Monday, April 28, 2008

Muggings in Glen Park and Bernal Heights

The Bay Area's spike in armed crime by very young men continues. A story in this morning's SF Chron by Marisa Lagos details a string of gun point robberies in two nearby SF Neighborhoods, both situated on hillsides above the Noe Valley and Mission Districts. With views and close access to freeways, the once mostly working class neighborhoods have undergone considerable gentrification. According to police, the robbers likely drive from other areas, cruising the streets until they spot victims walking from BART stations or ATM stations. After confronting the lone victim at a moment of isolation, they use their cars to drive nearby gas stations where they attempt to use the victim's credit cards for gas before they are reported stolen. Police believe they may rob several victims before leaving the neighborhood.

These brazen gun point robberies by relatively young robbers fit an alarming pattern, one that is already leading to calls for a police crackdown (see earlier posts on this wave). Like most crime patterns, however, this one probably has its roots in situational factors unlikely to respond to a generalized increased in arrests or threats of even longer prison sentences. Here are a few theories to test for yourself.

The rise of the laptop, the Black-Berry, the I-Pod, Phone, etc., means the right kind of pedestrian (young, college educated or a student) is likely to be carrying over a thousand dollars worth of electronics on their person at any time. Moreover, these are goods that have immediate value to robbers and enduring value on the black market (unlike televisions, desk top computers, etc.)

The rise of ATM customer fees may have led more people to carry more cash on them. That, along with the above, raises the expected gain from each attempted robbery, while the costs have remained the same. Should we raise the cost of robbery by raising sentences for robbers? The problem is we've already raised them quite high and very young people are certifiably less capable of evaluating the cost side of the equation in any event.

An unusually dry April has increased the number of pedestrians walking from BART stations rather than waiting for a bus.

What should we do? Invest more in police tactics to raise the likelihood of arresting suspected robbers at or near the scene of the crime and while they are still carrying evidence (eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable when robbed at gun point). It may take a while for police to develop the right series of decoys, stake-outs, camera surveillance technology, etc. This will produce much more deterrence then threatening draconian prison sentences that many our youth neither reflect on nor fear. For young people with high discount rates on the future (economic talk for being focused on the present) arrest, and the prospect of spending the night in jail rather than enjoying the fruits of their crimes may have more deterrent value than months of extra time in prison later.

In the meantime, as citizens we need to chill out on the crime panic talk. We live in the Bay Area. We have chosen not to hide ourselves in gated communities. Let us embrace our freedom by aggressively walking the commercial streets of our communities, together as often as possible, and accept our risks wisely and with determination to reduce them through smart rather than emotional decisions.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Crime Wave in Oakland: The Chorus for a Crackdown Grows

The SF Chron editorial board yesterday added its influence to the growing political response to Oakland's wave of robbery. The editorial castigated Oakland's police leaders for the restraint and realism about the limited value of arrests to resolving the sources of violent crime in Oakland (this blog praised the very same a couple days ago). In an editorial titled "Arrests Do Matter," the editors wrote:

There are words that newspaper readers usually do not want to see as they are learning about a dangerous spate of local crimes. On the top of that list would be this quote, which appeared in Wednesday's Chronicle by Oakland Deputy Police Chief Dave Kozicki, in response to a rash of robberies of Oakland restaurants that affected staff and patrons alike: "Right now, it's pretty clear we are in a time of increased crime. But the bottom line is we believe we cannot arrest our way out of these problems."

To which Oakland City Councilwoman Pat Kernighan smartly riposted, "Well, you sure better try. We all have our jobs to do, and your job is to arrest people."

Fortunately, it turns out, Kozicki's rhetoric was just that, rhetoric. On the day he made that ill-timed remark, Oakland police made their first arrest in the heists. As of Thursday, police held two of four suspects, after what the department described as intense police work to end a crime spree that has left many Oakland residents worried, anxious and angry.

Citizens have begun to fight back. Recently an Oakland resident, a shop owner and a market clerk shot at men whom they believed were trying to rob them. Authorities do not see these incidents as vigilantism. As Oakland Police spokesman Roland Holmgren told The Chronicle, "I don't think they are taking the law into their own hands. I think they're doing their God-given right, which is to defend themselves and their property."

There is much that is misguided about this opinion.

Arrests do matter when they are carefully targeted at suspects produced by reliable investigatory techniques. However, when they are produced in the kind of classic crackdown on poor neighborhoods that the political and editorial tirades we have seen of late usually lead to they produce miscarriages of justice and less security. Once the jails are full of the "usual suspect," snitches and high risk interrogation tactics can produce the convictable defendants so satisfying to editorial writers, ---- but also wrongful convictions and scores of collateral casualties (whose repeated contacts with the jail population surely encourages more real crime).

