Commentary: Get smart on crime, not tough on crime

  • Jay Hall
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Nov 24, 2017
Austin police officer Jack Eastland talks to a family in North Austin during foot patrols on Rundberg Lane in 2016. The police presence in the area was part of a community policing initiative.

The Department of Justice recently released its long-awaited violent crime strategy. As both a retired lieutenant who spent 24 years with the Houston Police Department and as someone who lost a brother and a father to gun violence, I have mixed feelings about the policies outlined in it.

A police officer’s job is difficult. Police chiefs across the country have learned that building trust in our communities is paramount to success. As the Department of Justice decides how to divide funding between enforcement and prevention, we need to be aware of the dangers of overenforcement and the central need for community policing — an area in which Houston is a leader.

Years ago, when my partner and I were on patrol in Southeast Houston, we saw three young people arguing angrily on the porch. When they saw us approach, they disappeared inside the house. When we knocked on the front door and indicated that we only wanted to help, a man threatened to shoot, yelling, “All you cops are the same: no good!” It took several tense exchanges to de-escalate the situation before they would come out of the house.

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Once we started talking, the man who had threatened us explained that a week before, some officers had accosted him for the mere act of playing a game of dice with his friends outside a corner store. With this experience, it’s understandable that he was upset to see more officers.

When police abuse their authority, they drive a wedge between themselves and the community and taint the reputation of good police officers. Excessively focusing on enforcement threatens both community relations and the safety of officers.

Though I’m glad that the attorney general acknowledges the importance of community policing and will continue to fund programs aimed at stopping violence, I’m concerned that the policy focuses too much on enforcement — particularly in the area of sentencing.

His strategy’s “centerpiece” is Project Safe Neighborhoods. These integrate education, counseling and other methods to get young people out of gangs. While PSNs combine prevention and enforcement strategies, studies have shown that the most effective piece is the preventative small-group counseling, while the only piece that does not significantly reduce homicide rates is pursuing longer sentences. I’m concerned that the Project Safe Neighborhoods memorandum the Justice Department sent to U.S. Attorneys focuses too heavily on enforcement rather than prevention, barely mentioning the crucial support that Project Safe Neighborhoods must provide to help offenders change course.

After years of focusing on enforcement, which increased polarization, a series of mental health-related shootings spurred the Houston police to establish the nation’s first mental health division. With funding from the Department of Justice, the department identified the 30 most-frequent jail entrants with mental health issues and assigned them case managers who helped them find housing, mental health services, drug treatment, health care and help with government bureaucracy. Emergency calls related to those 30 people dropped by 69 percent, and their offenses dropped by 61 percent. Assigning case managers to sit down at the table with serial offenders and help them apply for services has turned out to be the city’s best crime prevention initiative. The city also reduced violent crime in the second half of 2016 by increasing the number of officers on patrol.

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Twenty-four years in uniform has taught me that community policing does make communities safer when the entire department embraces a prevention mindset. You can’t overcome years of mistrust with a strictly punitive attitude. These two programs highlight the importance of balancing enforcement with prevention. To make these programs a success, we must remain open to suggestions from all stakeholders, particularly violent crime survivors. Only then can we provide exemplary service and achieve real accountability on the part of both police and civilians.

Hall retired as a lieutenant from the Houston Police Department with 24 years of service. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.