Mike Scott is currently the director of the Problem Oriented Policing [POP] Center, a former chief of police, and currently a clinical professor. I had the privilege of hiring him at the beginning of his career when I was chief of police in Madison. Mike has had a broad policing career and is one of the leading voices in improving our nation’s police.
In the following interview, radio host Paul Ingles talks with Mike, who continues as the director of the non-profit POP Center and also a clinical professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University in Phoenix, about what needs to be done to improve the relationship between citizens and their police. (From Peace Talks Radio).
Paul Ingles: What might help most to improve the relationships between police and citizens?
Michael Scott: I suggest we begin where I always begin which is by asking the question; “What is supposed to be the relationship between the police and the public?” Everything flows from the way in which we answer that question. If we answer the question that the police are supposed to enforce the law, they’re supposed to fight crime, protect the public from crime, simplistic answers like that are what lead us into the trouble that we often find ourselves because it puts the police in a very narrow function with regard to the public as a force that exists merely to enforce the law and merely to protect the so-called good guys from the bad guys.
I think a more proper understanding of what the police exist to do and have always existed to do is much broader than that. The police are one agency of government among many that share responsibility for promoting public safety and the relationship that they ought to have with the public extends well beyond simply enforcing the law, especially the criminal law. It really is about helping the public and helping specific communities develop and maintain real safety and a sense of safety and security within the various communities in which they live. If you understand it that way, then the relationship the police ought to have to the public is dramatically different and how we would structure policing, how we would define the job of a police officer would be very different than it often gets defined.
So the police officer, under that view of policing, would see his or her role as first establishing a relationship with particular segments of the community and that’s very much promoted by an organizational structure, in which every police officer, especially every patrol office, is assigned to a particular part of the community on a relatively long term basis with a mandate of getting to know the people who live and work in that community, but with a specific objective of getting to know the particular conditions and crime problems and public safety issues that threaten that community.
Building on that, the police officer would then capitalize on the relationships that he or she builds with people in that community to identify these problems, to think along with the community about different ways of addressing those problems to develop new approaches that improve upon approaches that are not working as well to address those problems and to constantly monitor what progress is being made.
This idea is not brand new. It’s a set of ideas that have really been in and around policing for a good 40 years now and I think much of the problem that we face is that we’ve lost sight of some of the gains that we’ve made over the last 40 years in terms of redefining the police function. There is a great need to get the police back to this notion of police as community problem solvers and not exclusively as crime fighters or law enforcers.
Paul Ingles: Now Mike, have we, in some ways, outgrown the ability to do that in terms of our large urban centers or even our mid-sized cities to be able to assign police responsibilities in their communities that way?
Scott: No, not at all. In fact many of the cities in which I’ve lived and worked in the police field including New York City, our biggest city, we were doing this. We were doing this with patrol officers and communities in New York City in the 1980s. We were doing it in Saint Louis in the center of the city in the 1990s. We were doing in Chicago, in Los Angeles in Houston, in all of our major cities and indeed there is evidence that we’ve been doing it in medium-sized cities, small cities, towns, villages, unincorporated areas. There really is no place in the country where this style of policing can’t work in some modified form.
Ingles: Michael Scott, why do you personally care about devoting so much of your time to thinking about this?
Scott: Well, policing is one of the two or three most important functions of government, anyplace, anywhere. It is to domestic affairs what the military is to international affairs. So if one cares at all about the strength of democracy, the fairness and justice in society, then one has to care about policing.
Police are ultimately a reflection of the political desires of a community, but it’s also the case that police, professional police committed to democratic policing can in fact play a leadership role in demonstrating how, even some of the most challenging, difficult, complex social problems that affect public safety can be effectively addressed without resorting to heavy-handed draconian anti-democratic approaches to policing.
Again, if one cares at all about justice and democracy, one has to care about police and policing.
Ingles: As I described to you, our program is about non-violent conflict resolution. It strikes me that what you just said, you didn’t say “non-violence,” but you used other words to describe things that they could avoid, but are the police also ostensibly on the front lines of being able to model non-violent conflict resolution despite the fact that they have a gun on their hip?
Scott: Well, I think especially because they have a gun on their hip. There is a general principle in professional policing that holds that the police ought to use the least amount of coercive force necessary to achieve their lawful objectives. The least amount of coercive force necessary to achieve lawful objectives, so if you take that proposition seriously, then the police themselves ought constantly to be looking for ways to address public safety problems using the least amount of coercion necessary to do that.
That’s some of what we have learned bit by bit, problem by problem over the past 40 years is that in fact here are choices to be made. There are choices as to whether we want our police to approach these problems with a very heavy hand a very heavy use of coercive force or if we want our police to look for alternatives to the use of coercive force in addressing these problems. The police field is getting increasingly sophisticated where they are committed to doing so; to finding less coercive, less forceful ways of addressing even the most serious crime problems.
More interviews by Ingles on “Improving the Relationship Between Citizens and Police” HERE.