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Community Policing Doesn't Sit Well With Everyone, Former Prosecutor Says


More on this subject now from someone who says all the focus on police is bogus.

EUGENE O'DONNELL: All right, so it's review day today. Everybody's up for the review?

SIEGEL: Eugene O'Donnell teaches law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It's part of the City University of New York. He used to be a prosecutor and, before that, a police officer. I met him on a visit to John Jay last week. O'Donnell says before you can talk about community policing, you have to ask, what does the community want?

O'DONNELL: Literally, block-to-block public housing, building-to-building, floor-to-floor - people don't agree on what they want the police to do and how they should do it.

SIEGEL: I mean, some people might say I want the cops here. I want protection, to see the police showing that they're here. And others might be saying the police are here. They're going to get my kid in trouble or they're going to stop me in the street for no reason.

O'DONNELL: You - I was a liaison in public housing in the DA's office, and you'd have a floor where people had zero tolerance - zero tolerance for misconduct. And the floor upstairs, you might have people that have felony convictions. There are - drugs are being dealt out of the same building, so how do you reconcile those issues? And they're the heavy-lifting issues. The simplistic notion that the cops just have to be nice to people is silly, and that's a lot of the conversation. We just keep going back to that kind of...

SIEGEL: Well, is community policing - is it sometimes a dressed-up way of saying police should be nice to be people, or is there a real body of tactics and strategy implied by that that's different from non-community policing?

O'DONNELL: Generally, the community policing that people like, elected officials like, is the community policing that sort of frays the hard edges of policing and makes it seem as though everything can be done in a happy way, blunts the adversarial nature of the police job and kind of suggests that people can get along well and there's no room for conflict, when, in fact, police are a job that involves conflict. When you pull somebody over and you ask them for their license, they're under arrest. Police are not equal with people in that situation, and you're not free to leave. That's not somebody's opinion. That's not a political issue. That is just a reality that the police deal with, and the whole conversation which demonizes individual police people, for me, has been extremely disingenuous.

SIEGEL: Eugene O'Donnell says data collection can make police work less effective. He contrasts policing today with an older time, when an officer could use discretion, especially when it came to enforcing laws against relatively minor offenses.

O'DONNELL: In my era, things came in and went out and weren't documented. Now you have the rise of data, so people say to the commander of the precinct, what are you doing about these complaints? Now, to the great credit of the City Council of New York, they're now in the process of making things civil, so a lot of these quality-of-life offenses are going to be civil, so this is good for the police. We don't need to have police wrestling around in the street with people. We don't need any physical contact, handcuffing. Somebody is urinating in public, riding their bicycle in public, selling loose cigarettes - that should all be diverted. We should hand people a piece of paper and say, go to court.

SIEGEL: Let's say I sell loose cigarettes for either a living or a sideline, and somebody calls in a complaint and I'm given a summons instead of arrested. And I put the summons where a lot of scofflaws put their traffic tickets, and I get another summons and I put it in the same place and I get another summons.

O'DONNELL: But it's going to make it better for the police 'cause the police are going to be much less likely to be cited as profiling people, picking on people. They might still have some of that, but the deeply personal attacks on the police that we saw in the last year won't happen anymore. Blame the judge. Go get the judge.

SIEGEL: And as for body cameras on police officers.

O'DONNELL: Terrible idea - worst idea you can think of. And I - as an elite opposing it, again, I'd like to talk to the neighborhood and see what they think. I'd like to hear the community's view on this. Is this the kind of relationship you're going to want with the cops? Everything you do is going to be on video. Everything they do is going to be on video. Everything is going to just be yes, sir, no, sir. The cops will be on 8th Street when the problems are on 5th Street, which is a huge problem in the country which seems to go under no attention. The City of Baltimore has 250 murders a year. More than half are not solved - 2,400 murders in 10 years. You put that on a map, it will knock you off your seat. Cops in Baltimore on any given day - not only are they face-to-face with a lot of felons who've been criminalized with the drug war, they're face-to-face with a lot of un-apprehended killers in Baltimore. If you do the math...

SIEGEL: If there are that many unsolved murders.

O'DONNELL: A thousand unsolved murders - you know, some did a few, but that's a lot of people that killed and got away with it.

SIEGEL: Well, professor O'Donnell, thanks a lot for talking with us.

O'DONNELL: Thanks a lot.

SIEGEL: That's Eugene O'Donnell. He was a police officer and a prosecutor. We spoke with him last week at his office at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he teaches criminal law. We'll hear from other faculty members and some students from John Jay later this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.