Police say conversation a priority; others say random stops are recipe for trouble

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAMIE VALDEZ - Gang Enforcement Team officer Patrick Murphy -- after asking permission -- pats down a young black man who had been sitting in a parked car on Southeast 119th Avenue. Officer Brian Dale looks on. Frisking for weapons is expected to increase as Portlands new hot spot policing program puts more officers on foot in high-crime areas.On a crisp, clear Thursday evening with the temperature outside hovering around freezing, Portland Gang Enforcement Team officers Brian Dale and Patrick Murphy pull their squad car to the curb on Southeast 119th Avenue. A black two-door Honda Civic is a good four or five feet from the curb — the result of either a horrible parking job or someone intentionally half-blocking the street.

As the officers walk toward the car, Murphy shines his flashlight inside and sees three young black men. They aren’t wearing gang colors or smoking dope. They’re just sitting, engine off. Dale and Murphy want to talk to them.

With Portland police rolling out the city’s new hot-spot policing program, the unfolding scene involving Dale and Murphy and the young men they are about to confront is a microcosm of what criminologists say might be the program’s defining moment.

The evidence is clear that done right, repeated, short police visits to high-crime areas reduce overall crime, says Franklin Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley law professor and author of “The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control.” But what matters most, Zimring emphasizes, is what the officers do during those 15 minutes they are out of their cars and community policing.

In New York City, police officers in high-crime areas until recently routinely stopped and frisked pedestrians in their version of hot-spot policing. New York’s policy is under review after a U.S. District judge ruled it unconstitutional because African Americans and Hispanics were being searched at a higher rate than whites.

In rural Manhattan, Kan., a 2010 experiment showed that officers who simply parked their squad cars, exited and stood beside the cars for random 15-minute intervals a few times a day reduced crime.

Portland-style hot-spot policing will fall somewhere between the two Manhattan examples. Precisely how it plays out may determine whether hot-spot policing succeeds or fails here.

‘Speak like gentlemen’

Dale, Murphy and other gang team members are more familiar than most Portland officers with the conflicts involved in hot spotting. Typically, if they aren’t investigating a gang incident, they’re out making contact with people in areas where gang members live or hang out, a variation on the traditional form of community policing. And that is precisely what is happening on this chilly Thursday evening.

Dale taps on the driver’s side window, makes a motion and the driver rolls down his window. As Dale returns to the squad car to check the driver’s license, Murphy, his voice devoid of aggression or accusation, asks the three to get out of the car.

“You don’t mind if we pat you down so we can speak like gentlemen?” Murphy asks the three young men.

Within minutes all three are out in the cold, with Murphy running his hands the length of their bodies. He explains that he is searching for guns or knives — nothing else. The backseat youth says he keeps a knife around his waist. Murphy finds and carefully removes a large folding knife, and makes a point of showing the owner that he is putting it back on the car seat.

Walking around the car to the sidewalk the young men start laughing as they see how far from the curb they have parked. For the next 15 minutes or so, what could only be described as a friendly conversation ensues. Dale has learned from dispatch that the driver’s license has been suspended, but he tells the driver he’s not going to ticket him. They talk about calling a friend to drive the car from here. The stop and the pat down don’t appear to bother the young men at all.

“It’s good, in a way, if they don’t come toward you as a suspect but as a person,” says Deshawn, one of the young men. He adds that if he were stopped while walking down the street listening to music on headphones he might be bugged. He also says he’d feel hassled if a stop by police started taking too long.

“I can talk to a cop for like three minutes or five minutes,” he says. “But if it’s going longer it’s like an investigation, I’m opening my life.”

Another of the youths, Isaiah, says police have the right to ask to pat him down for weapons, and he has no problems with the sidewalk conversations.

“Closed mouth does not get fed,” he says.

Conversation is priority

Back in their squad car, roaming through Northeast Portland, Dale and Murphy dissect the incident. Dale explains that this was not a stop-and-frisk, but a stop-and-pat down, which he says are critically different. His intent was to talk to the youths and he couldn’t comfortably do that until he knew they weren’t armed. All he looks for is weapons. That is why the missing driver’s license and a bag that Murphy felt in the pocket of one of the young men did not become issues.

