Doing police patrol work is hard, but it often is pretty routine. An officer drives around, waits for calls and responds to them, deals with specific incidents, and writes reports about them. “There’s a simplicity in it,” said Michael Scott, a former police officer and police chief.
But if police work is to be done in the most effective way, it needs to go beyond that routine, Scott said. It needs to aim to deal with or at least understand problems that underlie so many instances of crime, disorder, or other trouble.
That explains why Scott has become the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, an organization which promotes exactly that problem-solving approach to police work. He is also a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He was previously a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison.
During an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on June 26, Scott said police can’t solve huge problems facing American society, such as poverty, racism, or mental illness. But police can have more positive impact if they understand those issues and factor them into strategies for reducing the problems that accompany them. Sometimes, that requires bringing in other entities in law enforcement or beyond as partners in strategizing solutions.
Scott gave some examples of what that might involve. If the people who live in the vicinity of a park regard the park as dangerous, going after perpetrators by patrolling is one answer. But there may be ways to change the park or policies or control other factors that would cut reduce the likelihood of problems arising in the first place.
In Milwaukee, a few years ago, Scott said, there was a serious problem with people stealing metal off of buildings and selling it to scrap dealers. Going after those who were doing it was one answer, but working with scrap dealers and changing regulations they had to follow was more effective in reducing the overall issue.
And when facing a mentally ill person who is causing trouble, as officers often are, arresting the person is one answer. But having officers who are trained in dealing with those who have mental illnesses and having systems that can help such people avoid future problems can be more effective. “What would a criminal prosecution do to a mentally ill defendant?” Scott asked.
For police to be successful in building good relations with minority communities, more is needed than a few community service officers and events, Scott said. While single incidents can spark major trouble, community trust is both earned and lost over the long run, Scott said, by the way a police force works as a whole. “It’s not enough for you to stop doing bad things in minority communities,” he said. “You also have to do good things. You have to be of help.”
No police department has done problem-solving policing well over a long stretch of time, Scott said, but some are doing it well currently and it has made a difference for the better in those places. Scott named as examples Portland, Ore.; Houston; Arlington Texas; and several Wisconsin cities, including Sheboygan, La Crosse, and, in some ways, Milwaukee.
He said Herman Goldstein, a long-time professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School who is now retired, was the first to suggest problem-solving approaches to policing after observing that “there was something fundamentally amiss in the way policing was done” because it dealt only with incidents and not broader causes. Scott called Goldstein his mentor.
Among the steps in his career, Scott was a police officer in Madison and police chief in Lauderhill, Fla. He served in administrative positions in police departments in St. Louis and New York City. The program at Eckstein Hall was one of several appearances Scott made in Milwaukee during a visit facilitated by the Community Coalition for Quality Policing.