Lee Brown

Policing America

VTR Date: May 5, 1990

Guest: Brown, Lee


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lee Brown
Title: Policing America
VTR: 5/5/1990

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is a cop, a quite extraordinary one with a totally nation flavor to his police experiences; first as a patrolman in San Jose, California thirty years ago, eventually as sheriff and director of public safety in Portland, Oregon, then as Public Safety Commissioner in Atlanta, Georgia, and Chief of Police in Houston, Texas, and now as New York City’s top cop. New York’s Police Commissioner Lee Brown is also Dr. Brown, with academic degrees in criminology and sociology and many scholarly articles on crime, police management, and the criminal justice system to his credit. He is as well president-elect of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Now, I won’t ask the Police Commissioner how he does all that he does, but I will ask him what he thinks most needs to be done about policing America.

Though first, I want to talk about dollars for our cops. My object, of course, isn’t to put Lee Brown on the spot. That’s never been my style, not here on THE OPEN MIND, which marks its thirty-forth anniversary as we record this program, nor anywhere else, so that I’m not egging him on to be a budget basher. But I do want know what New York’s new Police Commissioner thinks about what another chieftain in the criminal justice system has said about dollars for policing America. There’s probably no more enlightened and broadly concerned district attorney in this country than Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. He knows that crime is fostered by poverty, by joblessness, by inadequate schools, by homelessness. He knows that dollars must be made available to correct these and other basic social ills if we are ever able to deal realistically with crime in America. He also noted recently that we have to spend more money on policing America now. “I don’t know how we can say we’ve got to wait for social change,” said the D.A., adding, “We’ve got to aggressively police, arrest, and prosecute people breaking the law. I don’t buy the argument that we can’t afford it.” And so I ask you, Mr. Commissioner, do you buy that argument that we can’t afford it?

BROWN: I agree with him. We have to have two agendas; one short range, and that’s what the D.A.’s talking about, taking care of the immediate problem because people are suffering right now. We have an unprecedented amount of crime and violence like we’ve never seen before in America. The drug problem is at epidemic proportions. If people are suffering, they need immediate relief. And that’s where law enforcement comes in. It provides immediate relief. That’s the first agenda. The second agenda is to take care of the problems that present our cause, the problems of crime and violence. And that’s where we look at education, we look at housing, and all the other socioeconomic problems that many of us believe are the causative factors of criminal behavior. And so I agree with what he says. We have to have two agendas, one to address the immediate problem to give the people immediate relief. That means you must have the resources to do so. A law enforcement must have the resources, and by that I mean people, people and the technology to carry out its responsibilities. Otherwise people suffer. And we can provide some immediate relief to give us time to take care of the long-standing problems.

HEFFNER: Are we in this country providing, as citizens, sufficient resources for the police let’s say?

BROWN: I don’t think we are at this point in time. And I say that because we find that the problems are greater now than ever before. I think I will be the first one to say that law enforcement by itself is not the answer. We can only do, as I said earlier, provide some immediate relief. But because the problems are at a magnitude we’ve never seen before, there’s a necessity for us to provide the resources to policing to do what we have to do. When I say at the level that we’ve never seen before, we find that even though we have policing doing its job, even though we have prison overcrowding, even though we are making more arrests than ever before; we still see the problems existing. And I think to date, as compared to when I started police work in 1960 for example, the major difference is the drug problem. I think the number one problem confronting America at this point in our history is the drug problem. It’s at epidemic proportions. It’s beyond the scope of law enforcement by itself to address it. But law enforcement has to – if we would just hold the line until we can do things that we must do like provide education and prevention, like provide adequate treatment services; until all those things are in place somebody, some institution has to provide relief and that’s the role of law enforcement in America today.

HEFFNER: Do you look forward to the military participating in what had been considered police work, police responsibilities?

BROWN: I don’t think the military should be involved in urban policing. That’s not what they’re trained for, that’s not what they can do. American police can best provide police services on the streets of our city. I do think there’s a role for law enforcement, however. I believe we have technology, satellite technology that can focus down on Earth and focus-in on even a golf ball and reflect back the image of the dots of a golf ball. I’m told – because I did some inquiring into this – with the investment of a few million dollars we can have enough to have twenty-four hour surveillance on any given point. I think we should use that technology and then use our military for interdiction. If we can focus on the vessels or the boats or the planes or whatever will be bringing the drugs into America and then use the military for interdiction, I think that’s the role for the military.

