The Magazine

What Cops Can Teach the FBI

Local police are ahead of the feds when it comes to effective law enforcement.

Jul 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 44 • By ELI LEHRER
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AS AMERICA'S best-educated, best-equipped, and best-known law enforcement agency, the FBI runs the world's most sophisticated law enforcement labs, keeps national crime statistics, and gives police all over the country plenty of advice on everything from child abuse to credit card fraud. The overbearing federal agent swooping down from Washington to take control of local police investigations became a stock figure in movie and TV crime dramas for good reason. Given its recent track record, however, the FBI might want to begin taking advice from local police agencies rather than dispensing it.

While the 1990s saw sharply dropping crime rates all over the country, the FBI suffered a long string of failures. The September 11 shortcomings and Special Agent Robert Hanssen's espionage activities on behalf of the Russian government have gotten the most attention. But there are serious problems lurking in almost every area of the Bureau's operations. At a time of cascading financial scandals, it appears to have done very little to improve and modernize its capabilities in that area. It has allowed ever more violent multistate criminal syndicates like the Black Gangster Disciples to replace the Italian Mafia as the nation's leading merchants of drugs, sex, and illegal weapons. From child porn distribution to terrorism, nearly every crime the FBI seeks to prevent increased through the 1990s, even as the Bureau's arrests decreased.

Arguably, the Bureau has been spread too thin, and should never have been entrusted with such disparate tasks as counterintelligence, bank robberies, and child kidnappings. But at the same time the FBI has fallen down on the job, local police agencies have gone from success to success. Since 1992, crime has declined in 47 states and about 85 percent of the nation's largest cities, the steepest such drop in American history. Along with stiffer prison sentences, strategies that ask police officers to partner with people in the communities where they work--community policing--best explain the nation's newfound safety. Local police agencies have ushered in a new era of civic safety by creating flexible organizational structures that allow them to respond to new problems, opening their doors to the public, and building simple but effective intelligence operations. If the FBI hopes to remake its dysfunctional culture, it can learn a lot from the beat cops patrolling America's neighborhoods.

While FBI Director Robert Mueller has announced a new focus on terrorism and counterintelligence, little has actually changed. A recent study by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse shows that, despite the alleged change in emphasis, nearly all of the FBI's work remains directed at arresting drug dealers and bank robbers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, meanwhile, reports that the small increases in the FBI's terrorism arrests since September 11 come mostly from bookkeeping changes rather than from any change in strategy. Local police, when forced by events to change their focus, move much more quickly: In cities from Minneapolis to Pasadena, new management techniques allow area commanders to rapidly redeploy personnel to tackle new problems. The New York Police Department--which has almost twice as many employees as the FBI--has changed its organizational structure more since September 11 than has the Bureau. Police departments in Lowell, Mass., Anaheim, Calif., Phoenix, Newark, and elsewhere have sharply limited their use of specialized, single-task units in favor of quick redeployment of more broadly trained officers. If a district commander in Lowell wants to bust a drug house or a Newark police chief wants to investigate a series of stained-glass window thefts, he needs little permission to send dozens of police officers off to work on those very particular problems.

Not coincidentally, well-run police departments have become the most open and welcoming parts of local government. Nearly all of them now allow citizens to ride along with police officers. Many cities use meetings with citizens as the primary forum for setting police priorities. Good local police agencies pay attention to small problems as well as large ones: During late August of last year, I watched a member of the Chicago police department's top brass interrogate a district commander about his response to a loud homeless man in a park.