The Justice Department’s office of Community Oriented Policing Services is best known for the grants it gives out to local law enforcement offices around the country. But Director Bernard Melekian, appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder in October, says he wants the COPS office to be known as more than just the “federal ATM.”
Prior to his appointment, Melekian served as police chief for the city of Pasadena, Calif., for more than 13 years. Melekian was also a Santa Monica police officer for 23 years, served in the U.S. Army and the Coast Guard Reserve, and was awarded the Medal of Valor in 1978 and the Medal of Courage in 1980.
Melekian spoke with Main Justice about his theory of community policing, why local law enforcement officers are a crucial link in stopping terrorism and why the Arizona immigration law is a bad idea.
Main Justice: This year there was an unprecedented demand for COPS allocations. What sort of feedback have you gotten about the need for resources in local law enforcement?
Bernard Melekian: I think it goes beyond just feedback. I’ve been in local law enforcement for 37 years and this economic crisis had hit while I was still a police chief. There were over 7,000 applications for COPS funding. We dispensed a billion dollars in grant funds, but there were $8 billion in requests.
Looking back at the history of COPS, I don’t know that the gap between what was needed and the resources that were available — even when you consider that the resources that were available was almost unprecedented — I don’t think it’s ever been that substantial. And I attribute it directly to the economy. I’ve never seen anything, all my years in this business, I’ve never seen an economic crisis impact local law enforcement the way this one has.
MJ: How are they dealing with it? What areas have they had to cut back on?
Melekian: Well I think that varies from agency to agency. I think each agency makes some decisions about what its priorities are. What I sometimes hear people say, “My budget has been cut. I have to cut my community policing programs.” I think that what we in COPS want people to realize is that community policing isn’t a program so much as it is a philosophy. It’s a way of doing business. I also hear people talk about cutting their training budgets, which I also think is sort of penny-wise and pound-foolish. As a police chief, I was fully prepared to give up an officer position in order to keep my training budget because training is really an investment in the future.
MJ: Community policing has been a major issue of yours. What in your mind does a community policing program entail?
Melekian: Well community policing isn’t mine. [I] didn’t invent community policing. But what I think community policing is, in its most basic form, is building relationships and solving problems. And really what is interesting about it is smaller departments, particularly those in rural areas, do community policing almost by default. They don’t call it that, but their officers already have relationships within the community. Their officers already live in the community. You don’t have to work on building relationships.
The ability to develop community policing is more of a challenge in the urban corps because most of the time the officers do not live there and many times they’re not from there. So the result is that they’re building these relationships solely from the context of being police officers, enforcers of the law. Community policing is about getting around that and finding something in common.
MJ: So what are some strategies?
Melekian: I think there’s a whole philosophy which comes with that. I think there’s a whole commitment to problem solving I think one of the things that happens, particularly in busy environments, is that certain problems that people face — from a police officers perspective, you may have dealt with a situation dozens of times — and for you it may not be a big deal. But for the person with whom that incident is occurring, that’s possibly the only time in their life. So a big part of community policing is stepping out of that role as a police officer and stepping into the role that recognizes that the person that you’re dealing with needs your assistance. And how do you best provide that?
One of the things that I think works better than any so-called quote-unquote “strategies” that I want to find a way for COPS to get involved with is the development of citizen police academies. They are enormously effective.
Something that happens in equal measure is that those police academies put a human face on the community to the officers that are involved. I think that if you can maximize the number of police officers who are involved with putting on a citizens police academy, you will change relationships forever.
MJ: You recently visited the Texas border. What kind of feedback did you hear from sheriffs on the border and some of the challenges they’re facing with immigration?
Melekian: Well, I have to tell you, 36 years in law enforcement, and I thought the Texas border sheriffs were some of the coolest people I ever met. I told them I was going to come back and ride with them – and I will too. What they deal with is perhaps one of the most unique challenges in local law enforcement. I don’t care where you work. When you consider that they work in an environment that is physically difficult; it’s financially difficult because most of these counties don’t have tremendous resources; and it’s legally and practically difficult because it’s probably the number one domestic issue facing the United States today — the issue of immigration.