The fact that residents are "worried, anxious, and angry" does not mean they will be better off when governments in response to these worries produce ineffective but heavy handed symbolic gestures, or haven't you visited an airport lately (please place your three once liquid containers, along with your shoes, belt and jacket into the bins ...).

"Residents are beginning to fight back...." The Chron has had a thing for citizens shooting back for some time. There is no evidence that this reduces crime but it is surely likely to get someone killed. Whats next, the return of the Committee of Vigilance (an elite lynch mob that mixed summary trial and hangings with intonations about law in San Francisco in the 1850s)?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Recycle, or else

The habits of governing through crime are hard to put down, even in liberal San Francisco. According to Cecilia M. Vega's reporting in yesterday's SFChron, Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to make sure San Franciscan's recycle, and plans to do so by making sure its illegal to throw the wrong thing away.

Newsom said Tuesday that his administration is drafting an ordinance that would require residents and businesses to recycle paper, plastics and other basic salvageable materials, as well as to compost food scraps and yard waste. It's the only way, he said, San Francisco will be able to reach it's self-imposed goal of having a 75 percent recycling rate by 2010.

"This is not, and should not be considered, punitive," Newsom said. "It's not about creating a new bureaucracy or enforcement police."

But whether he has actual criminal infractions in mind, or only some civil fine (that can become criminal if unpaid), the governmental tool kit is all about crime, and inevitably will involve methods of detection, informing, or mass surveillance.

Isn't there another way? Seattle and other cities give you an incentive to recycle by pricing collection services through the size of the container you select from the city. Even so Seattle according to Vega also relies on fines for commercial and multi-unit residential user (while homeowners get "tags" on their containers). Perhaps empirical research will document that sticks are always required and the right combination of carrots will not optimize recycling, but before we reinforce our hegemonic political habit of governing through crime, can we at least consider who is not recycling and why. How many "lazy" people are actually older or disabled people who might need a program of affirmative assistance to get them recycling?

Of course the idea of providing services (and jobs to unemployed urban youth) is probably a non-starter in California at a time of budgetary crisis. Any way, its easier to warn people, fine them, and eventually arrest them.

(Thanks to Hadar Aviram for calling this new "striped" version of "green" politics to my attention)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Crime Wave in Oakland as the Incarceration Generation Comes of Age

Is it just me or does the year 1968 seem to be coming back all around us? An unpopular war bleeds on continents away while a lame duck President solemnly intones his commitment to fight to the last drop. A spectacular primary campaign in the Democratic Party has two progressive senators battling it out through the late spring primaries.

Thankfully there is no wave of riots rocking the country, but a crime wave in some parts of the country is roiling urban residents and pushing citizens and politicians toward a potent combination of fear and anger about crime. Oakland, California, along with nearby Berkeley (and other East Bay communities) has been suffering an unsettling wave of violence over the last several years including homicides and armed robberies by very young men. In a particularly upsetting example (for this foodie area) some 8 East Bay restaurants have been taken over by gun wielding young men who hold customers and staff hostage while they clean out everyone's cash. (see SF Chron coverage of a recent arrest)

As in 1968, there is a sense that unpredictable violence was all around us, especially in large cities where traditionally Democratic Party constituents, affluent liberals, blue collar workers, and African Americans, are concentrated. In 1968 that sense distracted these voters from the ongoing struggles over political power in America and delivered a crucial fraction of them to the law and order appeals of George Wallace and Richard Nixon.

In progressive Oakland, city council members meeting on a new police report documenting the city's alarming crime trends (robberies, actually, are slightly down, but homicides are up) and a comparison showing Oakland to be more dangerous than cities of similar size like Miami (which has an even poorer population), were sounding just those themes of fear, anger, and crackdowns. According to Carolyn Jones' reporting in the SF Chron:

"I have people yelling and screaming because they're so fearful," City Councilwoman Jean Quan, whose district includes several of the restaurants that have been robbed recently, said earlier in the day. "I tell them, you want me to promise that you'll be safe forever? I can't do that. People get robbed everywhere, even in San Ramon."

The most remarkable difference from 1968 in responding to the crime wave and the gathering storm of public fear is in the attitude of the police. Then, Oakland's finest were only too happy to crack down on Oakland's largely African American and Latino poor neighborhoods. Today, under Chief Wayne Tucker, the department has spoken out forthrightly about the limits of traditional arrest oriented policing while seeking to experiment with promising alternatives.

