Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The fortress versus the storefront

Gleaming, white and clean. The medieval fortress reborn

I passed a beautiful architectural feature the other day on a brief trip to Miami: A gleaming police HQ building. Monumental and modern, it was a civic fortress on display. It was similar to many other big city police HQ architectures in recent years.

Down the road I drove past a sports field called the Police Athletic League for kids. What a great opportunity for kids to play ball, hang out, and have fun.

Then a question of some irony dawned on me; Do urban features like these indicate police are in the community or a symbol of it?

At HQ the architectural story was clear; Clean and magnificent, landmarks like this show off something far more than a functional police headquarters. Landmarks like this stand out! More important, they stand apart from the everyday life the rest of us live. We expect that of city halls or war memorials. But why police stations?

The sport field told a different story. Like cultural activities and local storefronts, these are the kinds of everyday things we expect to integrate into our daily lives. They don't stand apart from community. They are a part of community.

Semantics? Perhaps, until you consider history.

Over the last century, police evolved from local cops walking a beat to law enforcement officers in patrol cars - the "professional law enforcement" movement. Over the last 40 years police reformers promoted community oriented problem solvers working to resolve local troubles - the COPPS movement.

It's difficult to know where some agencies are today. Many are a confusing hybrid of all those things.

The police HQ "fortress" is an emblematic symbol of law and order, a obvious product of the professional movement. It seems to me that is in stark opposition to COPPS. Nowhere was this more true than on the patrol car doors with the motto "Professional Law Enforcement". Someone obviously missed the COPPS memo. Or maybe not.

One place showcasing an alternative architectural hybrid is the small town of Milliken, Colorado.

Miliken Police HQ photo by Jim Burack/Debora Cohen

Innovative Milliken Police Chief Jim Burack spent considerable time with residents, experts, and his own agency to craft a sensible balance. It goes to show it is possible to have security and accessibility to the public. Let's keep the fortress in the medieval age where it belongs.

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