And these guys with virtually no funding are really the front line border security. If you went down there with any kind of stereotype in your mind — that somehow the Texas border sheriffs were going to be this singularly focused, one view of the world — you’d be very, very disappointed. To a person, they really grasp the complexity of this issue. I was very impressed with them.
MJ: Do you have concerns about the Arizona law? What sort of feedback have you heard from law enforcement there about the law?
Melekian: It’s interesting — its the same viewpoint I held as a police chief. I understand why the law came about. I think a number of people far more important in Washington than I am recognize why the law came about.
Having said that, it has the potential to be incredibly counterproductive from a policing standpoint. I came from a city that was 33 percent Hispanic. There were a significant number of undocumented people in that city. I did not put my officers in a position of enforcing immigration laws, because, going back to what I said earlier about building relationships and solving problems, you have to build relationships.
Those people, documented or not, are in this country — they’re in your community. I was challenged on a couple of occasions about whether I was going to start checking for immigration and I said, “Yes, as soon as we have a comprehensive, coherently articulated national policy for dealing with immigration, and one that’s backed up with meaningful resources. Then I will reconsider my position. But until then I don’t have any intention of enforcing, trying to check out peoples’ immigration status.”
The sense that I’ve gotten from most of the chiefs and sheriffs in Arizona is that they feel very caught in the middle about this. Because they know that ultimately — when all the hyperbole and rhetoric is done — they’re going to have to solve the crimes and solve the problems that are occurring in those communities, and that if people aren’t going to be willing to talk to them it’s going to be that much more difficult to do it.
MJ: What are some of the lessons you’ve brought from the field and what are some of the priorities you want to have in your new role here?
Melekian: People ask me “Was it worth it to be a cop?” and I tell them “If I was 35 years younger and I knew everything that was going to happen to me over the decades, I would do that job again in a heartbeat.” I was incredibly blessed to have spent my adult life doing that. The lesson that came out of that.. is that, number one, cops count. Police officers, deputy sheriffs, tribal officers make a difference in peoples’ lives. You have a great deal of control most of the times about whether that difference is positive or negative… With very few exceptions, you learn that there never really are people who are all good or all bad. If you’re a student of humanity, it’s the only doctoral class to take – riding around in a car for 15 years. It’ll give you a perspective on the world that nothing else does.
As for what I came to the COPS office with, or hoping to do, was really to take community policing to the next level. I think that what this office has done… Anybody who has been in the business more than 15 minutes knows the difference that the COPS office makes, and there’s a tendency to think of it as “Well, it’s just the money. It’s just the hiring.” But I’ve been saying from the beginning when I walked in the door that it’s important to remember that we’re not the federal ATM. And it’s important to remember during this economic crisis that we’re not going to solve — no COPS grant, no Department of Justice grant — is going to solve the economic problems of the cities and counties of this country. But what we can do is provide four year problem solving grants.
MJ: What are some different ways for you to solve those problems?
Melekian: Our training is really about collecting best practices from across the country and, in effect, creating a database and saying, “Look, you’ve got an issue with gangs and we’ve got a wealth of material.” I think the bigger piece of that is when you apply for a COPS grant because you want to hire 15 to 20 police officers, our role is to really shake that and say, “What are those officers going to do to advance community policing in your area? What quality of life issues are they going to address? What problems are they going to solve, what relationships are they going to built?” The COPS office has no business telling the police and sheriffs of this country how to police their communities. But what we can do is challenge them to articulate and focus them on what they’re going to be doing in their communities.
As we go into the 2011 and beyond fiscal year, the application process will sort of guide people to select areas of concern and really articulate what it is they’re going to do with the money.
MJ: You gave a speech at John Jay College about alternatives to incarceration. What are some of the best strategies in that area and how can that improve community policing?
Melekian: Well I think it’s very clear that… we somehow tend to believe that we can solve these social problems by locking everybody up. We have an extraordinarily high percentage of young people in prison, and in many cases in prison for all or most of their adult life going forward. The truth is we can’t afford to keep doing that. You’re seeing states all over the country figuring out ways to release people from prison because the economy is driving that.
I think we really have to sit down and be very thoughtful about who we’re going to put in prison; who’s actually physically going to be locked up; and who may be subject to things like house arrest or sort of meaningful probation, or shorter sentences. I mean there’s a number of academic studies that suggest, for example, that the length of the sentence is far less of a deterrent than the swiftness at which the sentence is imposed. If justice is swift, a 30-day sentence might be every bit as much of a deterrent as a one year sentence.
