The duties of a policeman share a similarity to that of firefighting in that the majority of effort exerted by law enforcement usually happens after the brunt of the damage is already done. Like firefighters, policemen generally respond to a frantic call for help, rush to the scene, beat down the door, hose everything down indiscriminately, and leave a mess. This public perception may be oversimplified, but the generalization of a cavalry showing up belatedly at a field littered with the arrow-perforated bodies of settlers seems to stick.
It's an after-the-fact method that doesn't work any more according to community voices sounding off at a recent town hall meeting sponsored by Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes. Jackson residents, such as George Lewis, said the police force was virtually ineffective against a crime problem whose roots lay more in social breakage than simple report-and-apprehend tactics.
"The police [haven't] been able to do nothing about what's going on in these streets. They might come along later, but what are they going to do after you've been robbed or shot? It ain't doing you no good," Lewis said.
To Police or Be Policed
Jackson Police Chief Robert Moore agreed with the hopelessness of the "rush to the scene after the bullets are imbedded" policy and touted the success of a more pre-emptive role in crime prevention, known as community policing.
"We moved from a traditional policing format, where police would simply go out when citizens would call and move on with the investigation without involving them in the process. That model was proven to be ineffective," Moore said.
Coupled with his Five Point Plan (to counter instantaneous criticism of community policing being "soft on crime"), Moore said the new tactic brings the often-alienated image of the policeman closer to the community, which is routinely distanced by its own collective dislike of being policed.
"We meet on a regular basis with the community at meetings to identify those particular problems facing the community," Moore explained. "How do we attack a drug problem in your community, we ask. How do we attack prostitution in your area? We sit down with citizens and help them get input to us. In the past we'd go out and do this and that, but there would be no feedback and no input," Moore said. "We've trained over 300 people in this concept, and it has really taken hold in Jackson."
Moore cites the Fondren community in Ward 7 as a prime example. "They're finding houses that have been an eyesore or are trying to get rehabbed, and they're moving with that in Fondren. That community is greatly improving. I'm very proud of that effort," Moore said, and was quick to add that, thanks to federal money, city sections such as Wards 5 and 6 have access to the same resources as Ward 7. Ward 3, for example, has had its federal financing for the citywide Weed and Seed program renewed for another five years. (Jackson is the only city in Mississippi, according to Moore, which has qualified for the funds).
"Weed and Seed is a program that targets neighborhoods that have had some deterioration where there needs to be restoration. What we do as law enforcement is go in and take out the criminals. We have community people out there identifying drug houses and folks who have committed crimes in the community. Then comes the seeding side, where you have community groups pursue after-school programs, health programs, and other programs to help restore areas," Moore said, pointing out that the city has netted $175,000 to put toward such community projects.
'On Paper' Not Enough
Jimmy Bell, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Jackson State University, went further than simply praising the efficiency of community policing, declaring that it may be the only real workable policing strategy capable of countering modern crime. He backed up his assessment with a referral to a 1972 study, administered by the Kansas City Police Department and evaluated by the Police Foundation, outlining the relative uselessness of traditional policing.
"Clarence Kelly, who later became director of the FBI, was the chief of police in Kansas city and Kelly involved a number of criminologists, sociologists and psychologists to look at how effective their policing by patrol was and that one-year study revealed that random patrol did not impact crime in the community at all," said Bell, who has published literature regarding criminology and has developed a standard model of policing for the National Guard Police Association.
According to the report, Kansas City was divided into three test sectors. One sector experienced routine policing already familiar to the city while a second sector was reactive, where police only came when they were called. The third sector found itself utterly saturated with police officers. Crime didn't change in either one of those sectors, the report concluded.
Community policing is essential, Bell said, but he charged that too often the technique only exists "on paper."
"Most buy into the concept of community policing because it's a catchy phrase. It looks good on Election Day, but it's rarely seriously implemented. … When we finally got the cooperation of a chief in Florida years ago in the 1980s [to use it] it [was so rare] it made '60 Minutes,'" Bell said.
Even though statistics indicate an official 16-year low in violent crime in Jackson, and Moore will soon be happily announcing a 30-percent drop in crime compared to last year, Bell said he characterized the community as basically "still frustrated" by its stubborn persistence.
"I'm not going to fault Moore for that because crime is cyclical. It goes and comes, and it really depends on what programs you have in place to attack the problem issues," Bell said. "Drugs are still a primary problem in most communities in the United States, and if the federal government with all of its resources can't make a dent in it we can't expect the local administration to do it."
Bell pointed out that community solidarity is the magical gadget that really makes community policing a reality. Unfortunately, many statistics on city migratory trends hint that solidarity itself hardly remains a reality as communities age. Reports dating as far back as the 1930s suggest that too often the relocation of community leaders from urban to suburban areas leaves a neighborhood gutted and "in shambles," as Bell puts it—though he called upon the new community awareness in Jackson's Washington Addition—a faithful advocate of Moore's community policing policy—as a more positive example of stalling the national trend toward decay.
Rev. John Perkins, of the Perkins Foundation and a community activist, said Moore should've adopted the policy earlier, however. Perkins said that the black community, in particular, had to battle a culturally engrained perception of police as enforcers of Jim Crow and that police-sponsored outreach programs were vital to remove the stigma.
"It's got to come into the reality that policeman are our friends and they're not out just to get us. That's a perception that has yet to take root in the black community," Perkins said. "But it was hard to get [Moore] to agree to it at first. Moore came in talking to us in the community like we were children, like we didn't know what crime was. It all amounted to a problem with perception to him. My car was stolen out of my yard less than six months ago. That wasn't a perception. When my daughter's and my granddaughter's cars were stolen and cars were broken into in our place those were not perceptions. Those were realities. I felt that [Moore] was saying that we were crazy, that we just didn't know."
The 'P' Word
Perkins' reference to Moore's "perception" stems from local media's summation of a statement Moore made at a 2003 press conference, saying "the numbers show the perception of crime in Jackson is worse than the reality." It was a summary that stuck in the minds of Jackson residents, seeding bitterness between them and Moore and sparking a host of reactionary editorials and statements, such as one from former Metro Crime Commission-Safe City Watch community affairs Director Rick Whitlow, claiming that Moore was out of touch with Jackson residents.
"That 'p' word—perception—comes down to a quality-of-life issue," Whitlow said last year.
But Whitlow, now communications associate for the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said before leaving SafeCity Watch that Moore had improved the department and that the problem of crime now lay more with the court system's rapid-fire release of repeat offenders than the JPD's inability to nab them.
"When I first met with Moore as a representative of SafeCity Watch, it was clear at the time that the JPD had some serious wrinkles to iron out … but they've made some good improvements since then, and I have to say that a lot of the problems we face with crime these days has more to do with our court system," Whitlow said.