelihood that a human life is at stake. Whether or not dispatch sends out one officer or several, and how quickly, depends on the seriousness of the call, as well as the availability of personnel to send. The quality and speed of the response has nothing to do with who is calling, or how familiar they are with their own beat officer. 

Neither do patrol officers “respond to” neighborhood residents calling for help in preference to their assigned calls. Should that ever happen, it would be a clear case of negligence, and should be reported immediately. I have never heard of anything of the sort occurring. Instead, those officers who carry cell phones with them while working (regardless of who paid for them), use the phones to provide a direct source for gathering information. Local residents have the best, most current information about what is going on in their neighborhoods. By passing it on directly to the officer driving their streets, they extend the effectiveness of that officer. No officer with a cell phone ever responds to a voicemail message, much less answering the phone directly, if there are any other matters pending. Communications with dispatch are always the higher priority. 

In a time of budget cutbacks, when (on average) 35 beat officers patrol the streets of Oakland, and stretched staffing means that workloads are doubled up, we ought to be supportive of any officer working as efficiently as possible. The effect of better-informed officers means that they can help to prevent crime, not just respond after the fact. That makes everyone safer, even those who choose limited contact with the police. 

I also take exception to the author’s assertion that participation in community meetings makes “their jobs infinitely easier.” Many officers attend these meetings on their days off, and/or when they are not on duty, out of a sense of personal dedication to the community they serve. We are only too lucky that we have officers willing to go so far beyond the call of duty, to better get to know their area and those neighbors working to help fix the problems, instead of causing them. 


Sam Herbert is South Berkeley resident.›