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by Peter Moskos

February 26, 2013

The Streets of Rome: The Realities of Problem-Oriented Policing, by Peter W. Maher

Back in October, 2012, I had a guest blogger, Jan Haldipur, on "How the iPhone Changed the Way We Do Ethnography: A Methodological Note." It's worth a read.

Today I proudly feature Peter W. Maher. He completed his undergraduate studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. (and can be contacted at pmaher@hamilton.edu).

Peter did some work with police that is remarkable for anybody, much less an undergraduate. His work has already been featured in the press, but since it's in upstate New York, odds are you missed it. But check out this, and this, and finally this.

Maher has got a promising career as a research ahead of him, if that's the path he chooses take. It's an honor to have him contributing to copinthehood.com:
New York City’s crime control programs have been lauded as a data-driven fix to soaring crime rates. Yet, until recently, few small cities adopted such measures. Rome, New York was no different. Three years ago, as a college sophomore, I began an internship with Rome’s police department. The city was once the site of a sprawling air force base and had been churning out textiles with ferocity for over two hundred years. However, in the early 1990s, when the military base was shut down and the demand for rustbelt manufacturing was outsourced overseas, the city saw drastic change. Population declined, drugs became rampant, and crime rates soared.

Rome, like much of the northeast, is a deeply traditional place. Unlike the city infrastructure and its people, the department seemed immune to urban decay. Even after the city’s decline, the police force continued to operate with the same reactive patrol strategy it had employed for nearly a century. Suffice to say, the department was incredibly resistant to change.

After completing an 18-month study of Rome’s police force, spending hundreds of hours working with detectives and beat officers, I proposed a change to the way the agency did business. I planned a pro-active policing unit designed to aggressively and strategically fight crime, modeled after a mixture of broken windows theory and Herman Goldstein’s problem-oriented policing strategy. I felt that if Rome had a chance to stem urban decay, this was it.

I managed to persuade the Chief of Police to give me ninety days for a trial of the program. Entitled the Community Impact Unit (CIU), the program’s aim was to put officers on foot and bicycle into high-crime neighborhoods, much as they had in the earliest days of policing, aiming to partner with residents to identify and combat neighborhood problems before they escalated into violent crime.

Resistance immediately arose from some veteran cops, who didn’t take too kindly to a college intern suggesting how they could do their job more effectively. They had more than a few doubts that a “soft and cushy,” community-oriented program could fix crime. I told them to let the results speak for themselves, and the program went to work.

Following in the footsteps of Compstat-designer Jack Maple, we started mapping crime and gathering intelligence, identifying areas that were hardest hit by criminals. Three days in, an officer returning from neighborhood patrol encountered a vehicle reeking of marijuana. After searching it, the CIU officer found eight pounds of marijuana, a substantial discovery for a city Rome’s size.

Two days later, acting on citizen complaints, the unit spent time on foot, scouring a neighborhood riddled with drug activity. After several hours, team members discovered a clandestine methamphetamine lab, preventing the explosive substance from distribution onto Rome’s streets. Stories like this piled up, day after day.

A renewed focus on abandoned lots, riverbanks, and other locations susceptible to crime caused the unit to clean up decades of graffiti and litter. Even the most seasoned Rome police veterans couldn’t recall a time when highway overpasses and commercial areas boasted such order. Thanks to coordinated citywide efforts, the tagging and trash hasn’t returned.

In a mere ninety days, CIU officers recovered more narcotics and seized more firearms from the streets of Rome than patrol officers had in years. Department-driven community efforts skyrocketed, and officers began to gain a deeper understanding of the crime in their city.

Meanwhile, contrary to most aggressive police units, the department has received wide citizen acclaim for the unit’s implementation. Unlike other agencies that have received notoriety for privacy invasions, our unit stood immune to such infringements. The principal mission here was to work with citizens to identify and analyze problems – graffiti, open-air drug use, loitering, littering, trespassing – and develop unique ways to solve them.

