Cops and Robbers
Police Chief Darrel Stephens has a great idea to curb crime—attack it at its societal roots. There's only one problem: Apparently, no one told the cops. And they don’t want to "problem solve." They just want to bust the bad guys
Written by Melissa Hankins
Photographs by Chris Edwards
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers James Franklin and Michael King wanted to be partners because they think alike. Truth is, they kind of look alike, too: stereotypically all-American, with blond buzz cuts, fit physiques, and twin grins they trade often. What they really look like is the kind of police officers most people want, a coupla tough guys seasoned with senses of humor. They are intimidating when they need to be, approachable when they don't, and the two patrol some of the unruliest urban areas around town with obvious aplomb.
Yet Franklin and King have, at times, found their jobs difficult, and not just because Charlotte has a high crime rate. What's eating at them actually stems from some of the same traits that make the two seem like ideal cops. They and other officers think their force has gone soft, driven by an obsession with a crime-prevention technique that asks cops to act more like life counselors and less like enforcers of the law.
The opinion of Franklin and King and their colleagues is important for two reasons. First, because Police Chief Darrel Stephens has made this technique, called Problem-Oriented Policing, CMPD's official maxim. Second, because lots of academic experts and command-level police officers believe POP works. The problem is, Charlotte may never know whether that's true. Many of the officers don't believe in it. Officers like Franklin and King, who hold POP-specific roles, say they haven't been trained in it. And CMPD, despite research showing that they should, doesn't recruit for it.
It's a situation that makes Stephens look like a CEO trying to run a company staffed with employees who object to the mission statement. And that, unfortunately, makes the CMPD look like the kind of corporation stockholders flee from.
As a theory, Problem-Oriented Policing makes sense. The idea is to prevent crime by attempting to control the social and personal ills thought to cause it. POP officers are expected to help citizens solve the kinds of issues that lead to crime, instead of dealing only with people who've broken the law. In other words, cops shouldn't cruise around aimlessly, waiting for the next 911 call. They should be chatting up the citizenry, getting to know people, helping them work out their problems before desperation leads someone to commit a crime.
Herman Goldstein, now professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin Law School (UWLS), came up with the strategy. Stephens is one of its pioneers. While running the Newport News, Virginia, force in the early 1980s, he became the first chief to implement POP agencywide. He brought it to Charlotte when he was hired in 1999, although CMPD had been testing portions of it since 1992.
Stephens says POP is a modern response that digs at the deep, dark roots of criminal activity. "The more we learn about crime and what contributes to it, the more this line of thinking makes sense," Stephens says. "Much of what causes crime in a community, like poverty and drug addiction, aren't things police can do much about through arrests. We have to work with the people."
Which brings us back to why Franklin and King wanted to be partners. Working "with the people" every day under what they consider a light-handed policy has these two clenching their iron fists. And so they decided that if they were going to become community coordinators, which is what CMPD calls its full-time practitioners of POP, well, then they'd be damned if they weren't going to do it together.
Franklin, thirty-six years old, and King, thirty-five, work in Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Central Division, a small district that covers Uptown plus a couple of still-unseemly neighborhoods clinging to it. They've been working together for six months in a role they say they never imagined they'd take on as policemen. "We're not your average community coordinators," Franklin says immediately and repeatedly, like it's the first and last thing he wants people to remember.
Today, most of the thirteen CMPD divisions employ six community coordinators each. They're supposed to work closely with community leaders to address quality-of-life issues. "Although problem solving is expected of all officers," reads a CMPD description of the job, "community coordinators are not tied to primary responses to 911 calls for service or shifts." While community coordinators such as Franklin and King are supposed to be at it full time, Stephens wants his other officers to spend 40 percent of their shifts doing the same thing.
Proponents of POP are typically either academics or high-ranking police officers, and they are very good at portraying POP as theoretically sound. Because, when implemented correctly, it is. Michael Scott, a UWLS assistant professor, former Lauderhill, Florida, police chief, and director of the national nonprofit Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, says that recruiting the right officers and training them properly are essential to POP's success. "There are many departments across the country successfully doing both," he says.
Charlotte does not appear to be one of them. Stephens says recruitment policies haven't been refreshed—he doesn't believe conventional hires, like Franklin and King, have a natural aversion to POP. So, the questions that remain, then, are these: Can the Franklins and Kings of the world become, through training, the kinds of people who want to coach others out of risky behavior? Are they even the kind of people who can? And since it's doubtful that officers who prefer traditional policing will ever be weeded out, should all officers be expected to "problem solve," as is the case with the CMPD, or should only a select few take the task?
