As America's best-educated, best-equipped, and best-known law enforcement agency, the FBI runs the world's most sophisticated law enforcement labs, keeps national crime statistics, and gives police all over the country plenty of advice on everything from child abuse to credit card fraud. The overbearing federal agent swooping down from Washington to take control of local police investigations became a stock figure in movie and TV crime dramas for good reason. Given its recent track record, however, the FBI might want to begin taking advice from local police agencies rather than dispensing it.
While the 1990s saw sharply dropping crime rates all over the country, the FBI suffered a long string of failures. The September 11 shortcomings and Special Agent Robert Hanssen's espionage activities on behalf of the Russian government have gotten the most attention. But there are serious problems lurking in almost every area of the Bureau's operations. At a time of cascading financial scandals, it appears to have done very little to improve and modernize its capabilities in that area. It has allowed ever more violent multistate criminal syndicates like the Black Gangster Disciples to replace the Italian Mafia as the nation's leading merchants of drugs, sex, and illegal weapons. From child porn distribution to terrorism, nearly every crime the FBI seeks to prevent increased through the 1990s, even as the Bureau's arrests decreased.
Arguably, the Bureau has been spread too thin, and should never have been entrusted with such disparate tasks as counterintelligence, bank robberies, and child kidnappings. But at the same time the FBI has fallen down on the job, local police agencies have gone from success to success. Since 1992, crime has declined in 47 states and about 85 percent of the nation's largest cities, the steepest such drop in American history. Along with stiffer prison sentences, strategies that ask police officers to partner with people in the communities where they work--community policing--best explain the nation's newfound safety. Local police agencies have ushered in a new era of civic safety by creating flexible organizational structures that allow them to respond to new problems, opening their doors to the public, and building simple but effective intelligence operations. If the FBI hopes to remake its dysfunctional culture, it can learn a lot from the beat cops patrolling America's neighborhoods.
While FBI Director Robert Mueller has announced a new focus on terrorism and counterintelligence, little has actually changed. A recent study by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse shows that, despite the alleged change in emphasis, nearly all of the FBI's work remains directed at arresting drug dealers and bank robbers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, meanwhile, reports that the small increases in the FBI's terrorism arrests since September 11 come mostly from bookkeeping changes rather than from any change in strategy. Local police, when forced by events to change their focus, move much more quickly: In cities from Minneapolis to Pasadena, new management techniques allow area commanders to rapidly redeploy personnel to tackle new problems. The New York Police Department--which has almost twice as many employees as the FBI--has changed its organizational structure more since September 11 than has the Bureau. Police departments in Lowell, Mass., Anaheim, Calif., Phoenix, Newark, and elsewhere have sharply limited their use of specialized, single-task units in favor of quick redeployment of more broadly trained officers. If a district commander in Lowell wants to bust a drug house or a Newark police chief wants to investigate a series of stained-glass window thefts, he needs little permission to send dozens of police officers off to work on those very particular problems.
Not coincidentally, well-run police departments have become the most open and welcoming parts of local government. Nearly all of them now allow citizens to ride along with police officers. Many cities use meetings with citizens as the primary forum for setting police priorities. Good local police agencies pay attention to small problems as well as large ones: During late August of last year, I watched a member of the Chicago police department's top brass interrogate a district commander about his response to a loud homeless man in a park.
The FBI, on the other hand, seems to care little about what citizens have to say. The most recent updates to the FBI's community outreach web page reveal that field offices in Buffalo and San Diego canceled community involvement programs after September 11. But most field offices aren't so attentive: In mid-July, the FBI's most recent community involvement report for New York City dated from early 2000. What outreach programs do exist--mostly partnerships with local schools--focus on teaching citizens about the FBI's work rather than inviting them to help. Although the exigencies of federal law enforcement do present special challenges when it comes to community involvement, other federal agencies have found that openness works: The Border Guard, for example, has stemmed the flow of illegal immigrants in many areas by deigning to work with community groups and local police agencies.
The FBI may feel that community outreach is a frippery to be discarded in times of crisis, but this is shortsighted. At their best, community outreach programs are among the finest sources of vital intelligence for police. While larger urban police departments pay informants to infiltrate local gangs, the best method of gathering intelligence is even simpler: Make yourself accessible to tipsters. The Chicago Police Department's famous blue-jeans-wearing tactical team police officers actually became more effective at gathering intelligence once they started wearing bulletproof vests, weapons, and badges on top of their street clothes. On countless occasions in my own reporting, I've seen people rat out criminals in return for a pass on a public drinking rap, a cigarette, taxi service from the police department, or, most often, nothing at all besides the feeling of being a good citizen and helping the police.
In gathering intelligence, good local police agencies rely on people rather than technology. As crime soared in the 1960s and 1970s, most cities spent millions setting up wiretaps, building crime labs, and constructing fingerprint databases. Sophisticated facilities like these helped crack some high-profile cases, but real success against crime required sending thousands of new police officers into the streets, where they returned to the pre-World War II habits of knowing the neighborhoods where they worked, walking beats, and working out of storefront offices. In fact, successful police agencies have increasingly turned technical tasks over to civilian professionals. Arlington, Texas, home to the best-educated large police force in the country, uses civilian crime-scene teams for evidence collection in cases as trivial as an angry boyfriend shooting a slingshot at his girlfriend's workplace window. The FBI already employs far more civilians than special agents, but a great many of its highly trained agents are assigned to tasks like answering media queries and carrying out forensic accounting tasks.
The FBI still recruits many of America's best law enforcers. The administration's plan to have the Bureau focus on terrorism, furthermore, is a major step in the right direction. Nearly all of its personnel are committed, hard-working, and intensely patriotic. They deserve a better-run agency, and by looking to local police forces for inspiration, Director Mueller just might be able to give it to them.
Eli Lehrer is a senior editor of The American Enterprise.