"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 16, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up And They Will Come

Part II:  People and Security

I confess.  My previous post was a hook, using a controversial decision in Norristown, Pa., to introduce a series on priorities in municipal government.  It served primarily as a lesson on how low priority actions can suck up much more energy, effort and money than they are worth.  I see why many would consider bringing a restaurant to downtown a priority, but in a world of limited energy, time and money, it doesn’t rank very high, and it certainly didn’t help in trying to keep things simple.

A municipality has two—and just two—real priorities, that are head, shoulders and torso above everything else.  This week I write about the first, the most important one of all, and I will continue to use Norristown as my example.

Let’s call that most important priority “security.”  Far and away a municipal government’s most important task is to ensure that its citizens feel secure in their homes and out in public.  Thus, there is no more important relationship within a municipality than that between the people and those who provide their security, the police department.  In case you haven’t noticed, that relationship has been the subject of much disagreement (although little true discussion) after some horrific events nationwide.  I’m going to add a historical perspective (surprise!) to the issue, because there is nothing new about it.

A long time ago, in a country far away, I was a participant—at a very minor level—in an intense disagreement about the relationship between people and security.  This was actually the biggest issue of the several extant in that place at that time, although this was not fully appreciated.  Simply put, the question was this: must you bring security to the people, or do the people themselves bring security?  We ended up trying the latter because we could not accomplish the former.  At the very local—hamlet and village—level, the people were organized into part-time soldiers and assigned to guard their own villages.  Sounds logical, right?  It didn’t work.  They remained inside their vehicles during the day and their compounds during the night, looking to themselves and pretty much ignoring what was happening in the nearby villages they were supposed to be guarding.  An additional issue was that they looked on the people as a source of revenue and extorted whatever they could.  So the people, left on their own, cooperated with them during the day, but with the insurgents during the night.  Getting information was hard, and that information was unreliable.  “Don’t snitch” is not an American invention.

There is a parallel to the situation in our nation’s urban areas today, and it is not terribly far-fetched.  Many residents dwell in what we used to term “contested” areas.  That meant that the other side’s influence was.  Now, residents fear the gangs and the bad individuals, not guerrillas, but as it was then, have no particular love for the legal authorities either.  So, because the bad guys live nearby, and can get to them—and their families—people keep their mouths shut, the police grow more frustrated and the downward spiral continues.  The more things change…

Today, we sort of encourage people to protect themselves—through Town Watch, for example—but arming them is a very different matter on this side of the Pacific.  We thus depend on the professionals, the full-timers.  That’s a huge difference, but here’s where the parallel comes in: our professionals tend to do the same thing here today as our armed private citizens did over there back then.  They live largely in their vehicles and their stations, both day and night, which makes them strangers.

We all lament the demise of the “cop on the beat,” and for good reason.  I had the privilege of touring Main Street, Norristown, Pa. with Hank Cisco, a former police officer and current town “ambassador.”  He brought home to me just much interaction took place between the beat cop and those on his beat, and how daily familiarity made cops much more observant and aware of their surroundings.  He—and they—exemplified the opposite approach to what we see today.  That daily, casual, friendly contact bred an understanding and a trust, and that paid off in information offered by a grateful citizenry.

Today, by contrast, the average resident in a “contested” area mostly sees the police just cruising by, looking at him.  They interact personally with a police officer only when he (or she, now) gets out of their car and approaches them.  They are automatically suspicious (“It increases my paranoia, like looking in the mirror and seeing a police car”) and their attitude will depend largely on what the cop then pulls out, from citation book to club to gun, but to them each represents only varying degrees of bad.  This is an unhealthy relationship, and the tragic results of such unhealthy relationships have played themselves out in many cities in recent months.

That’s why I am pleased to commend Norristown Police Chief Mark Talbot for taking major steps to increase friendly contact between his department and the local residents.  His campaign has several facets.  The Norristown Police Department now has a presence on social media, and it goes far beyond a Facebook page.  The Department actively utilizes such popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with focused and relevant sites, primarily  Nextdoor.com (which I have previously praised).  Cooperation between the residents and the police using this secure site has enormous potential to improve the community.  That’s a huge step forward, but social media cannot replace face-to-face contact, and Chief Talbot emphasizes that also.  It can be an event, such as “Coffee With A Cop,” held last June, but I particularly like the full time policy he initiated of offering the police station and its parking lot as safe zones to undertake transactions such as those on Craigslist.  The list goes on, and Chief Talbot is only just beginning.

Let’s hope more such innovative ideas to improve police/community relations make their appearance in Norristown.  They will go a long way to building that trust that true revival depends on.  Let’s also hope other local police jurisdictions—urban ones in particular—also take steps to reverse the decades-long decline in the relationship between people and security.  If people feel secure in their homes and out in the community, then all else can follow.  If they don’t, then nothing positive can follow.