Several weeks ago, as the trial period of the program concluded, citizens spoke up. Several hundred Romans petitioned city hall to keep the program around. The department not only has decided to continue the program, but has since added two more officers.

To appease critics, the unit has only been in session for five months, far too soon to draw a definitive conclusion on official crime rate reduction. Regardless, the effects of the program are overwhelming. Crime is now being addressed more effectively and thoroughly than ever before. With a cost of only new uniforms and little detriment on normal patrol, the Community Impact Unit has drastically changed the way the Rome Police Department addresses crime and community affairs.

If a city as tradition-ridden as Rome can adopt this advanced and incredibly effective crime-fighting strategy, so can yours. The success of the program offers great hope for the streets of Rome, and your streets too.

Crimes and Cameras

Just one point of data to add to the picture. From the Chicago Sun Times:
Even with $26 million in high-resolution cameras finally in full force last year, reported crime at CTA rail stations rose 21 percent, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows.

And compared with 2010 — well before most of the CTA’s current 3,600 rail station cameras were installed — station crime was up 32 percent.

February 20, 2013

Why is Academic Writing So Bad?

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:
In the end, it comes down to what a scholar is trying to achieve. If the goal is just narrow professional success -- getting tenure, earning a decent salary, etc. -- then bad writing isn't a huge handicap and may even confer some advantages. But if the goal is to have impact -- both within one's discipline and in the wider world -- then there's no substitute for clear and effective writing. The question is really pretty simple: do you want to communicate with others or not?
Back in October I looked at Amazon's top 40 books in sociology. You had to get to number 43 (Alone Together by Sherry Turkle) before you came across a sociologist. Foucault came in at #61.

It's not to say there wasn't great sociology in the top 40. It's just that this sociology isn't being done by sociologists. Admittedly Amazon's classification of "sociology" leaves a bit to be desired, but in the top 40 are 7 journalists, 3 moms, 2 CEOs, 1 priest, 1 aspiring model, 1 rapper, 1 liberal TV talk-show guy, 1 survivor of child abuse, 1 public speaker, and 1 community organizer / President of the United States. There were 8 professors selling in the top 40 of sociology: three economists, and one each from political science, computer science, law, clinical psychology, and business administration. Where are the sociologists?

Here's what's weird. Sociologists assign many of these books in our classes. The outstanding work of Alex Kotlowitz comes to mind. He wrote There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. Last weekend I heard him on This American Life discussing the horrible effect of gun violence in one Chicago high school (really worth listening to, especially for those who think the American playing field is level). I don't know a single sociologists who doesn't respect Kotlowitz's as sociology. And yet his work, as written, would be rejected from every top sociology journal (poor guy has probably never ran a regression in his life). The same could be said for Malcolm Gladwell, Michelle Alexander, Eric Schlosser, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Putnam. Sociologists rightfully claim such excellent research and writing as sociology, and yet we do not reward sociologists who follow in their footsteps.

February 19, 2013

NYC Shootings and Homicides

A short while back I was hit with this little picture:

You may look at the stop-and-frisk trend. But what I found more interesting are the shooting numbers. You don't often see those numbers. Homicides are well tallied by police departments and the Uniform Crime Reports. Shootings less so. I've always used homicides as my standard indicator for crime. Homicides are reliable and valid, right?

But here's what threw me for a loop: are shootings in NYC really not down? 1,892 in 2002 and 1,821 in 2011. During that time, homicides went from 587 to 515.

So here's the problem: using homicides as a bellwether indicator for crime rests on the assumption that 1) there is a direct and consistent correlation between violent crime and shootings and 2) between shootings and homicides. So if homicides are down and shootings are not, it doesn't work. Something else other than police work is probably responsible for the drop in homicide. Paramedics, nurses, and doctors jump to mind. The Wall Street Journal reported on this a few months ago (but the story is behind a paywall).