"Right now, it's pretty clear we are in a time of increased crime," said Oakland police Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki, adding that crime nationwide is up due to the faltering economy. "But the bottom line is we believe we cannot arrest our way out of these problems."

How long will such realism be tolerated by an increasingly alarmed public and politicians? Not long one suspects.

"You said you can't arrest our way out of this problem," City Councilwoman Pat Kernighan told Kozicki and other police leaders, including Police Chief Wayne Tucker. "Well, you sure better try. We all have our jobs to do, and your job is to arrest people."

Thats too bad, because while criminological explanations for the crime wave are just starting, I suspect they will show that areas of resurgent violence are the areas that have suffered the highest degrees of mass incarceration during the 1980s and 1990s. The 16 year olds terrorizing East Bay restaurants today came of age as California's epoch wave of harsh tough on crime laws removed tens of thousands of their fathers, uncles, cousins, and sometimes mothers. If we are reaping the results of this incarceration generation, a wave of new tough anti-gang laws and a politically led police crack down is the just the thing to make sure it all gets worse.

And now back to the Presidential race....

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Blood on the Tracks: Obama's rich white Willy Horton

In the era of governing through crime, appearing to tolerate any person linked to an act of criminal violence, no matter what its motivation, how long ago, no matter even the absence of a criminal conviction, has been a mark of disloyalty to the American people inherently disqualifying to anyone seeking high office. When Mike Dukakis refused to embrace the death penalty, he indicated that he recognized some humanity in those who have committed heinous acts of murder, a recognition that marked him as unreliable. Bill Clinton was widely viewed as advancing his presidential ambition when he declined clemency to Ricky Rector, a brain damaged Arkansas death row inmate, whose execution coincided with Clinton's rebound after the early damage of the Gennifer flowers affair had harmed his electability.

The right wing attacks on Barack Obama for his tenuous link to former radical activist, and long time Chicago based educator and youth advocate, William Ayers, which surfaced in Wednesday night's Democratic debate, represent the same logic and highlight an early moment in our evolution toward governing through crime in America (see the Chicago Tribune's initial coverage).

Because Ayers was accused of planting bombs as part of the Weather Underground's ill-fated efforts to use dramatic escapades of largely symbolic violence to mobilize opposition against the Vietnam war, he belongs to the foundational moment of our contemporary crime based political order. Richard Nixon's "law and order" election victory in 1968 did not begin the rise of crime politics (in the book I place it in the early '60s, while social scientists like Katherine Beckett, Naomi Murakawa and Lisa Miller convincingly show its development from at least the 1940s if not even earlier in the debates about anti-lynching legislation at the turn of the 20th century), but he did give it a decisive twist toward a focus on the forceful repression of dangerous individuals bent on violence, over the social strategies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Ayers and his comrades in the armed wing of SDS played into this criminalization of politics unwittingly but fatally. Violence was very much on the minds of Americans in the late 1960s, but Nixon framed it in terms of crime rather than social conflict, the predatory behavior of bad people (a later President would call them "evil doers") rather than corrupt institutions of state and local power which were channeling struggle for social change into violent confrontation with authority.

Ayers, the son of wealthy white Chicago entrepreneur, who followed his social conscience into an increasingly despairing struggle for social justice, was forever framed by the war on crime in a way would be repeated again and again over the coming decades on men (and sometimes women) of all races, classes, and political creeds. He represents a criminality that cannot be contextualized in terms of motivation, history, or subsequent behavior. On this logic, the fact that Ayers was never convicted of the violent acts attributed to him, nor the fact that he has spent the following three decades advocating for juveniles growing up in poverty (with no further accusations of crime), matters.

Obama is right to turn this attack rather than joining its invitation to redeem the sad history of the New Left. The fact that Ayers, part of an academic power couple with an extensive social network in Chicago's south side, held a fund raiser for the fledgling state legislative candidate in the area, tells you something about Ayer's political views today, but nothing about Obama's. Let us hope that as President, Barack Obama can lead a sea change in our political response to the violence and despair that once again haunt America, one that looks beyond the stale narrative of uniformly evil and efficiently predatory moral outlaws that has captured our national political conversation for decades too long. Hillary Clinton has demonstrated unambiguously why she cannot be the President who leads that change.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Color of Crime: Brown or Black, Mayors still find Governing through Crime Works