HEFFNER: But Commissioner, this isn’t a matter of the last moment. I’ve read speeches that you’ve given on this subject, some many years ago. And we seem still not to be using the technology that you feel could be available to us that has been developed already.

BROWN: And I don’t understand the reason why. I think it’s something that must be done. I was delighted in September of last year when the President went on national TV and announced his drug strategy. And I reacted on national TV at that time and said it’s a good first step and only a first step. I’m disappointed in the amount of money we put in to the battle against drugs. We’re talking about a war on drugs and to date that’s really rhetoric. We’ve really not waged a war. I see the problem no different than if we were being invaded by some foreign country. If that was the case I have no doubt that we would muscle all the resources this country has to offer to put down that invasion. I see no difference in the drug problem right now. It, too, is a war. The only difference being that the casualties are our children, our people, our neighbors, the people in our cities. They’re the ones who are losing their lives in many different ways, not only destroying individuals and families and neighborhoods. And I believe it has the potential of changing America in the future unless we do something about it. That being the case, I think it’s important that we mobilize all the resources at our disposal to do something about it, and we’re not going to do something about it unless we put the resources into it. To say that we’ve put three hundred and fifty million dollars into state and local governments to address the war on drugs in my estimation doesn’t take serious the nature of the problem that we have. It really doesn’t address the problem. To say that we have eight billion dollars nationwide with most of that going to the federal government doesn’t nearly match the sum, and this may be conservative, two hundred billion dollar a year industry that the drug problem is. So we have to do much more than we are doing right now and law enforcement will probably always be in the vanguard of doing that.

HEFFNER: What’s your agenda for, what’s your list of priorities in the question of drugs and drug opposition?

BROWN: The first thing is to recognize that we have a serious problem, that we have drugs constituting the number one problem confronting America at this time. That recognition becomes important. Then I think we have to look at it in terms of what can be done at the federal level, state level, and city level. We have to make sure we have a comprehensive approach, law enforcement being only one aspect of the comprehensive plan. But again, in our city for example we can only double, triple the number of people we put in narcotics enforcement; double, triple the number of arrests that we make. But we won’t solve the problem. We have to deal with the demand. As long as there is a demand for drugs there will be a supply. So education and prevention has to become a top priority. In addition to that, treatment has to become a top priority as well because the addict is a significant part of the drug problem. As long as someone is addicted, they are going to do that which is necessary to meet that addiction. That often means stealing because often many can’t support the habit. Crack cocaine is a very serious problem for us. And that kind of changes one’s personality and we end up seeing a lot of violence as a result of the crack cocaine problem. So it has to be a comprehensive approach involving all levels of government.

I think there’s something that every individual can do. If each parent made sure that their home was drug-free, making sure that their children did not use drugs, that would go a long ways toward addressing the problem. But in addition to that we have to involve our educational institutions. We have to have educational programs in our schools to ensure that young people understand the hazards of drugs and how to say no, not just to say no but teach them how to say no. In addition to that, our religious institutions must be involved in many ways. And probably even more important, our businesses must be involved. A large, substantially large portion of the drug problem relates to what’s called the recreational, the occasional user, people who are able to hold down their jobs every day, go to the office and in many instances buy the drugs in their office, or in their homes. They’re not the ones that we see on the streets that we arrest. But the business community, they constitute a large portion of the money that goes into the drug industry that feeds the drug cartels that causes a misery, the suffering and deaths on the streets of the city. I would challenge every business in America to have a policy of having a drug-free business. If we did that and took that profit out of it, that’s going to go a long ways. The media has a very important role to play. The media, particularly television is very good at marketing. I think they should take on as their role to de-market drugs, just as they market any other product; de-market drugs. All of that’s to say that we have to have a comprehensive approach with everybody, literally everybody involved.

