Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Watching the Detectives

Two recent stories in the NYT spotlight different strategic innovations that are very common today in American policing. Both raise concerns about the futility of creating more secure and prosperous cities by continuing to govern them through crime. They also raise concerns about the ways race and racism are at work whenever we govern through crime.

In several fascinating articles and video reports in the Regional section of the Times, Andrew Jacobs has reported on a multi-night mini-ethnography he did with Newark police officers in some of the sections of that beleaguered city. (Newark Battles Murder and Its Accomplice, Silence). The very title of Jacob's story represents how powerful the pull of crime is on his imagination after a few nights with the police in Newark (metaphors of war and of criminal law intertwine).

The background of rising murder rates over the last several years is truly alarming (since it has wiped out most of the homicide reductions that Newark like most American cities had in the 1990s--- On the general phenomenon See, Zimring's The Crime Decline). But as the accompanying charts show, the rape and robbery rates, which also plunged in the 1990s, have continued to fall. This suggests that the that homicide spikes in Newark (and cities like Oakland California as well), are largely due to score settling among a very specific network of young men.

Yet rather than a strategy aimed at addressing that network, the Newark Police Department has embraced the widely used "broken windows" method of intensive policing of low level criminal activity in an entire neighborhood in an attempt to deter more serious crime. The flaws in this strategy have been widely aired (See Bernard Harcourt's Illusions of Order). For our purposes one need only note that it is a strategy totally invested in the unity of "crime" as a category (rather than structure of knowledge and power created by governing through crime).

Moreover it is a category that permits race and racism to be reinvested in countless ways from the fact that Jacob's story itself (without any apparent malice) links the blackness of neighborhoods to their criminality (by reinscribing its police ethnography in the familiar story of racial demography since the '60s), to the florid Sgt. Juliano who tells the clearly enthusiastic Jacob's that catching criminals in the Fifth war is like "shooting fish in a barrel."

The limits of a crime control strategy to control, yes, even the worst crimes like murder, are also well on display in the story and its title. Because of fear and mistrust of the police, there is virtually zero cooperation from the community in solving homicides.

An interesting recent effort to escape those limits of community support are shown in a much shorter story by Richard Jones, Crime Rate Drops, and a City Credits its Embrace of Surveillance Technology. In this approach the police cease trying to act on the community (whether through the hard or soft approaches to community policing) and instead rely on high technology equipment to speedily identify the location of gun shots, to video tape car thefts in progress, and to DNA test all persons encountered at crime scenes.

This Terminator like approach to carrying the battle against crime safely behind any form of popular consent invokes more constitutional and other objections than I have time for just now. But simply consider the way in which this kind of technology is certain to mechanically lock in the relationship between racially defined neighborhoods and crime (what are your odds of ending up in the East Orange DNA data base? I would guess it depends a lot on your race). Here, unlike the reportage on Newark, the technique is given unchallenged credit for a drop in crime so steep that it does suggest some effort by police to repress the count, a practice that Jones reports had gone on before).


jsn said...

It sounds very serious if it is cost effective for the police to install an array of microphones to locate where a gun was fired and an array of TV cameras to detect car theft. It may be that the residents are afraid to contact the police under the circumstances which means that community based policing is not a realistic option. When the police are seriously concerned about being shot they are not in a frame of mind that results in effective community based police methods.

The police put a lot of resources into high crime neighborhoods in an effort to improve public safety. Too often that means they move the criminals to some other neighborhood.

I have lived in my community for over forty years and during that time I have seen the police with shotguns once (there was a mass murder). I lived in a high crime neighborhood for four months and I saw the police with shotguns about a dozen times. The people who lived there were afraid of their neighbors and were afraid of what would happen to their children.

The police were viewed with very mixed emotions by the residents because the police could not tell friend from foe.

Jonathan Simon said...

I totally agree with the seriousness of the situation and the fact that community policing may not work when the level of fear and mistrust on both sides is high enough. But at some point the returns on further investment in criminal law solutions, of any kind, become negligible.

JSN said...

It is silly to have the police collect data that they know will be used to evaluate their performance. In the first place they are not scientists and the field of social science is seriously hampered by incomplete and highly suspect data so even trained scientists have a tough time coming to conclusions that have much credibility.

Maybe the crime rates did in fact go down. Is it because they caught the criminals and locked them up or did the criminals move to a new neighborhood?

JSN said...

We have poor people moving into our community from urban high crime neighborhoods. It appears that some of them are able to adjust to the new conditions and others are either unwilling to adjust or need assistance in doing so.

This is not a new problem so I assume that there is some research on how to help people make such a transition. I would appreciate some suggestions as were such research results can be found.