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by Peter Moskos

September 25, 2009

Crime Control

A reader of mine read John Seabrook's story in the New Yorker, about John Jay Professor David Kennedy. He send me these thoughtful comments:
I'm still turning the article over in my head. This may come off as a rant but I don't mean it as such. The piece was thought provoking for a host of reasons. I'm fairly certain you know Kennedy, and I'm certain he's sharp and a nice guy, so my criticism isn't directed at him.

That said, is this the best the field of criminology can offer urban policing? Anthropologists hawking come to Jesus meetings with the police? I present these questions to you because you've lived in both worlds. Two of my degrees are in criminal justice and I spent almost 10 years on the street, yet it's almost impossible to reconcile the two endeavors. The law enforcement academic education that grew out of the 60's has had two generations to ferment, yet we aren't seeing much in the way of results. I'm wondering if it isn't because the academic world has never been honest with itself about how the streets works.

From the article: “Rational men, faced with the choice between pleasure and pain, freedom and incarceration, and benefits and sanctions, will make the choice that yields the greater happiness. This assumption is one of the foundations of the American criminal-justice system.” How's that working out for us?

You and I both know the rational man thesis is bullshit. If you haven't already, give Dan Ariely's
Predictably Irrational and Peter Ubel's Free Market Madness a look. There's a growing body of evidence that's chipping away at the idea of man as purely rational. When I try to explain criminals to people the analogy I use to explain their outlook is Hawthorne's short story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. They're offered every chance to join society but the refrain is always, “I would prefer not to.”

I started an intellectual exercise in reaction to the peace. In trying to understand what it was that bothered me about it I've been concocting my own list. Feel free to ignore, comment, or call bullshit at your leisure:

1) There is no off season for police. There is no finish line. This will go on as long as humanity does. Get rid of the zero sum mentality. Get rid of the ideal of a decisive end state. You will never conquer or win. The best you can hope for is to manage effectively. Make peace with that.

2) Zero tolerance policing is to a city what carpet bombing is to insurgency. There is a time and place for it, but those instances are limited. It's guaranteed to get results you can measure and quantify, but it doesn't mean you're fixing the problem.

3) When you surge they know you're surging and they're waiting you out. They also know if you had the resources to really and truly control the chaos you would have by now.

4) Try the revolutionary step of asking the beat officers how to fix the problems.

5) Get out of your car. Very little effective policing can be done behind the driver's seat. What is more, you will never be respected until you do.

6) What works in one neighborhood won't always work in another. Anybody who tries to sell you a solution for all your problems is more interested in selling than solutions. Intelligence and analysis are good and have a definite place, but are usually oversold.

7) Don't think of it as crime control but forestalling entropy. The latter incubates the former. If we keep viewing it as crime control then every time there's a crime there is the implication that we're losing.

8) Regardless of how good you are, there's probably going to be an upswing in crime when you're processing a youth bulge.

9) Making the drug trade the focus of your efforts will lead you into a cul de sac.

10) Code enforcement and the health inspector can be powerful cohorts in your efforts. They can be more effective in one fell swoop than weeks of criminal enforcement.

11) You can't count on making arrests as a solution. There is a military adage about counterinsurgency: You can't kill your way out of the problem. A corollary for criminal justice is that you can't arrest your way out of a problem. Also, as any cop will tell you, courts have a stunning ability to find reasons for arrestees to not remain in jail or go to prison. There are simply too many points of failure downstream from arrest to rely on it as a solution. The streets are a multi-spectrum problem. Trying to force a solution through a logic gate of Arrest/Don't Arrest will produce limited and suboptimal results.

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