One of the youths told the officers that they were visiting a relative in the apartment building in front of which they had parked. Dale says he knows of a gang member who lives in the building. That made him a little suspicious, at least to the point where the pat down made sense, he says.

But if the youths had refused the pat down, Dale explains, he would have still asked them to get out of the car and requested they keep their hands in their pockets while they talked. He says he had no probable cause to frisk them without consent. If there’s nothing that tells him people might be dangerous, “I can’t force that issue,” he says.

That’s also why the bag in the driver’s pocket wasn’t even worth looking at, he says. With no probable cause for a search, even if he’d found something incriminating, a criminal charge would not have held up in court. The real point of the stop, he says, was not finding something illegal, but the casual conversation that took place between the two officers and the three youths.

Dale says these sort of stops rarely become confrontational, and eight or nine out of 10 people he asks consent to a pat down.

Dale says he has a friend who can’t understand why subjects, especially blacks and Hispanics, don’t display resentment. He says he doesn’t have an explanation, except for the level of respect he and Murphy show before and after the pat downs.

“Everybody understands fairness out here,” Dale says. “Even folks who are committing crimes.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAMIE VALDEZ - Officers Brian Dale and Patrick Murphy share a laugh with Deshawn, Isaiah and a friend they stopped as part of the Gang Enforcement Teams community policing. First, the officers searched the youths for weapons.

Some unexpected resistance

Well, not everybody. Dale and Murphy share a laugh describing the most common resistance they meet — from hipsters, Dale says, who wander by as the two are patting down black youths. Dale says the youths are compliant but the white passers-by start making the scene edgy.

“You’ll have a conversation and white guys frequently tell black guys, ‘You don’t have to talk to the cops,’ ” Dale says. Sometimes the passer-by starts taking video of the pat down with his cell phone, Dale adds, and that often turns a calm situation tense, with the youths telling Dale and Murphy they don’t want to be filmed.

Portland police Sgt. Greg Stewart, who is developing much of the city’s hot spot policy, says the new emphasis on officers getting out of their cars and engaging people on the street, especially in high-crime areas, means there likely will be more pat downs in the coming months.

“One of the things we’re particularly concerned about is having this come across as a heavy-handed New York-style policing tactic,” Stewart says.

Along those lines, there will be clear differences between Portland stop-and-pat downs and New York’s stop-and-frisks. First, in New York, the frisks are not consensual — police simply stop individuals and search them.

Also, Stewart says, Portland police should have a different focus when they’re policing on foot. In many cities, New York included, officers are evaluated based on how many investigative stops they perform. When officers know they are being measured that way, or by how many handguns they confiscate, they stop more people, according to Stewart.

“What gets measured gets done,” he says.

The Portland experiment will measure less confrontative actions, looking at whether officers on foot speak to shop owners or engage in problem solving, such as finding and reporting areas that need better lighting to deter crime.

Are pat downs consensual?

There is evidence that not all Portland police officers are as experienced in the art of respectful stops as Dale and Murphy. Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Justice criticized Portland police for their use of force against people with mental illness.

But almost all officers will be community policing under the new hot-spot guidelines.

That brings up the prospect of an officer with less aptitude and more attitude than Dale and Murphy making a stop and requesting a pat down — a possible recipe for trouble.

Kathleen Dunn, director of the Multnomah County office of Metropolitan Public Defender, says she’s seen cases where clients have claimed Portland police frisked them in physically intrusive ways. And she says officers asking for consent doesn’t mean much because almost everyone consents when an officer makes a request.

“They may term it consensual, but in my mind is it really consensual?” she says. “Or do we all have this belief that when we come in contact with police we have to do what they say?”

Along the same lines, Dunn says public officials shouldn’t expect too many complaints about pat downs, and shouldn’t take the absence of complaints as a sign that the program is working.

