I recently re-watched the great 2002 science fiction film Minority Report. Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on an alluring short story written by the legendary science-fiction/fantasy writer Philip K Dick, the film takes place in the year 2054, where a special, experimental police unit operates in Washington D.C. and a handful of other U.S. cities. The "pre-crime" unit apprehends people based on a frankly Orwellian foreknowledge of their intent to commit bad acts.
The movie is a strikingly beautiful adventure piece with Tom Cruise, but it is also an imaginative look at a passel of issues that may soon visit us: an array of new policing strategies, spawned by extremely high-performance computing and advances in digital mapping and neural networks, like, "intelligence led" and "predictive policing," that may come to Tulsa. And the advent of drone borne patrol, with all the manifest privacy issues that these systems will introduce, may be at hand as well.
Breakout technologies and first-rate strategies are essential for policing, but, in the end, truly effective policing depends on: (1) securing the trust and willing support of citizens; and (2) a rigorous look at trashing traditional ways of doing public safety that should now be abandoned. This is the hard rock reality that should ground the work of a newly created public safety advisory group at City Hall.
A New City Hall Committee
About a week ago, Mayor Dewey Bartlett, together with City Council Chair G.T. Bynum, announced a new public safety committee. The nine-member panel is made up of former Tulsa fire execs, a couple of safety connected non-profit leaders and a businessperson or two: It comes in the wake of the Easter Sunday killings. The new committee's mission is a little fuzzy: The Tulsa World reports that the new posse will look at a weird range of stuff including police/fire operations, emergency medical services, public works functions and at-risk programs for children. Slated to complete it's work by December 1, the group could end up like most of the "outsider" panels created at City Hall -- a feckless substitute for leadership and real innovation at One Tech Center -- or just maybe it could look at and propose something useful.
As is the case in all large American cities, policing/fire suppression is one of the biggest slices of local government outlays. The TPD, to use a partial example, is a very well-paid operation -- and with its college degree requirement, the department is among the best formally educated police operations in America. There are nearly 800 officers currently on the TPD payroll. And TPD is filled with dedicated people who do all kinds of work: including very dangerous things that few of us would want to do at any price. Intervening in domestic squabbles -- a surprisingly dangerous task -- is just one example.
But the big picture for the new public safety folks is really pretty simple: Police and Fire operations do now, and will in the future, consume an arguably unsustainable part of the City's budget. The key challenge: finding breakthrough strategies that can improve public safety while dramatically pushing down the explosive growth in salaries, and in the case of the fire department, also push down hardware and related operating costs linked to these services.
As readers might remember from earlier UTW pieces I've posted, a small set of cities across the country are exploring combining key elements of police and fire services, cross training police and fire officers and co-locating police branches' offices and fire stations. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to fuse police and fire headquarters and to integrate special units across police and fire services is a fascinating departure that Tulsa should explore.
Another idea got some useful illumination a few weeks back from Daniel Denvir, a writer for Atlantic Monthly:
"One method that has seen some success is a police auditor, a system used to varying extents by the Los Angeles Sheriff, and police departments in Denver, Boise, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. In L.A., a police auditor found that a sheriff's canine unit had weak oversight, and the number of people bitten by sheriff's dogs decreased significantly after a new standard was introduced. In D.C., an auditor found that a city ordinance requiring the registration of bicycles was primarily used as a pretext to harass young black men.
The Office of Police Complaints recommended repealing the ordinance, and the D.C. Council did so ..."
A Real Rupture
And we could look at systemic breaks: Seriously examine using a formal citizens oversight process to ratchet up police responsiveness and to help manage the outsized cost creep that virtually defines police and fire operations in Tulsa. Last week's Good Friday outrage highlighted the great work that a cooperative citizenry and an engaged police department can do when trust is manifest and the goal (capturing evildoers) is clear. Ratcheting up trust between community leaders and ordinary folks is, as we "discovered," a supremely effective way of forestalling the work of lethal players; it is also a good gambit for doing the less daunting, but no less important work that typifies police/community encounters. Effective policing -- especially the "on the ground," community centered practice that some call community policing -- only happens when neighborhood leaders and ordinary folks alike believe TPD can be trusted and will serve and fully respect the entire community.
Erecting a civilian police oversight body would provide the Tulsa police department and our elected officials with a panoramic, "always on" conception of how policing in Tulsa is working and how justice services might be enhanced. It might also allow Tulsa to do the serious work of critically examining how many cops and firefighters we actually need -- how many fire stations and what kinds of police/fire tasking we can consign to less expensive civilian employees, to automation and to carefully selected private contractors. Electing to rollback conventional police/fire outlays, while holding service-quality constant, might allow Tulsa to better compensate other city workers, allocate more money to parks maintenance and to other offerings that also have a compelling nexus to quality of life improvements in Tulsa.
The new Mayor/Council public safety committee needs to take a serious look at this avenue. Interestingly, there is a model for a surprisingly effective permanent oversight group -- one at the federal level: the Base Closing/Realignment Panel that has successfully beat back congressional protests, intense interest group lobbying and much inertia drag -- and has mandated the closing down of over 350 unnecessary U.S. military installations over the past decade, saving the country many billions of dollars and not a watt of diminished defense capacity. Tulsa's new public safety committee could urge the Mayor/Council to turn it, or something like it, into a semi-permanent body with a similarly transformative mission, from which we could all benefit greatly and become safe.
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