Tuesday, March 17, 2009

We Don't Need a Surge in American Cities

Radley Balko had this excellent, excellent post yesterday on the problems of fighting crime the same way we fight wars. Balko's response was prompted by this statement from Harvard criminologist William Stuntz:

The war in Iraq bears more than a passing resemblance to the battle against violent street gangs in the roughest parts of American cities. The tactics Petraeus used to win that war are eerily similar to the tactics the best police chiefs use to rein in gang violence. But better tactics alone cannot do the job. In Boston as in Baghdad, those tactics work only if the police forces that use them have enough personnel: lots of police boots on the most violent ground.

Today, that condition is not satisfied. Most American cities are underpoliced, many of them seriously so. Instead of following the Bush/Petraeus strategy, the United States has sought to control crime by using small police forces to punish as many criminals as possible. As all those who have even a passing familiarity with contemporary crime statistics know, that approach–call it “efficient punishment”–does not work. Like the Army in pre-surge Iraq, the nation’s criminal justice system is in a state of crisis. America needs another surge, this one on home territory.

Here's part of Balko's response and I highly recommend you go and read the rest of his post:

I don’t entirely disagree with Stuntz. There is some academic support for the idea that more cops on the streets can lead to a reduction in crime. And I’m certainly with him when he argues that throwing astronomically high numbers of people in prison isn’t a healthy way to deal with crime.

But if we’re going to put more cops on the streets, we need to emphasizing the right kind of policing, where cops become an active part of their communities. The problem with policing today isn’t so much a lack of personnel, it’s that it’s plagued by a structure of perverse incentives and a lack of accountability and transparency, problems driven by 40 years of get-tough-on-crime rhetoric and war imagery from politicians and law-and-order activists. Police departments have become driven by statistics (a mentality exacerbated by competitive federal grants, like Byrne Grants, that hinge on arrest and seizure data). Stuntz doesn’t mention the drug war, which I’d argue is not only a huge contributor to inner city violence, but the driving force behind most of these improper incentives. But let’s put that aside. My intent here isn’t necessarily to debate drug prohibition, though it lurks behind much of the discussion.

The problems accompanying the fact that there are entire communities who no longer trust the police charged with protecting them aren’t going to go away once we put more cops in the neighborhood. That will likely only make things worse. We first need a major overhaul in the way police interact with the communities they serve. Policing has become too reactionary, too aggressive, too us-versus-them. Bad cops are in the minority, but good cops cover for them. And far too many officers subscribe to a soldier’s mentality, and take too literally the idea that theyr’e fighting a “war” on drugs or crime. It’s a toxic state of mind that older officers will tell you (and have told me) is more and more common, even as violent crime and the number of officers killed in the line of duty have plummeted.

I can't put it any better, but I think it's important to note this is a point that libertarians and critics of the drug war more often than not fail to actually make. Regardless of your opinions of what should and shouldn't be illegal, there are real problems with the mindset that we need to fight a war on crime. War is nasty business, but police work shouldn't be. War is about crushing your enemy, but police work should be first and foremost about- as Balko says- protecting communities. We can debate drugs all we'd like, but maybe the real first step needs to be changing our attitudes about law enforcement.


Post a Comment

<< Home