The problem with the chart on shooting victims from dnainfo (which is a horrible name for a great news source) is that it draws a flat line. And 2012 was a good year for the NYPD: shootings dropped to 1,625 and homicides to 419. So if you punch the numbers into SPSS and get a trendline, you get this:

It's an average reduction of about 12 shootings per year over the past 13 years. It's not huge, but it's not insubstantial (and it is statistically significant). Shootings are down about 12 percent since 2001; homicides are down one-third (I haven't broken down the homicides by weapon, but roughly 70 percent of homicides in NYC are shootings).

One could reasonable infer that about 2/3 of the decline in homicides in NYC has nothing to do with police (because shootings are a better indicator of crime than are homicides). But still, a long-term (since 2001) 10-to-15 percent decline in New York City shootings (and, I would infer, crime) is noteworthy, if not exactly headline grabbing.

Last year, 2012, recorded stop and frisks were down 22 percent, to 533,000 (compared with 685,700 in 2011. Homicides and shootings in 2012 were also down. (So clearly, if nothing else, last year tells us there's no direct inverse linear relation between stop-and-frisks and homicides.)

I've long argued that some some stop-and-frisks are necessary. You know, the ones based on reasonable suspicion that a suspect is armed. It's the ones that are nothing more than stat fluffers that bother me.

February 5, 2013

"A system that is dishonest and fundamentally flawed"

I often (and sincerely) defend Vice Magazine as (on a good day, mind you) the best source of journalism in our fine republic.

Last night a friend sent me this link called, "Testilying: Cops Are Liars Who Get Away with Perjury." OK... so I'm not expecting this to be pro-police. But before I read it, I wrote back saying: "I predict this will be much more informative (and accurate) than Michelle Alexander's op-ed the other day in the Times on the same subject."

Now don't get me wrong, I support Michelle Alexander. I like her book (even if I am a bit peeved it sold so much more than In Defense of Flogging). And I think the corrupting nature of the war on drugs is horrible for society and police. I think American incarceration is a racist gulag we need to be ashamed of. But Alexander loses me when she says, "Are police officers necessarily more trustworthy than alleged criminals? I think not... Police shouldn't be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so." Really?! This shows a worldview based on outliers all to common to people who haven't been in the courtroom (or the streets) for far too long. People lie in courts all the time. In court, cops lie least of all.

Now compare that op-ed to Nick Malinowski's article in Vice:
By not acknowledging rampant police misconduct, by not demanding that criminal justice is meted out in a fair way, what are we giving up? Are we sacrificing a moral claim to justice by sanctioning the police--and thus the state--the freedom to circumvent the rule of law in the pursuit of a particular type of social order?

“That is assuming that the justice system ever had any moral claim, which I would not assume,” former NYPD officer and Queens county prosecutor [and my colleague at John Jay College] Eugene O’Donnell says. “There is dishonesty in court, prosecutorial dishonesty. It’s legislative dishonesty that sets up this system and by no means are cops exempt from a system that is dishonest and fundamentally flawed.”
Damn, Gene, you did it again!

Here's the thing: the courts in this country are literally a game. Cops know how to play that game pretty well. And cops want to win. Personally, I think a Continental system based on "discovering the truth" would be better, at least on a moral level, than our "adversarial system." But such is the system we have. So be it. And what this means is that prosecutors want to convict and defense attorneys want to acquit regardless of what the suspect actually did. See, that's the game. A defense attorney never throws up his or hands and says, "damnit, my client is guilty." They're not allowed to! Because the point of the system is not to determine what is right and just. Let me repeat that: the point of the criminal justice system is not to determine what is right and just. The point is for all the players to play their role. And you do this, at least in theory, because you hope and assume the greater system is right and just.

Now prosecutors are supposed to admit when they're wrong. Too often they don't. More often this doesn't come into play because the accused is guilty as sin. But if you want to find abuse in the criminal justice system, you could do a lot worse than starting with a look into proprietorial discretion and the plea bargain system. That is where the shit everybody is covered in is actually manufactured and distributed wholesale.

