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by Peter Moskos

April 24, 2008

From the Economist

This is from the Economist:


I'M STANDING on a street lined with boarded-up shops—a popular haven for drug-dealers. A police officer is frisking a suspect whose trousers are nearly around his knees. The policeman didn't pull them down; that's how the suspect wears them. A bit impractical, perhaps, if his line of work requires him to run away from policemen.

But he insists that he is no longer in that line of work. He was caught once, but is now going straight. He has a legitimate reason for hanging around a nearly deserted street, after dark, in the pouring rain, for several hours. He is waiting for someone, he says.
AFP Follow the trousers

The police officer's colossal partner, whose sense of humour is as robust as his shoulders, prays aloud: “Oh Lord, I pray that a meteorite hits this [drug bazaar].” (He adds a P.S. to the effect that God should be careful not to hurt anyone.)

The temporal authorities in Baltimore take a more pragmatic approach to fighting crime. Like every other large city, they have copied elements of New York's system for mapping crime statistics, which allows police departments to send officers where they are most needed.

Baltimore has also put more officers on foot patrol, so that they are closer to the people they are supposed to protect. It has locked up many of the most violent offenders. And it has encouraged local volunteers to mediate between young hot-heads. Such volunteers know when a fight is about to erupt over, for example, a stolen girlfriend. All this is quite new, but the mayor, Sheila Dixon, thinks it is working. The murder rate for the first three months of this year was sharply lower than last year.

But still, the drug trade is unlikely to be peaceful so long as it is illegal. Crack pushers cannot ask the courts to settle their disputes. The only way to stop them shooting each other is to legalise drugs, reckons Peter Moskos, a sociologist who spent a year as a policeman in Baltimore's eastern district and wrote a book about it.

That is not going to happen, alas. And even if it did, it would hardly be a panacea. Anyone with a proper job leaves the ghetto. The young men left behind develop traits that render them unemployable. For example, says Mr Moskos, they react violently to trivial slights. This is a useful quality in a drug-dealer, but less so in most other trades.

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