HEFFNER: Well, this question of your agenda; now, you mention among other things, the business community. Is it part of Lee Brown’s agenda as Police Commissioner of the largest police force in America to do something specifically about drugs in the business community?

BROWN: Absolutely. And one aspect that I am doing and that we want to do continuously is to do education, to get out and get the message out that it’s not a recreational drug and that it’s a very serious problem, that it causes many other problems.

HEFFNER: Now wait, wait a minute Commissioner. You say “it”. Now are you talking about crack alone, or are you talking about drugs starting with marijuana and then going up or down the…

BROWN: I’m talking about drugs in general. There’s marijuana, cocaine; and cocaine is used mainly or more so in the business community. Crack cocaine is used mainly in other parts of the community. That’s what we ultimately end up getting on the streets of our city. But we have to go into the businesses and let them know the nature of the problem, let them know that they have a real responsibility, obligation, and duty to do something about it. In addition to that we’ve got to continue what we do. And that means make the arrests for those that we catch and can prove have violated the law.

HEFFNER: And arrests in the business community?

BROWN: Yes. It’s more difficult there because unlike what we see on the streets where people are out there visibly selling drugs – we know that’s the case, it’s almost like having a sign on the back you know, “I’m a drug dealer,” – we can make a lot of those arrests. It’s more difficult to make the arrest when the deals are made in one’s home or in one’s office. It’s much more difficult but we’re not going to stop doing that either. The enforcement efforts have to take place at all levels; those who bring the drugs into the country, those who distribute it throughout the cities, those who sell it, and those who use it. So addressing it at all levels would have to continue to be a high priority for law enforcement.

HEFFNER: Yeah, that’s great. Do you have the resources? You’ve just come into this city. Do you find that you have the resources to do what has to be done with this problem?

BROWN: Well I think there’s general agreement by everybody here that we do not have the resources that we need to do what we want to do. And one of the reasons being because we’re experiencing difficult fiscal times in New York City and as a result we’ve not hired as we should have hired. Our mayor, Mayor Dinkins, allowed us to hire class just a week or so ago and what happens in the future is yet to be determined because we are still going through the budget process. But absolutely we could use more resources. Some of the things I would like to do with our police agency are different than what we traditionally see as a role of the police. I view the police department as a resource, a resource that can do things to help improve the quality of life in the community. It’s interesting that we see in America right now really a kind of an evolution if not a revolution in how we think about using the police as a resource. We’re moving from an era of policing into another era of policing that’s generically called community policing. And what that means basically is that we look at policing in a different way. We look at policing as a philosophy or a style of policing that’s different from our traditional style. It means that we focus our attention not so much on just preventive random patrol as we’ve done in the past. Because now we know that our contemporary wisdom may not have been right; that random patrol produces random results and we should get more from our resources than random results. It means that we want to do more than just respond to the incidents as we do. We are infinite responders driven by 911 calls. We get a call, dispatch that message, the cop on the beat will go out and he or she will do something about the incident, get back in their car, and that process repeats itself twenty-four hours a day. And we end up going to the same locations over and over and over again. Why? Because we don’t solve the problem. So one of the major tenets of community policing which is being talked about and implemented and experimented with throughout America is to become problem solvers, and recognizing that we’re not going to be able to do it alone. Let me give you one example.

HEFFNER: Please.

BROWN: In our city, in New York, we had over nineteen thousand homicides this past year. My sense is that if we don’t do something about it then this year we’ll probably have over two thousand homicides. I would suggest that we…

HEFFNER: Twenty thousand.

BROWN: Two thousand, not twenty thousand.

HEFFNER: We had nineteen hundred.

