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Guest Opinion | Rick Cole: “We All Have a Role in a Safer Pasadena”

Published on Tuesday, July 9, 2024 | 6:12 pm

How safe are we in Pasadena? Statistics tell part of the story, but personal experience, social media and the news also shape our perceptions.

Spend time on the social media platform NextDoor and you’d think even our most placid neighborhoods are rife with crime, scams and suspicious characters. Yet both violent and property crime are remarkably stable in Pasadena over the past five years. There are periodic outbreaks of disturbing gun violence, predominantly in Northwest Pasadena. These dominate headlines for a time, yet seem to quickly fade from attention. If you, a loved one, neighbor or friend are a victim, you’re rightly outraged. But besides alerting the police when crime occurs, what can we all do to ensure a safer community?

That’s a complicated challenge, fraught with emotion. It makes sense to start with first principles. Too often we link crime and policing as if one was the problem and the other was the solution. Sir Robert Peel was the British pioneer of modern policing — he founded Scotland Yard. Peel wrote nearly two hundred years ago that “the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.” In other words, our focus should be to prevent crime, not to react to it. Police have a key role in crime prevention. Yet in my three decades of public service, I can’t recall a police professional who didn’t feel we ask too much of them. We expect police officers to respond to everything from live shooters to troubled teenagers, from armed robbery to arguments between neighbors, from business embezzlement to loud parties. We enjoy the luxury of turning off the lights and pulling up the covers to go to sleep, while police officers are out patrolling our streets and dealing with the ugliest and most intractable social fractures in our society.

Inevitably, that doesn’t always go well. Drugs, mental illness, poverty, hate, lust, greed, anger, injustice, inequality and trauma produce the “crime and disorder” that Sir Robert Peel confronted in his time — and we grapple with in ours. While we expect the police to protect us from all this, we also expect to be protected from police abuse as well – secure in our lives, civil rights and privacy. Recent lawsuits filed by Pasadena officers against the department underscore that officers themselves may voice complaints about violations of their safety and rights.

All these challenges emphasize there are no quick and easy solutions for making Pasadena safer. But we should not be daunted.

Thirty years ago, Chief Bill Bratton made national news for his record of slashing crime in New York City. The cover of Time Magazine profiled him with the headline: “Finally, we’re winning the war against crime: here’s why.” The story inside noted that under Bratton’s leadership “major crime–murder, rape, robbery, auto theft, grand larceny, assault and burglary–is in something like statistical free fall, dropping 17.5% last year.” Bratton was described as the “leading advocate of community policing.” Chief Bratton began his career as a beat officer in Boston. At a time when the vast majority of law enforcement leaders blamed society and the criminal justice system for soaring crime, Bratton insisted that police take responsibility for tackling the underlying causes of crime. Instead of relying on “the thin blue line,” he built innovative community partnerships to build public trust and collaboration. He demanded accountability for results with a problem-solving approach he called “CompStat” (based on computer statistics.) Compstat emphasized timely and accurate data; development of effective tactics; rapid deployment of resources; and relentless analysis and follow-up.

Community policing worked – and Bratton went on to be Chief in Los Angeles. The year before he was hired, there were 588 murders in LA. In his last year the number dropped to 312, a drop of 47%.

Criminologists have competing theories about how much of a role policing played in reducing crime. Bratton would be the first to point to the broader community effort he championed. Not everything he tried worked – and his application of the “broken window” theory of targeting low-level crime remains deeply controversial to this day. Yet the most important lesson Pasadena can draw from the record of community policing is that we all have a role in community safety. Moreover, the quantity of policing is far less significant than the quality. Wise leadership and rigorous oversight can protect both the community and the police from corruption and abuse that can hide behind the badge. As Sir Robert Peel observed long ago, “the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.”

All of us want a safer community – not only for ourselves but our neighbors. Community policing is just that – taking responsibility as a community for alleviating the sources of violence, crime, disorder and fear. That means a comprehensive approach to rebuilding neighborhood watch programs; strengthening our public schools; reforming our justice system; helping ex-felons pursue productive lives; pioneering unarmed response to non-violent situations; ending street homelessness; supporting struggling families; and restoring respect for our laws and each other.

Next Tuesday, I’ll be hosting a lively dialogue about crime, policing and public safety with an expert panel, including Pasadena Police Chief Gene Harris; Community Police Oversight Commissioner (and retired judge) Phil Argento; Vera Institute of Justice Data Analyst Selina Ho; and Planning Commissioner Steve Olivas. It’s the third in my series of District Two Issue Forums. The date is July 16th from 6:30-8 pm. All are welcome to attend at the Jefferson School Auditorium, 1500 E. Villa.

Rick Cole is District 2 Councilmember-elect, taking office in December. He previously served as Mayor of Pasadena and City Manager of three Southern California cities. He is currently the Chief Deputy Controller for the City of Los Angeles.

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