Says Franklin: "Look, Mike and I are not the kinds of guys who want to sit at a desk. Neither of us care about becoming a sergeant. We want to patrol, we want to be on the streets. We're the low men on the totem pole, that's the way we like it, and we're not politically correct. I'd rather see tougher jails than more rehabs."
Says his partner, King: "How are we supposed to fix people that haven't done anything right for themselves their whole lives? Is there a rehab for selling dope?"
Says Officer Carrie Stillman, another community coordinator in the Central district: "I don't think criminals are getting any nicer. I don't know why the police department is."
And says Uptown Officer A.J. Dillingham, who works on bike patrol: "We're supposed to sit down with people, give them all these solutions, but when I tell them—like in domestic-violence cases—what they have to do, they won't want to implement [the solutions]. Honestly, it makes me angry. I guess somewhere down the line someone will listen, but…there is such a thing as being too soft."
Even Stephens says that "a number" of his police officers resent their "problem solving" roles. "I do hear officers complain," he says. "I do hear from them that we need to be more aggressive. Some officers in the department and some people in the community don't think beyond ‘let's arrest all the bad people.' They don't think about the complexity of crime, even though we've been working very hard to make them see that." That latter part of Stephens' statement seems dubious, however, when even officers tapped as community coordinators admit they're averse to the fundamental principles of POP.
Jeff Katz hosts a talk show on WBT and is a regular on cable news programs. He also happens to have been a Philadelphia Housing Authority police officer about twenty years ago, which has endeared him locally to cops. He says he's heard from a lot of them. "Most are afraid to announce this because they're concerned they'll lose their jobs," he says, "but these guys all think Stephens has a lot more concern for criminals than cops. They say he's a social worker wearing a police chief uniform. Most police officers appreciate that they're being asked to be part of the community," he continues, "but there are officers beside themselves because Stephens is placing more importance on that than on making arrests." There is, Katz thinks, an undeniable and overwhelming feeling of discontent in the CMPD.
All this is not to say that Franklin and King don't like their jobs. They're just glad they're in it together. "I never would have considered taking this on if I couldn't be with Mike," Franklin says from a squad car, a spiffy new one on loan ("because you don't want to get in ours") as the two set out to make their rounds one day in May. "Mike here's on the SWAT team," he adds proudly. "Both of us never thought, hey, community policing is something we'd want to do. But the way we handle things," Franklin says, "it's turned out good. Like some of these guys," he explains, referring to other community coordinators, "like the ones in Dilworth, they focus more on dealing with neighbors fighting about how their bushes are being cut. Mike and I do more street-level stuff. We're not about going out and cooking hot dogs with the [community]," he says sarcastically.
King drives. Franklin does most of the talking. They are touring Wilmore, a small, battered neighborhood next to Dilworth. Even though it's unseasonably cold and lightly raining, people crowd the curbside. They stand around in small groups, talking, smoking, and shooting hard looks at King and Franklin.
"We're getting the stink eye," Franklin says, smiling widely. King grins back. "We call it the Wilmore eye." FoFFr POP to work properly, community coordinators must ingratiate themselves with the public, but Franklin and King haven't exactly accomplished that in this neighborhood. They're not sure they want to. "We're not the bad guys out here, though," Franklin says, flashing that grin. "People respect us. Well, some of them do." Then he sighs, suddenly serious. "There are some real problems here. Drugs. Lots. Crack."
King spots a big, bearded man with long dreadlocks standing listlessly in front of a dilapidated house on a corner. He stops and rolls down his window. "Mr. Wright," King says, gesturing toward the house. "Did you get your stuff out?"
"No," Mr. Wright answers.
"You gotta do that, man," King tells him. "Next it'll be breaking and entering." He pauses, rolls up the window, and drives on.
"That house there has been a big problem," Franklin explains. "It's a duplex. Drugs are being used and sold from one side. Mike called the property owner and told him about it, and he decided to evict the tenants." One of whom is the individual King just talked to. "Scares you to death to look at him," Franklin says, twisting his head toward the back window, glancing at Wright, and not looking scared at all. "But actually he's very cordial. He got stabbed right in front of his house." Franklin pulls out a black binder holding about fifty photocopied arrest pictures. "See? This is him. Abdul Jabbar Wright, born 6/13/72."
Franklin and King make the photocopies themselves and bring the binder with them as a quick-reference guide. Ro Rlling through the streets, they point to various people and locate each of them in the book. "Most of these guys," he says, shaking the binder, "have six, seven arrests. Some have, like, forty. And honestly, a lot of them have already been to rehab, too."
