Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Homicide Spike: Follow the (Local) Leaders

In the 1990s American cities enjoyed a spectacular decline in violent crimes including homicides (see Frank Zimring's book for the best accounting of what happened and why). Some cities thankfully are still enjoying that decline, or at least a plateau at significantly lower levels of violence than they experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s. In others however, including Philadelphia, Newark, and the cities of my own Bay Area (SF, Oakland, Richmond) 2007 continued an alarming upturn in violent crimes, including highly visible homicides.

The only good news in this trend so far is that most of the action remains at the local level. Our national leaders, preoccupied with Iraq, have so far not been able to shift policy debate toward the war on crime as they did after other spectacular governmental failures like the collapse of the Clinton health plan in 1994. Our state leaders, for the most part, now face record budget deficits as the real estate driven tax revenues of the last 15 years collapse like the Enron-like specters they always were. Those states that do have money in the bank, are slowly waking up to the collapsing infrastructure that is urban (and suburban) America in the 2000s (remember that bridge in Minneapolis?).

WARNING IF YOU LIVE IN CALIFORNIA: our insane legislative (it's the term limits that make them do it!) crime warriors haven't gotten this message yet. Please phone and email the offices of legislators George and Sharon Runner and tell them to stop with the crazy, big-budget, unaccountable gang crime initiative.

National and state leaders have been the primary exploiters of the enormous public attention and fear that media spotlighted violent crime has produced in spades since the 1960s (see my book if you need a primer on this). Local leaders, mayors, and city councils, whose position leaves them very close to the actual context of violence have during the same period struggled with violence in far less politically exploitive ways (this local effect was documented by Stuart Scheingold in his prescient 1992 book on crime governance).

Local leaders lack resources, but they have access to precious local knowledge through political channels that Political Scientist Lisa Miller has shown to be far more open to citizens whose lives are touched by violent crime. In San Francisco, where homicides hit a 12-year high in 2007, the Mayor and his top criminal justice adviser, a former Bush US Attorney, are trying strategies that rely on leveraging local knowledge about violent crime and the relatively small group of volatile young men reponsible for it, rather than the conventional crackdown tactics (read CV Nevius's column discussing the homicide problem in this morning's SFChron). This approach first used in Boston with some promising results in the 1990s (but then everything worked in the 1990s) relies on treating violent criminals like human beings (a surprisingly treasonous notion in the war on crime) and using communication as well as law enforcement pressure to modify behavior (rather than the usual logic of catch and cage).

The Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, of which I am a faculty co-director, is supporting the effort with research (I'm not directly involved in this but I'm excited to have a bird's eye view as the research unfolds). Nobody knows if this communication and pressure strategy will work (as Kevin Ryan, Newsome's top criminal justice adviser, notes, a big part of the problem is the wide distribution of guns accessible to the same volatile youths) but at least the evidence one way or the other will be clear as day and local leaders remain open to that evidence (unlike national and state leaders they don't have the luxury of simply passing tough laws and moving on).

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