So if you've never been to criminal court, why don't you stop watching TV and spend a day in your local neighborhood court. Pick the lowest level and see what passes for justice for thousands of people every day.

Cops are placed in this fucked-up game, but usually police not really key players in that game. If somebody beats the crap out of you, and you're willing to testify, nobody needs the cops. Police just come along for the overtime. But when it comes to drugs and other "victimless" crimes, police suddenly are major players. And what drives police, usually in this order, is a desire to make overtime, please their bosses, and do good (usually seen as getting the guilty off the streets).

There are rules that cops follow on the street that come not directly from laws and constitutions but from what prosecutors say are the rules of the game based on laws and the state and federal constitutions. Prosecutors tell police what police need to say and do to get a conviction. These rules can be very frustrating to police (see the Oreo Cookie example from Cop in the Hood, for instance; or me wrestling with a suspect and trying to keep a purse in view when I should have been spending 100 percent of my energy on the battle at hand). Often, if police feel the urge to lie, it's not a matter convicting the innocent but convicting the guilty exactly as charged. Because prosecutors won't prosecute unless a certain and somewhat arbitrary checklist of standards is followed. You're bending the rules not of the Constitution but of a prosecutorial game that is rigged and with rules that seem to make no sense.

The most common example I came across is that drugs can't leave an officer's sight. So you chase somebody down an alley, you see the person throw drugs down. You catch the person around the next bend. Twenty seconds later you go back to where you saw the drugs thrown and find those very drugs. This would probably hold up in a trial, but it will never get there because (well, leaving aside that fact that almost nothing ever ends up in a trial) the prosecutor won't prosecute unless you say those drugs never left your sight. It would be an easy lie to make. All you would have to say is that the drugs were on the person when you took them into custody. And yet still, most cops won't make that lie. Why? Because it's not worth it. One person with a video camera means you get called out for perjury and get fired. To be fired is to lose your pension. Now why would want to do that? You get paid whether or not the guy walks. Let the bastard go.

Then Vice digs deeper and makes the link between the rise of police lies and Mapp v. Ohio and Terry v. Ohio. Deep. Insightful.

OK... Vice does indeed go a bit off the deep end. In Malonowski's words, "police are indoctrinated into something akin to genocidal project: the forced removal of a class of people from their homes." Sure. Whatever. And a bit of ignorance shines through as well: "If we started taking police lies more seriously -- prosecuting them as we would civilian perjurers...." Tee-hee. See that's funny, not because it's true, but because it makes the assumption that civilians get prosecuted for lying in court. Ha ha.

OK, maybe Vice doesn't like police. But hell, I don't expect Vice to be pro-police. Hell, even more, I don't want Vice to be pro-police! And yet it's still a great article.

Once again, for the record, I did not see an officer lie in court. Maybe Baltimore officers are simply more honest than cops in other cities? Maybe. I kind of doubt it, but maybe.

But I write this not to defend cops. Do some cops lie? Yes. We've seen it. Is the harm they do somehow mitigated by putting some schmuck away for some time? No, not even close. But you could end 90 percent of police corruption if you ended the drug war. And in the meantime, if you're looking to find out why the system is rotten, you're barking up the wrong tree if you focus on police testimony. The lying cops that are out there are symptom of the drug-war problem, not the cause. Not even close.

February 1, 2013


Alan Suderman of the Washington City Paper has a good article about police department discipline and some recent happenings in DC. Here's the main story. And an extra.

I don't know why, but I always get a kick about being quoted using naughty words. In truth, I don't actually think Iswear that much. And yet the blue just seem to roll out when I talk to a journalist about, well, the blue

To wit:
As Peter Moskos, the former Baltimore cop with a PhD from Harvard said in LL's cover story: “It’s the worst of both worlds, because they have all these rules, but then it comes down to whether they want to fuck you or not.”

Good thing he didn't say that while on the force. He might have gotten fired.