“That’s probably not the population that’s going to register a formal complaint,” Dunn says.

And that population, young men who might appear dangerous to an intuitive police officer, might carry the wrong message from the pat down and conversation, says David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

“Many of the individuals are going to feel like they were stopped, they were frisked, they were treated as if they might be doing something wrong,” Fidanque says. “That may not be the best way to build bridges to those young people.”

Officer training is key

Stewart says he’s working on developing a new communications training course for officers who will be on the street. And he says he expects to hear from civil libertarians with complaints about an increase in pat downs. But he thinks that as community policing increases overall in hot-spot areas, those who are asked for pat downs won’t feel as singled out.

“It’s one thing when you get patted down every time police contact you, or every time police contact you it’s more investigative,” Stewart says. “What I’m hoping is that by having more contact generally, it won’t be every time you talk to police they’re patting you down. If people see (police officers) and they are more a part of the community, even if there’s a pat down it’s less invasive.”

“Police officers, aware that nine out of 10 officer deaths are caused by gunshots, must have the freedom to search for weapons if they are going to police on foot,” says Berkeley criminologist Zimring.

But if people don’t feel they are being disrespected, even when asked for a pat down, Zimring says, most people won’t resent it. He points out that at the airport and at rock concerts people have become accustomed to being patted down, often by polite security employees.

“As long as it is not a ceremony of either domination or of specially focused suspicion, that we think you’re a bad person, if it can become good-natured business as usual, I think we can tolerate an awful lot if it,” Zimring says.

“It’s a question of what is the social exchange. It isn’t a ceremony of domination in Portland. It isn’t mine’s bigger than yours. In New York it does become that.”

Even the idea of officers Dale and Murphy asking the young men if they could pat them down, rather than demanding it, changes the power dynamic, according to Zimring.

Zimring says Portland’s model, if Dale and Murphy are representative, sends the right message. “In its intense etiquette it is almost unique,” he says. “And I think it’s a pretty good idea — (showing) that what they’re trying to do is keep the street safe and that’s the priority.”

The entire scene on Southeast 119th Avenue has been viewed by a black man standing in his doorway across the street. Told that police might soon be showing a greater foot presence that could mean more bystander stops and pat downs, the man, who gives his name only as Merwin, says he has an 8-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter and has no problem with the new policy.

“That would keep it safe for the kids,” he says.

Nature of crimes increases success of hot-spot patrols

Hot-spot policing works, says Portland State University criminologist Kris Henning, because a lot of crime is impulsive, not planned, and because many offenders, especially young ones, don't feel comfortable outside their neighborhoods.

Even a police officer walking up and down a hot-spot street for 15 minutes twice a day can create a shift in people's thinking about their likelihood of getting caught should they commit an outdoor crime such as vandalism, car prowling, robbery or assault. Burglary, too, can be deterred by hot-spot policing, Henning says, because a certain number of burglaries are opportunistic — an impulsive youth seeing an open basement window, for instance.

Henning says that studies show a large percentage of offenders won't commit crimes outside their neighborhoods. Henning, who worked with Portland police to devise the bureau’s new hot-spot strategy, analyzed Portland burglaries and discovered the great majority occurred less than a half-mile from the burglar's home.

“It's an area they're familiar with, they feel more comfortable there,” Henning says.

Similarly, studies have shown that some drug dealers and prostitutes, when chased off their familiar street corners, don't simply find another corner to conduct business. Sometimes all the other corners are already claimed, or another neighborhood might be turf belonging to another gang, or long-time customers of a drug dealer or prostitute won't be able to find a new location. Some choose another life.

Ironically, Henning says Portland's experiment with hot-spot policing may not yield the definitive data those involved hope to see. That's because the extra walking beats are intended to help improve community relations. That could mean people become more willing to report crimes that they might not have reported before. So data could show an increase, not a decrease, in crime. But the Portland experiment that began this week will include surveys asking residents if they feel safer with increased police patrols, and Henning expects those numbers to show improvement.

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