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In January 1994, President Clinton invited Kevin Jett, a thirtyone-year-old New York City police officer who walks a beat in the northwest Bronx, to attend the State of the Union Address. Jett stood for Congress's applause as the President called for the addition of 100,000 new community police officers to walk beats across the nation. The crime problem faced by Officer Jett and community police officers like him, the President said, has its roots "in the loss of values, the disappearance of work, and the breakdown of our families and communities." According to the Clinton administration, however, the police – or at least community police – can still help make a difference. Law enforcement officers, Attorney General Janet Reno has said, can in fact be "heroes and heroines" engaged in the appropriately Herculean task of "rebuilding the fabric of society" in cities, communities, and neighborhoods that are "adrift."

Concern about crime is once again at center stage. So are the police. Several weeks before the State of the Union Address, the New York Times profiled the New York City Police Department's implementation of community policing, a reform-oriented philosophy of policing that, in New York, has involved assigning police officers to foot patrol and expanding their traditional duties to include broader community service. Officer Jett, the Times reported, walks a beat in a New York neighborhood in which "[s]o many stores have been robbed so often that many, including the Post Office, conduct business from behind thick Plexiglas partitions." Regular patrol officers responding to calls in some areas "are often met with 'air mail,' bricks and chunks of concrete that rain down from above." The Times termed the NYPD's community policing effort perhaps "the largest and most important policing experiment any government has tried to conduct."

There is concern, not only about crime, but also about disorder – the disintegration of norms of civility and mutual respect governing urban life. Here, too, the police share the spotlight. Recent news reports have catalogued the deleterious effects of alleged breakdowns in – civic order: the commuter's dread of being harangued by strangers demanding money on the subway; the elderly person's concern about being accosted by obstreperous teenagers in the park. Citing the work of leading academics who argue that the threat of such encounters breeds fear, which may itself endanger community life by causing the fearful resident to withdraw from public spaces, police reformers in cities like New York are looking to revive an older conception of the function of beat cops. In the view of prominent academics and politicians, these new community police officers, no mere crime fighters, should also – "resume a long-abandoned role as guardians of civic order."


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Law | Law Enforcement and Corrections


Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force by Jerome H. Skolnick and James J. Fyfe, New York: Free Press, 1993, pp. xviii, 313, $24.95.