Community-Oriented Public Safety Strategies: A Conversation with Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell

Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell discusses how law enforcement leadership can promote new “smart”
strategies–including community engagement and prevention-oriented diversion approaches–that can effectively and efficiently
keep communities safe, address the symptoms and causes of criminal activity, and alleviate prison overcrowding.

(August 2014)


SARAH SCHWEIG: Hi, I’m Sarah Schweig
of the Center for Court Innovation and today I’m speaking with Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell. Chief McDonnell
was appointed to the U.S. Attorney General’s national task force on children exposed to violence, and has served
in executive sessions on law enforcement and public health, and police legitimacy and racial reconciliation. We’re
currently at an executive session in Los Angeles, California, sponsored by the California Endowment, Community Oriented
Policing Services (the COPS Office), and the Center for Court Innovation. We’ve brought together public health
experts and law enforcement representatives for a conversation about public health approaches to public safety. Thanks
for speaking with me today.

JIM MCDONNELL: Thanks for having me.

just to start off, you know we’re in an environment where crime is relatively low and yet resources are pretty
tight across the country, as well as in California. And community policing, involves as engaging residents to keep
neighborhoods safe. How can police in this sort of climate engage residents to help keep crime low in this kind of
tight budget atmosphere?

MCDONNELL: I think a big part of it is an educational process—it kind
of drove the point home to me last night. I spoke at a public park in Long Beach and there were hundreds of kids
in that park playing every different kind of sport. And I think back, I was impressed with that because I think back
to the late 80’s and early 90’s when you could drive back that park and it would be empty because people were afraid
to go into the park, and a generation of kids missed the opportunity to grow up and exercise in that fashion. And
that’s a giant missing piece, I think. It’s looking at how far we’ve come. I don’t think we give
ourselves enough credit as a society and celebrate where we are today. We finished out the last year, really, in
Los Angeles County with the lowest violent crime numbers in 40 years. We’re down dramatically this year from
last year, and all of us together were able to achieve something that I think was seen as unachievable just a few
short years ago, but yet we’re not taking advantage of that. By that, I mean we’re not reengaging, we’re
not taking back the streets and, and you know the parks public spaces in a way that we should be. We are seeing what
I saw last night, people back in the parks, but we’re not doing it consciously. And I think we really need to
do that and talk to each other about that in our communities, and encourage people to get out and take full advantage
of the cities that we live in. We’re very fortunate to live in this country and be able to have the freedom
that we have. We kind of limit ourselves, I think, by not being aware of what the threat levels actually are versus
what they are perceived to be. So education is a big part of that—creating a dialogue and talking openly about where
we are and what we can do to make it even safer.

SCHWEIG: So how can law enforcement take an active
role in new thinking around how we can make communities safer?

MCDONNELL: Well you know you look
at just basic crime control tips that sound so common sense that we too often, I think, don’t talk about them
because we don’t want to insult people by giving them something so basic. But yet we look at our property crime
in Los Angeles County and when you look at the property crime reports, over and over again, people left iPads, iPods,
computers, laptops, whatever, in an unlocked car because they were only going into a store for a couple of minutes
and they figured that it’s safe there. And over and over again the themes are the same. My house was burglarized.
Was the door left open? Well, yeah because I never lock the door—or the windows were left open because I didn’t
feel there was a threat. And it sounds very basic, but we have the ability to protect ourselves by using the basic
tools that we don’t take advantage of. And so I think we become complacent and, as a result, we become victims.
So by just creating a dialogue around this, those are the little things that don’t cost a dime but really can
change the outcome of what we’re doing. So I think education is a tremendous piece that I think we undervalue.
And just the opportunity to be able to get out in front of a group and be able to talk about, you know, how do you
keep your family safer, is priceless.

SCHWEIG: Speak a bit about prison overcrowding in California
and what you think, from a law enforcement perspective, can be done towards solving this problem.

Right. I’ll talk about both prisons and jails, but I look at the issues that we’ve studied very closely
here in Los Angeles County. In the L.A. County jail, the population is estimated to be between 15 and 20 percent
of the people incarcerated are there because of mental illness, their behavior, not taking their meds or whatever
the issue is that caused them to find themselves in custody. If we have an ability to be able to re-evaluate the
way we treat people in this regard, and to be able to develop community-based mental health clinics, community-based
mental health courts, so an assessment is done and rather than using incarceration as a default treatment plan, we
have options that keep the person in the community where they are more likely to be monitored, and hopefully helped,
and treated as a medical issue as opposed to a criminal issue, I think we’d be in a different position. In addition,
to look at the jail environment, who’s in custody awaiting trial, that could have been bailed out if they only
had the money. And what we find is often times the jail system is not based on a risk assessment, but rather if they
can come up with whatever the prescribed bail is. And we have people sitting in custody at great expense to society,
that would be less of a threat, potentially, back in their community, than somebody who was able to make bail and
is now back out in the community. So in looking at some of, just the different ways we have taken things to just
the way it is, and reevaluate those and say what other opportunities are there to reduce the population of jails
and prison, holding people accountable for their behavior, but at the same time doing it in a way that is least harmful
to society and a more efficient and smarter way of doing the same job we’ve been trying to do for a long time.

SCHWEIG: As you know, crime prevention can start in many different arenas and agencies. What advice would
you give to police departments who may want to reach out to partner with their local public health departments, or
school systems or other agencies to sort of help in, you know, maybe education efforts or you know, innovative initiatives.

MCDONNELL: Yeah. I think that we have to reach out to our partners in different disciplines, to be able
to bring them, the various sectors, into play, to have a tremendous outcome on what the end game will be. It’s
easier to do that where there’s an education piece, where there’s minimal investment, where you just get
in and you work together, and you’re able to put together something for a presentation or so forth. The harder
part is to get people to come together on a daily basis to address the issues that we face, and to see what role
each of us can play in that. And in order to affect that in a positive way, we need to look at it—bring in the various
players at the city level, the county level, the state level, and maybe even the federal level, depending on the
issues we’re dealing with. And that takes a lot of work because everybody’s got their own goals, everybody’s
held accountable for different standards, and what might be a police goal at the end of the day isn’t in alignment
with the health department’s goals or and other of our partner agencies. So we need, as heads of agencies, to
be able to take the initiative and meet—to come up with an alignment as to—we’re dealing with the same audience
over and over again, but we’re not doing it in a way where we each bring some strength to the table to be able
to address their needs. Rather, we’re looking at it through our own lens to see what’s our responsibility
in this? And then moving on. Rather than, in the medical model, to be able to say, this person is our patient. Did
we put them on the road to cure, or did we just address the symptom and send them back on the street. So to be able
to look at it in a more comprehensive, which will ultimately be a smarter, more efficient, and more effective way
of dealing with the problem. I think we need a re-engineering of the way we’ve been doing business, and you
know, when it comes right down to it, I think it will be a more efficient way because when you look at the population
that we’re dealing with in this county, there’s a relatively small number of people coming into contact
with all of the various agencies on a routine basis for care. So if we can triage those individuals and identify
what their needs are, and rather than just symptoms, look at the causes and put together, as a medical model would,
a diagnosis and a plan for getting better, I think we’re on a much better track.

I’m Sarah Schweig and I’ve been speaking with Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, and we’re currently
at a roundtable session on public health approaches to violence prevention, looking at ways that public health and
law enforcement can partner up to fight crime. To learn more about the Center for Court Innovation please visit