by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & 've often wondered why we call it "law enforcement." I don't mean to say it doesn't make sense -- of course we need a way to get people to play by all the rules we've all agreed upon via our government and courts. It's just that the notion of enforcing laws creates a specific mindset -- if you step over the line, you will be busted. In light of the complexity of modern life, that seems a bit limiting.

What if we called it "crime prevention" instead? That's a more complicated and difficult job description for our policemen and women: We will stop people from stepping over that line in the first place. And who wouldn't prefer crimes to be prevented rather than punished after the fact? Anybody who has had their car stolen would rather just have it back; anyone who has lost a loved one to murder would certainly prefer the tragedy had never happened.

Obviously everybody recognizes the need to prevent crimes -- that's where the DARE program came from, along with community-oriented policing. But in the everyday practice of law enforcement, the outlook is very much centered on the traditional bust-the-perp paradigm. That's what a lot of the training is about; that's what the gun in their holster is about.

If only the world would cooperate and allow its little dramas to play out in stark black and white. Unfortunately, real life is colored by a million shades of gray, with thousands of factors colliding -- financial status, family dysfunction, mental health -- to muddy every police call. Cops are ready to deal with bank robbers in a getaway car, but what they seem to be getting more and more of is Otto Zehm.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen public officials get up behind the podium, I always feel like the best questions are never asked. At the South Hill Senior Center last week, with the four candidates for Chief of Spokane Police up front, I felt that way again. Nothing against the questions they were getting; they just elicited the same responses they had been giving for a week. Sure, we need to know how they would do their jobs -- how they would lead.

But to uncover that raw nerve in Spokane, how about something like "Why do people commit crimes?" Do they think law breakers are just plain evil? Do they think bad parenting is to blame? Alcohol? Drugs? Poverty? It may sound like a trick question, as there is no definitive answer. What it would uncover is how well these people grasp the complexity of this life-and-death job we ask them to do on our behalf.

Mayor Dennis Hession has done well to air these candidates so openly here in Spokane. He's obviously thinking about what happened to Alan Chertok. Hired by former City Manager Bill Pupo, Chertok had his own issues, but his biggest problem was that he never had any authority. The people hadn't connected with him, there was no strong mayor to endorse him and, as an outsider, he was unpopular inside the SPD. He lasted nine months on the job, and Spokane slipped back into a comfortable but staid existence of having one of its own lead the team -- no boat-rocking allowed.

It's pretty obvious that promote-from-within dynamic is ending soon -- and it's none too soon, if charges that leaders in the SPD lied to the public prove true. Strong, new leadership in the department is needed -- and that goes all the way up to the mayor's office. If he needs more input, fine, but Mayor Hession should remember that he is in office to make decisions. If he has the facts in front of him, why wait? As strong mayor, he has the power to fire people who break public trust -- or exonerate them and move on.

As for the chief candidates, I like the fact that two of them are lawyers. As the city will likely be writing some very large checks to the Zehm family and the family of the girl who claims to have been raped in a city fire station, the necessity of a lawyer at the top has become obvious.

(For the record, I like Linda Pierce from the Seattle Police Department. Seattle's a big, complicated place, and she's served in just about every post, from precinct commander to internal investigations to mounted patrols. Plus, she's a lawyer.)

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hich brings us back to the issue that will greet the next police chief: the death of Otto Zehm. This was a perfect storm: bad information from a citizen, relayed via the dispatcher; police relying on Tasers they think are non-lethal but are being shown around the country to be quite deadly at times; and Zehm himself. Police are trained to see bad guys, but what they are finding more often are the Otto Zehms of the world -- mentally disabled, on and off medications, a little scary and unpredictable, probably in some kind of trouble, but not a criminal.

(It's worth mentioning that in Washington state's prison system, 12 percent of the inmates in 2003 were diagnosed with mental illness; in Idaho, it was 19 percent that year. Last year, the Spokane County Jail's annual prescription drug costs were around $300,000 a year.)

If all this is starting to sound like a job for a social worker, you're getting it. That's exactly what it is. Cops want to focus on law enforcement, but on a day-to-day basis, more often they're acting as first responders to any number of social ills. This is not in the classic job description, but times have changed. Police departments can bemoan the situation and say it's somebody else's responsibility, but that isn't stopping the steady stream of such cases populating their patrols. Maybe under new leadership, they can embrace an expanded mission -- enforce the law and help prevent crimes by addressing why people commit them.

Perhaps there should be fully trained social workers who wear badges. Or deputized physician's assistants who can prescribe drugs at mobile clinics or make referrals to specialists. Maybe young people in school will be attracted to making a difference via a career in crime prevention. Maybe Spokane can be a model for a different kind of police department. Maybe we'll learn something from Otto Zehm.

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