"Even if they do get clean," King says, "they come right back to this neighborhood. If they want to get away from it, they gotta move, but most of their histories won't allow them to get a job. They're trapped."
"Mike and I have taken the approach that, yeah, if they have problems, we're gonna try to help them. But we're not going to let these people stand on the corner either, you know what I mean? We're gonna do all we can within the boundaries of the law to keep them from standing on the corner." Which probably explains all those dirty looks the partners get. "Well, we're a little more aggressive than most," Franklin says plaintively. "But we've got support in the department, too. People who are saying, ‘Just keep doing what you're doing.' " When asked who in the department supports them, Franklin names Central's community coordinator supervisor, Sgt. Bill Cunningham. "I couldn't have taken this position without working for Bill," Franklin says. "He's not a micromanager. He'll let us do what we need to do."
Cunningham's take on community coordinating does seem pretty flexible: "Community policing roles will be ever evolving," the sergeant says. "Something that works great today may be thought of as ridiculous ten years from now. Things change, and we learn."
Franklin has been an officer since 1995; he's been based Uptown since 1998. King joined the CMPD in 1998, and at that time he worked on something called a Street Crime Unit, which he says policed in a strong-armed manner. "All along, the chief's main focus has been to budget so that each district had more community coordinators," Franklin says. "The Street Crime positions were the first to go when the chief came on," he says. "They were made up of very aggressive officers who focused on hot spots. Taking them away was a mistake. The chief got into this train of thought where he stepped back from aggressive policing…but then the [crime] stats and numbers started going back up.
"I'm not saying that what [Stephens] was doing didn't make a difference, but it's time to get back to being aggressive…and we're starting to," he says, gesturing toward his partner. When asked for a departmentwide example, Franklin says, "In the past couple of years, we started monitoring hot spots again."
Stephens says King and Franklin are mistaken on a couple of points. He didn't take the Street Crime Units away, he says—not completely. "Those officers are misinformed," he says, speaking of Franklin and King. "The Street Crime Units were centralized. Part of the Street Crime people were reassigned to Community Coordinating, so the units were reduced, but there's about forty officers in [Street Crime] right now."
And they still cover hot spots, Stephens says. "I don't know what [Franklin and King] do in their departments," Stephens says, "but we never stopped covering hot spots."
So if Franklin and King don't know about hot spots, or even what police units exist, and if Stephens doesn't know what specifically his officers "do in their departments," then is the CMPD not only philosophically divided, but disconnected, too?
"No," says Stephens. "[Franklin and King's] perception just isn't accurate. That's all."
Suddenly, King slams on the gas. They're following a black Jeep with no brake lights. Franklin and King recognize the car as one that's frequently parked outside a nearby drug den. There are two women inside, and a small child. King pulls the Jeep over and gets out. Franklin hangs back to explain. "We've got tools we can use," he says. "This is a small example, but pulling [this woman] over to look at her tail lights gives us a chance to talk to her, to gauge her behavior. We don't actually care about tail lights."
King chats with the driver for a minute, then waves her on. "She's been locked up six times for assault with a deadly weapon," King says, climbing back into the squad car. "Yeah, she ain't too nice," adds Franklin, grinning again. "I hate to call that aggressive, but it is an example of the hands-on approach we're trying," Franklin says. "It's using the minor parts of the law to get a handle on something."
These "tools" Franklin speaks of are things, he says, officers have learned to employ because of soft CMPD directives that limit their capabilities. Besides POP, he says, there is the firm no-chase policy that "Stephens had a big part in." King explains: "We're not allowed to chase someone unless a life is in danger. We can't chase a stolen car, for example. But truth is, if you look at a lot of robberies, they're really dangerous. It would be nice if we could chase that car."
According to the CMPD's Pursuit Driving Directive, available at www.cmpd.org, officers are not to chase a driver unless he or she is suspected of committing a "Felony Dangerous to Life," which is defined in the directive as "an offense that involves an actual or imminent threat of death; or an offense that could result, or has resulted, in death or serious bodily harm."
"One time, we recognized a face behind a stolen car," Franklin says, "but we couldn't chase him, so we lost him. So we went to get a warrant, but the D.A. wouldn't sign it. If we can't chase and we can't ge gt warrants, what are we supposed to do? You know, during business hours, no way should officers chase people, but we should have the ability to use our discretion.
"The bad guys know that we can't chase them," Franklin says. "They know that all they have to do is get away from us. If there's no traffic, we should be allowed to catch these people."