MJ: With the stimulus funds, how did you handle such a large amount of funding within the office?
Melekian: Well, this office has a lot of practice in moving funds. What was different about this time was the fact that, in addition to the traditional COPS hiring money, there was additional Recovery Act funds. Historically, it was about crime rates, community policing. This time it was about crime rates, community policing, and 50 percent was about the economics of your district. So developing the formulas to evaluate those three things… COPS office did an extraordinary job with how quickly they got that money out there.
MJ: Could you talk a little bit about your priorities? What you discussed with the Attorney General about your goals leading the COPS office?
Melekian: When the Attorney General hired me, I asked him what he wanted me to do. And he said, “I want you to go tell law enforcement that the Department of Justice is back on the beat, that we’re going to make a difference in their lives.” So I’ve traveled, and in six months I’ve lost track of how many miles I’ve traveled. And more to follow. My commitment to myself, to my staff, and to the Attorney General is that in the first year I will go to any place that wants me, and maybe some places that didn’t realize they wanted me.
We’ve also convened something called the emerging issues forum. The first was on the issue of procedural justice.
The next one will probably be able values based policing, or about the development of our regional community policing institutes, which were very successful back in the 90s and then sort of dwindled over the years. One of my goals is to revitalize them and bring them back.
We’ll also be funding a series of workshops with the Police Executive Research Forum again to talk about… the deployment of tasers by local law enforcement agencies. As you know that was controversial for awhile, then it sort of faded, and now it’s back.
The COPS office and the federal government has poured billions of dollars into the advancement of community policing. I believe as a practitioner that it has made a difference, I believe it has made a difference in quality of life. But if you asked me to prove it, I’m not sure I could. One thing I think we need to do is to build a stronger connection between law enforcement and academics to study best practices.
All too often you’ll read about a department that did something groundbreaking and it’ll be on the front page. There’ll be a press conference, and you come back a year or two later, and you find out the program is gone. That it fell apart, or it’s not working. I’m convinced that usually the reason for that is that the program might have been a good idea, but usually it was the function of a handful of peoples’ personalities. When that person leaves or move on, the program goes away.
Those institutions have to help us figure out why they worked, or in cases where it didn’t work, why it didn’t work, so that people can look at it and say, “Yes this would work in Omaha. This would work in New Orleans or some place else. And here are the principles.” I think we have to evaluate the programs for sustainability. Will they survive a change in leadership in the organization? I think we have to analyze them.
So partnership with academia, and sharing that information with professionals is a big part of where we want to go.
MJ: How have you seen in the past decade local law enforcement deal with national security issues? Has that put a strain on their resources and how are they dealing with that? How are they partnering with federal law enforcement officers?
I think one of the most unfortunate things to happen since Sept. 11 is that fighting crime and fighting terrorism are seen as sort of either-or propositions, when the point of fact is that it didn’t need to be at all.
What is unfortunate is that it appears that nobody recognized that community policing is the first line of defense in fighting terrorism. It is about a relationship between individual citizens and the cop and the deputy sheriff on the beat. For someone to say, “You know, there’s something strange going on at that house over there.” Or, “You know I’ve noticed this strange activity in this place.” And the ability of that officer to just tap into the national chain, to send that information up and get some type of meaningful response, is the absolute model of how to fight terror. It is the model that the British used in dealing with the IRA, and ultimately, in the long run, it was successful.
There’s no reason not to do that. I think what you’re seeing now, and what you’ve seen probably in the last three years, with the growth of terrorism task forces and fusion centers, is a recognition that the federal and local authorities bring very different strengths to the table in terms of dealing with terrorism. The only al-Qaeda cell that I know of in California was rolled up as a result of a robbery investigation by the police department in Torrance who were investigating a series of gas station robberies. In the course of doing their follow-up, they… recognized that it was possibly reflective of terrorist activity. They were able to feed that information into the fusion center, an entire al-Qaeda cell was rolled up. Most of these cells, these so-called lone wolf, they’re generating money by committing crimes… it’s local police that are going to come into contact with that who have to recognize what it is and get information to the federal government.