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Making friends to fight crime

Published: 
Monday, May 13, 2013

I grew up watching 60 Minutes, the CBS television news magazine, which was so riveting in its delivery of magazine-style news features that even teenagers like me tuned in every Sunday. I used to watch 60 Minutes for inspiring stories or in-depth information about the issues of the world. Last week’s episode took on a whole new meaning for me as I realised how we are missing the boat when it comes to dealing with illegal drugs, crime and poverty.  

 

The segment on how Massachusetts state troopers and Springfield police joined forces to fight crime made me realise how much work we have to do in order to improve our own crime-fighting tactics. There is much to learn from the Springfield, Massachusetts crime-fighting project, which uses counter-insurgency techniques learned by state trooper Mike Catone, a former military officer in the elite Green Berets.

 

Counter-insurgency involves fighting crime while forging relationships with the community. Catone describes those involved in counter-insurgency as “warriors and community-builders.” He uses this military tactic to fight street gangs and drug dealers in Springfield. State troopers teamed up with police and went door to door to organise the neighbourhood in a crime-fighting unit. 

 

They went to public housing areas, where gang members with motorcycles rode up and down the street with AKA rifles on their backs to prove they owned the streets and the community. Law-enforcement officers were not deterred by irate or cynical people who tried to blow them off. They understood that the residents had lost faith in their police, and they realised that had to change.

 

Catone says the idea of using this tactic came about when he stopped at a gas station and the owner told him how gang members came to his station, pointed a rifle at him and took whatever they wanted because they knew no one would call the police. Gangs, he says, can only operate in an area that has failed. They know they can live off the passive support of the community. They know people are not going to call the police. These are the people that Catone enlisted as his troops.

 

They did not just use snitches and bad guys for their information. They won over and used  99 per cent of the population—the good guys—for information and “the flood gates have opened.” They brought local residents together—police, health and housing organisations, community leaders and educators—so that different organisations doing good deeds in the community could talk to each other and network together. “I don’t have to find the enemy, I have to make a friend,” Catone said.

 

Another former Green Beret officer, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, had his engineering students set up a counter-insurgency lab by organising a database to record everything from the type of tattoos gang members wore to the education level of the criminals.  

 

They provided a picture of the crime network so that police could break apart the network and then pursue criminals individually. Measuring everything from STDs to graffiti, school attendance and drug busts, university students proved violent crimes fell 25 per cent and drug offences dropped 50 per cent over time. The police found jobs for some at-risk boys. The rest went to jail and some left the neighbourhood.

 

The lessons are clear, and they are clearly being missed here. As Catone says, “Police work is a social service job. If the government or individuals aren’t going to do it, why can’t the police do it? The status quo of traditional police isn’t going to work…Crime has to be reduced to the level where you can manage it and then you tackle one criminal at a time.” The challenge is how to get police here to realise that they are doing a public service. 

 

Good guys are not the enemy to be berated, neglected, insulted or ignored when they report crimes. How can we convince the police that they need to win the support of ordinary citizens in the fight against crime? How can we convince police that visibility means more than driving their heavily-tinted SUVs through our neighbourhoods? How can we improve communication skills in our police so that they don’t take disgruntled citizens’ irate attitudes personally? 

 

How can we improve our police officers’ ability to diffuse anger, frustration and fear in crime victims? How can police here make good citizens feel that they have a right to feel safe and protected in their neighbourhoods? How do we get more police officers who really care about thinking outside of the box and going beyond the call of duty by realising the old way of dealing with crime is not working? 

 

And last but not least, why can’t our universities develop some practical, hands-on programmes that relate to real-life issues? There isn’t much we can do to truly put a dent in the crime situation until the police change their attitude and adopt a whole new approach to crime.   

 

 

• You can see the 60 Minutes segment on fighting crime at:  www.cbs.com/shows/60_minutes/video/2383491730/counterinsurgency-cops-rob...

 

There is also an interesting segment on The Robin Hood Foundation, which funds programmes to fight poverty.