Officer Jamie Welch, another community coordinator, works with Franklin, King, and Carrie Stillman, that officer who thinks the CMPD is too "nice." During a discussion with the four of them, Welch calls the no-chase policy passive. "It's a reactive sort of response," he says. And as for the policies that are supposed to be proactive—the line of thinking that created his very job—well, he has major reservations about those, too. "If you don't want to help yourself, we can't rehabilitate you," Welch says. "The problems start with parenting," adds Stillman, and Welch continues: "We'll get calls from mothers and fathers who haven't done anything with their kids for fifteen, sixteen years, and suddenly we're supposed to fix them. How can we come in on a call to service and do that?"
Franklin, King, Stillman, and Welch aren't interested in being reactive or proactive, either, really. They don't want to be in someone else's home, trying to straighten out wayward lives, and they don't want to be in the courts, begging for a way to get to criminals they can't chase while they're out doing what it is they really want to do, which is patrol. "An officer needs to be on the street, working," Stillman says bluntly.
Says Stephens: "The counseling and advice an officer should give is designed to reduce the climate that encourages crime. Officers don't have to fix people. What they have to do is take on some of the peoples' problems. Crime is caused by alcohol, drugs, and poverty, by people who have not been successful in the school system. These are the areas where police can make a difference. These are the areas where they've got to help out."
Paul Friday, a criminal justice professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, says the division between the theoretical ideal of POP and the way some of the city's officers are implementing it is due to the fact that some cops just don't comprehend the theory.
"From a professional point of view," Friday says, "the strategy is a very good one. But, and this is a big but," he says, "it requires the recruitment of people who understand that policing in the twenty-first century is not a paramilitary job. Community coordinating does not bode well with those that believe the only way to cut crime is to put people in jail. But that's often the mind-set, for whatever sociological reasons, of the kind of people who become police officers." Friday has written a multitude of books and articles on policing techniques and crime patterns, and he says there is plenty of research proving his point about the hard-nosed inclination of people attracted to police work. Stephens, however, says he's not aware of any.
The POP Center's Michael Scott is. Scott says such research is partly why many police departments recruit differently than they used to. "The kind of person we wanted for a police officer used to be male, white, and large, with a very assertive personality, and, ideally, military training, but that's all changed," Scott says. "The old way of thinking was that police work was very simple—you arrested people if you had cause to do so. Now, we realize the nature of police work is much more complex. Across the country, the kind of people we recruit is dramatically different than in years before. We place higher education and problem-solving abilities over things like military training."
Stephens says he still looks for both college and military backgrounds, and that he hasn't changed his recruiting standards, because an affinity for aggressive police work "is not unique to police officers." Stephens says there is confusion in Charlotte as to what constitutes "aggressive" police work. "The [CMPD] is aggressive," he says, "in that we get out there and work really hard. But what some police officers and many people in the community are talking about" when they call for aggressive policing, he says, "is actually aggression—a way of treating people. I expect my officers to treat everyone they encounter in a professional way, and I think that may trouble a few officers a bit."
"Look," the chief says. "We get police officers from all walks of life. I don't think there's an ideal personality type to become a police officer. They're not built any different from folks in the rest of society. But we train them to be different over time. When you become part of a workplace organization, you become part of what that culture is."
Or, if you don't understand the culture, you resent it.
"Those officers who say, ‘All I want to do is be out on the street arresting bad guys,' have a very limited viewpoint," Friday says. Ensuring that POP is implemented by officers who understand and support the theory is "obviously a recruitment issue, as well as an in-service one," and the CMPD needs to work diligently at expanding its officers' minds, he says. Which is interesting, because six months into the job, neither Franklin nor King had received any specific community coordinator training.
Stephens says that all officers get POP training before they graduate from the police academy. "Our philosophy of policing is rolled through every class," he says. "But we have just introduced career path classes for community coordinators, like the ones we have for officers who want to become detectives or who want to take supervisory positions." The community coordinator training will consist of a series of four classes, and they will be mandatory for anyone assuming the role, Stephens says. Franklin and King say they're aware that they'll have to take their first class soon.
Friday says four classes probably won't be enough to sufficiently educate officers. He also says the CMPD needs to do a better job of educating the public about its philosophies. "There's actually a whole big population out there that, again for these sociopolitical reasons, that think the only way to solve crime is to increase the arms of police." Meaning lots of people might want their police officers to be big and bold, like Franklin and King, Friday says, but, really, they shouldn't (Friday says research shows that the best police recruit is actually an androgynous male). "There is a major misperception on the part of the public that the aggressiveness of police is going to impact crime rates. Crime is not caused by police or deterred by police," the professor says. "The primary cause of crime is individual issues and social climates.