BROWN: I’m sorry, nineteen hundred, I didn’t mean that. But last year, nineteen hundred; if things continue this year, we’ll have two thousand. My sense is that if any other arena, in any other institution, if we ended up with that many people losing their lives, and if you multiple that in all the cities throughout this country you’ll see that a substantially large number of people lose their lives by violence. I would suggest that we have to start looking at interpersonal violence, and homicide is a result of that, in a manner that’s broader than just the criminal justice system; and look at it as a public health problem and get our medical profession actively involved in providing solutions to this problem. We have a lot of talent in the medical profession. There are epidemiologists who can isolate the causes of a death, or of a disease, or an epidemic and come up with solutions. I think they should do no less in the case of interpersonal violence. That’s one good example of what I mean by that. Or when we look at the characteristics of people who get caught up in our criminal justice system; they’re usually the poor, the unemployed, the unskilled, the uneducated. So we’re going to have to focus on that as a major problem, understanding that some 80% of Americans now earn their living in a service occupation mainly associated with high technology. So that means that the workplace demands a higher level of education, higher training. Then we look at our educational institution; we find that a substantially large number of people particularly in our urban areas 40-50% never finish high school. Of those who do finish, some 25% we are told finish as functional illiterates. Just looking at those two factors alone we can see the serious problem we’re going to have in the future unless we can improve our educational system to produce people that fit the job market of the present and the future.

HEFFNER: What do you say to those people who say, “You’re right, but it’s not possible so let’s look for other solutions. It’s simply not possible.”?

BROWN: Well I say it is possible. And I say we have to, as I started off saying, have two agendas; one to provide immediate relief and that’s where law enforcement comes in, and one to address long-standing problems, the socioeconomic problems that create the ills to begin with.

HEFFNER: But you know it’s interesting there are, not so many, but there are I would think too many people who are now saying, “Look, we can’t do it. We’re spitting against the wind. Let us legalize drugs, focusing on that one aspect of the cause of violence in our society.” You reject that, I gather.

BROWN: I most certainly do. And I’m really sorry that we even debate the issue of legalization of drugs. And I am sorry because we send out wrong messages to our children. On the one hand we say don’t use drugs; it’s bad for you, it’s harmful. It does all these bad things. On the other hand some of our respected leaders are saying let’s talk about legalizing drugs. To begin with it confuses the minds of our young people. They end up saying, “Well it can’t be that bad if someone who is respectable, respectful, is saying let’s legalize this.” That’s why I say the debate is detrimental to what I’m trying to accomplish. Even beyond that, there’s no logical basis for giving up. I think it’s sad in an atmosphere of frustration, but I don’t think when people really look at the question they really can say that we should legalize it. For example, what do we legalize: heroin, marijuana, cocaine, PCP? What do we legalize? Who is the dispenser of the drugs? Would government be the dispenser? What about these kids we now know 8, 9, 10 years of age; do we continue to provide them drugs all of their lives? We have to keep in mind that today we are having crack cocaine babies that are being born. That’s going to cost this society a tremendously large amount of money. Do we legalize that: because it creates many other problems in the health industry because it destroys people. It’s not like alcohol as some people would like to say. It takes a long time for one to develop a dependence on alcohol. And crack cocaine we know that one can get addicted rapidly. And at this point we don’t know the cure for crack cocaine. In those instances where we talk about having a cure, we’re talking about an eighteen month treatment program. How many people can afford that? We don’t have the ability to provide services to people right now. We have experience from other countries. My colleagues that I talk to throughout the world, who have more liberal viewpoints on drugs than we have, tell us, “Don’t do it because it’s detrimental.” It does not dry up the black market. Even in methadone right now people stand in line, get their methadone, and go out and sell it on the black market. And there’s more I can say about that, but the bottom line being it doesn’t make sense to talk about legalizing drugs.

HEFFNER: And yet, there are increasing numbers as you said of respectable people who do. But our time is going so rapidly and there are so many questions I want to ask you. One, of course, has to do with gun control. I know that you’re dealing with a phenomenon here in New York now that you’ve had to deal with before in Houston, in Atlanta, elsewhere. What’s your feeling about controlling the purchase, the sale obviously, and the carrying of guns?

