So I was reading the report (PDF!) on OPD’s pilot Consent to Search program last night (requested by Councilmembers Pat Kernighan and Desley Brooks), and something seemed off. The main thing was that the report was only three pages long, which seemed kind of short for a brand-new and controversial program. But it wasn’t just that. Everything I was reading sounded eerily familiar. I tried to shrug it off, but it kept bothering me. Finally I decided to look back at the place I had first heard of consent to search, a Justice Department report (PDF!) about innovative approaches to reducing gun violence.
The St. Louis consent to search program is the first case study in that report. This is how it begins:
In 1994, facing an epidemic of violent crime, St. Louis instituted an innovative program to reduce its alarmingly high gun violence rates among youths.
and three paragraphs later:
The Consent-to-Search program emerged during the national epidemic of youth violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Turn now to OPD’s report, which begins:
In 1994, the St. Louis Police Department was facing ever increasing incidents of violent crimes. The Consent-to-Search program was an outgrowth of the national youth violence epidemic of the 1980′s through the early I990′s. The City of St. Louis implemented this unique program to combat the high number of gun related incidents among youth.
Reading on, virtually the entire background and key issues and impacts sections of the report appear to be copied nearly verbatim from the Justice Department report:
The program consisted of police officers knocking on doors in high risk crime areas and requesting permission from parents/guardians to search their homes for guns that juveniles may have stashed away. All firearms located were seized with no follow-up prosecution, and parents/guardians who requested were referred to community based organizations to provide the appropriate services.
The program involved police knocking on doors in high-crime areas and asking parents of high-risk youths for permission to search their homes for guns that children may have hidden. Any guns found were confiscated, with no followup prosecution. Parents and young people who requested help were referred to agencies or community-based groups that offered appropriate services.
The Consent-to-Search program was initially accepted and deemed a success, receiving numerous national awards. In the latter months of 1995, the situation changed when the Chief of Police resigned for unknown reasons. After two unsuccessful attempts to invigorate the program (each time with a different format and goal) St. Louis Police Department terminated Consent-to-Search in August of 1999.
This situation changed abruptly in December 1995, when the chief of police who had established Consent-to-Search stepped down. Over the next several years, local government decisions resulted in the program starting and stopping twice – each time with a different format and set of objectives. The program was terminated in 1999.
The original Consent-to-Search program was founded on standards of the community policing application of responding to the needs and direction of the community. The success was a direct result of the community’s willingness to allow police to enter their homes for the greater good of a safer community. Neighborhood residents played a critical role in identifying those persons involved in criminal activity. In addition, the commitment made by the police to forego prosecution of those who participated was essential to the early success of the program.
The original Consent-to-Search program was based on the standard community policing approach of responding to a problem identified by citizens. By drawing citizens into the process of identifying and confiscating illegal firearms, officers relied on community expertise – a central tenet of problem-solving policing. For example, officers in the first phase of the program believed that its success depended on scrupulous adherence to the promise of no prosecution. They were willing to ignore evidence of all but the most serious crimes in return for access to the homes of juveniles with firearms.
So…why does this bother me? Who cares is OPD copies a Justice Department report to give to the City Council? Well, I do. Reading OPD’s report, I am unable to draw any conclusions other than this Justice Department report was the only source they examined in researching the program. There’s no mention of the use of consent to search in other cities, even though Boston and DC both recently introduced it. There’s no mention of opposition to the program from civil liberties defenders. I don’t agree with the ACLU on this one, but the Council needs to hear about potential objections before they approve the program. There is no discussion of the St. Louis program’s hard outcomes (During Phase I, the first 18 months of the program, 98% requested gave consent, 50% of searches netted a gun, and 510 guns were recovered. Other phases, with different approaches, were less successful.).
What bothers me even more is that it doesn’t appear that the person preparing this proposal even read the entire Justice Department discussion of the program. It looks like they didn’t make it past the 3 page program overview. If they had made it to page 16 of the whopping 23 extremely large print pages, they probably would have noticed this, in the section titled “Implementation Problems”:
Problem-solving or community policing initiatives are often handled by a single police unit or division, as opposed to across the department. Subunit autonomy helps to insulate officers from the traditional norms and procedures of “real police work,” i.e., making arrests, investigating crimes, pursuing offenders. The drawback is that subunit autonomy can lead to unit isolation, which works against integrating innovations into the department’s mainstream. In this case, the Mobile Reserve unit’s isolation prevented other captains and lieutenants from accepting program goals and methods.
So what is OPD proposing? A six month pilot program that will be staffed on a bi-monthly basis solely by Campus Life and School Safety Officers. CLASS is a special OPD unit tasked with reducing crime and truancy on OUSD campuses. You might be wondering, as I did, why on earth we would decide that the school police, who presumably have plenty to do already on school campuses, should start going out into neighborhoods performing weapons searches. Why not ask patrol officers or problem solving officers, already presumably in the neighborhoods, to perform this task? Who knows? OPD provides no justification for their decision, only saying that “The Consent-to-Search would be expanded to a Department-wide basis should the pilot program prove effective in impacting gun related criminal activity involving youth.”
There is nothing in this report to indicate that OPD has made any attempt to fully explore how and why consent to search programs do or do not work. There is nothing that suggests that they have put any effort into considering how to make this a successful program, or what potential drawbacks might me. I am so sick of these half-baked, unresearched proposals the department keeps spewing out. The Council cannot make good decisions without good (and thorough) information! No program is going to work if we don’t put some serious effort thinking about how to make it work! OPD’s report to Council not only fails to provide the information necessary to properly evaluate the program, but it proposes a model that will doom the pilot project to failure!
The Public Safety Committee should say NO, NO, NO to this plan, and tell Tucker, like you would do with a disobedient child whose idea of cleaning his room is to stuff all his toys in the closet, that the report is unacceptable, and to return next month with a real proposal.