"Research, then, proves that the best criminal policy is a good social policy," Friday says. "The best way to reduce crime is to educate the population and to have good employment opportunities across the board, and, of course, those things have traditionally been completely separate from police work. But the idea is to get into neighborhoods to help solve their respective problems, and from a theoretical and research point of view, it makes a lot more sense to attempt that than to come in heavy-handed and alienate a community. That kind of thing doesn't help solve crime, it just makes people angry."
Back in Wilmore, after pulling over the Jeep, King starts cruising again, but stops in a minute. "There's Ms. Bernice," he says. Down goes the window.
"Bernice, did you get you a place to stay?"
Bernice is clipping her fingernails in the middle of the street. She is middle-aged and sour looking. "Not yet," she snaps, refusing to look up from her hands.
"She's part of the problem with that duplex," Franklin says. "She's been in the neighborhood forever, but she doesn't have a home. Mr. Wright had been letting her stay there with him. Man, she's got a mouth on her."
Franklin and King say some people roaming Wilmore tend to taunt them about the futility of their work. "We've dealt with felony stuff before, where we've arrested people, and we haven't even finished the paperwork before they're out of jail—and they know that's the way it's gonna work," Franklin says. "They'll tell us. I'm talking guns and drugs and serious stuff, and this, their fourth, fifth, sixth time getting caught. You'll be thinking: This is it, this is where they're going away for a little while…and nope. They're right back out. We've got a very big revolving-door problem in Charlotte, but I don't know how to solve it." Says King to Franklin: "I was once told by a wise old officer that my job's just to make arrests." Which makes both men wonder what that wise old officer would have said about community coordinating.
Stephens believes that Charlotte's overcrowded and underfunded courts make another case for POP. "Our court system is broken," he says. "We send people to jail and they're right back out again, which proves we need to work another angle. Officers are just as frustrated by the fact that our criminal justice system is full and not working as they are by problem solving," he says. "Name me one part of police work that isn't frustrating."
Larry Lattimore is a twenty-three-year-old who's taken several spins through Charlotte's revolving door. Franklin and King spy him after talking to Bernice. "He sells dope," King says. Lattimore, whose picture is in the black binder, studies his sneakers as King stops the cruiser. Lattimore talks nervously to King for a minute, flashing gold-capped teeth, before claiming he's got to "be somewhere." Before taking off, he confirms what the officers have been saying.
"Yeah, people know [if they get arrested] they'll be right back out on the street," Lattimore says. "That's why there are so many shootings."
As Lattimore disappears into a shabby convenience store, a twenty-eight-year-old named Alvin Edge pulls up outside it. "Oh," says Franklin. "There's the guy that stabbed Wright." Edge never spent any time in jail for that particular crime because Wright, Franklin says, refused to press charges, but he's been arrested for other things. His picture is also in the binder. "He is a very dangerous person," King says. Unlike Lattimore, Edge is chatty.
"Most of the crime in Charlotte is done because people know they can get away with it," Edge says. "The young guys, like eighteen and under, do it—robbery and murder—for sport because they know they can get away with it." For sport? "Yeah," Edge says. "For sport." Well. A comment like that makes it crystalline, Franklin and King's POP weariness. Giving friendly advice to guys who kill for kicks must gnaw at a cop's conscience.
Edge is a "career criminal," who's been arrested for assault and burglary, disorderly conduct and selling dope, among other things, says King, and yet Edge admits the time he's spent in jail has been minimal. "Worst was, I spent seven months," Edge says. "Just got out, actually." He laughs. After a few minutes, Lattimore walks up, and gets in Edge's car.
Franklin watches Edge pull away. "Have you ever heard of that sheriff out west?" he asks. "The one that runs Tent City and makes his prisoners wear pink?" Franklin is referring to notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who runs a bare-bones jail consisting of canvas quarters and devoid of every creature comfort. The tents are spread out over a desert in Maricopa County where temperatures hover at 100 degrees. Arpaio's inmates wear old-fashioned prison stripes over pink underwear, and he makes them pay for their own food, a steady diet of bologna sandwiches. Coffee, magazines, cigarettes, and television are all prohibited. "Now those guys," says Franklin, "are afraid to go back to jail. That [sheriff]'s great. He knows what he's doing." Arpaio, Franklin says, is one of his heroes; Arpaio, it seems, is Stephens' antithesis in every professional way. "Guess it sounds weird coming from a community coordinator, but I'd much, much rather get bigger, tougher jails than try to rehabilitate repeat offenders."
Yes, it does sound weird coming from a community coordinator. But weirder still is the fact that cops like Franklin and King are community coordinators.
Melissa Hankins, a contributing editor for this magazine, is writing a four-part series on crime in Charlotte. Respond to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org