BROWN: Those of us involved in law enforcement, we’re pretty well already united on this issue. We feel that the Congress should enact legislation to allow us to enforce the existing federal law. When we had the legislation called the Brady Amendment, named after the secretary to the President who was shot. And what that calls for is just a seven day waiting period to allow law enforcement – if they want to, it’s not mandatory – to do an investigation of someone who purchases a handgun. There are certain people who are not allowed by existing federal law to purchase a gun, such as someone who is not a citizen, a person who is a convicted felon, someone who’s mentally ill, and someone who’s a drug addict. We have the law but we don’t have the opportunity at this point in time to enforce the law because as happened in Georgia just recently, right outside of Atlanta, someone got out of the institution, bought a gun, went out and killed people. That can happen because there’s no mechanism by which law enforcement can prevent that from happening by just doing a check. And so we call for a waiting period to give us a little time to protect the lives, not only of our citizens but of our cops on the streets who are getting killed by people because of the proliferation of the illegal possession of handguns on the streets of our cities.

HEFFNER: What is your position now on police and guns, and the use of their guns? I know when you were in Houston you talked about the difference between a defense of life policy or a fleeing felon policy. What’s your policy here and now?

BROWN: The policy here is no different than what we had in Houston. In fact, the Supreme Court has given us some guidance. It’s not lawful to shoot someone just because they are fleeing. The fleeing felon rule is quite clear now. My policy here and my policy in Houston was that one is allowed to use deadly force only in the protection of life, their life or someone else’s life. And that’s based upon what we must have in law enforcement and that’s a set of principles or values that we think are important. And clearly life is our most precious resource. Following that, it logically follows then that our policy must be respectful of life. And that is an officer allowed to use his or her weapon only in the protection of life, his life or someone else’s life.

HEFFNER: Do you anticipate more use by officers in New York where we’re sitting now, in Houston where you came from, back in Atlanta, in Oregon as time goes on?

BROWN: One of the problems that we find now is the proliferation of handguns on the streets. In New York City alone, we confiscated over sixteen thousand illegal guns last year. And so, we an atmosphere out there that must be of concern to all of us. We have the illegal possession of guns, we have the epidemic of narcotics, and we have for the first time in my career situations where people shoot, attack police officers without being provoked, just unprovoked attacks against cops. And those are things that we have to be concerned about. We have, if you would, just a more violent environment than we had before. Some of the moral standards that we used to have in our society are falling by the way. So we’re going to have to address that and try to get back to a society where there was respect for human beings, respect for law, respect for the police officers who are there to provide those services that we want in terms of safety services.

HEFFNER: In the meantime, as we said in the beginning of the program, that obviously is going to mean more use of their weapons by the police in situations that cry out for their use.

BROWN: Well what we have to do in law enforcement is continue to make sure that we operate under our set of values. And the value about human life won’t change. That means we will continue to use our weapon only in defense of life. And we see an increase in the number of incidents involving police shootings, but in our city for example in the vast, vast majority of the cases the person that the officer ends up shooting was someone who was armed with some weapon, shooting at the officer, engaged in a robbery. And again, a lot of that is drug related. Of the nineteen hundred homicides we had in our city, conservatively over 30% of those were drug related; again, seeing the drug problem pushing the crime problem. And that percentage is probably going to be higher this year as we approach, if it continues with the trend that we’re having right now, some two thousand homicides this year.

HEFFNER: You know, a good many Americans think that our professions don’t do a very good job of policing themselves; doctors don’t do a very good job of policing doctors, lawyers of lawyers, journalists of journalists. Do you think outside civilian review boards should be established for police?

BROWN: Now we have a civilian review board here in New York City but it’s not what many people think of as a civilian review board. We have a board of twelve civilians, six appointed by the Mayor, six appointed by the Police Commissioner. The six appointed by the Police Commissioner are police employees, but they are civilian employees, not classified or uniformed people. But they report to the Police Commissioner. The Police Commissioner ultimately takes their recommendation and makes the final decision. I have no problem with that. I would have a problem if there was an outside body that was not held accountable for running the police department making decisions about the disciplinary matters within the police department. I believe that discipline is a function of management. If you remove that tool of management, then you can’t hold management accountable for maintaining the integrity and the discipline of the members of the department.

HEFFNER: Commissioner Brown, I’m so pleased that you were able to join me today. Obviously there are so many more questions that I want to ask or that our audience would want me to ask you. But thank you so much for coming here today.

BROWN: Well thank you for inviting me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your own thoughts about today’s program, the subject it dealt with, policing America, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.