As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa prepares to make his case for a second term in office, it is clear that governing through crime remains the path of least resistance, even for the city's first Latino mayor in over a century. Villaraigosa came to office with bold talk about turning around LA's schools. But gaining control over the LA schools proved too difficult a task. Instead, seeking to show effectiveness, the Mayor has recently sought to consolidate citywide efforts to combat gangs in his office. Here, in contrast, Villarigosa has won a rare victory, winning a city council vote last week consolidating responsibility for fighting gangs to his office (read the CBS News story on the council vote). Thus even when a mayor comes to office with ambitions of exercising leadership in areas like education, the environment, or the economy, they are often thrust back on crime control as one area in which their quest for more authority is likely to be least resisted.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Soros and Democracy

(Joel Saget, Agence France Press, Getty Images)

Today's New York Times Business section leads with an elegant black and white photo of the 77 year old face of George Soros, the global financier and philanthropist, with the story below headlined, The Face of a Prophet.

The article profiles the apparently widening gap between the Hungarian born Holocaust survivor's amazing financial acumen which continues to earn billions of dollars in the face of global economic problems, and his seemingly doomed quest for respect as a major economic theorist. His most recent book, his 10th, analyzes the sources of the current economic crisis, what he considers the worst of his lifetime (which includes the Great Depression).

Whatever the fate of Soros' economic theories, history will likely recall him for his striking commitment to democracy on a global scale. What is most impressive about Soros' efforts to be a prophet of (and finance) democratization, has been its specificity to the problems of democratic formation in different societies. In the former communist countries, his efforts focused on property rights and free speech. In the US, he was one of the first to see that the war on crime (and now terror) was endangering democratic institutions. Through the Open Society Institute Soros has for the more then a decade highlighted the danger that fear of crime and rampant mass incarceration was posing to American democracy. (A Soros Senior Justice Fellowship helped finance my time to research the book Governing through Crime, published last year, back in 2000)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Governing Corporate Crime

The editors of the New York Times this morning highlight one of the most glaring contradictions in the entire culture of control and fear in which Americans have come to live: the flagrant pattern of "leniency" toward deviance and even crime at the level of corporations. See, Going Soft on Corporate Crime.

The Bush administration, with its existential commitment to certain punishment when it comes to downwardly mobile criminals, has shown an unmistakable zeal to compromise when it comes to corporate malfeasance. Bush is hardly alone. The US Supreme Court, which has taken a very deferential approach toward interfering with the power of juries to hand down death sentences and long prison terms toward human criminals, has become increasingly aggressive in intervening to limit unjust punishment of corporations through "punitive damage" awards by juries.

While this pattern would seem consistent with a rather economistic Marxism (state as the central committee of the ruling class) or a descent (as the NYT editors suggest), into a new kind of patronage politics) there are a few more general patterns worth noting.

Governing through crime has been most limited where particularly strong organizational power counter-balances the general growth in law enforcement power. A good example is the Catholic Church which continued to exercise leniency toward sexual abuse by priests long after the general society was having a moral panic about sex abuse.

Governing through crime has been more limited where other regulatory structures have created a different model of dispute resolution that resists assimilation into the logic of crime control. The learned professions and organized labor continue to enjoy vigorous forms of non crime oriented regulation. The world of the severely mentally ill, in contrast, was largely abandoned by civil regulation in the 1960s and has come largely under the domain of crime control leading inordinate numbers of those suffering such illnesses to end up in prisons and jails.

Most importantly, resistance within the federal government to heavy prosecution of corporate crime reflects the heightened sensitivity that both class and patronage have given politicians and lawyers when it comes to understanding the enormous collateral consequences of crime control. Indicting a corporation can lead to a financial meltdown for its employees, creditors, customers, and in the general community. No wonder US Attorney's do not want to be known locally for brining down large local employers.

The real questions we should be asking include the following:

Where are the robust forms of civil regulation that the New Deal gave us to control corporate greed?

How can we extend the same sensitivity about collateral damage toward the poor and middle class communities governed through crime?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

How the Wall ate the Law

Adam Liptak's Sidebar in the Tuesday NYTimes profiles the little discussed law to construct a wall or fence along the Mexican border and its inclusion of a virtual legal neutron bomb that suspends all other federal laws if the Secretary of Homeland Security certifies that they interfere with construction of the wall. The placement of law and court stripping powers in the hands of crime warrior figures within the executive branch is quintessential governing through crime.

See a post on this at my Berkeley Jurisprude blog

The Power of the Purse: How the Feds Drive Local Law Enforcement

Since its origins forty years ago with the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the war on crime has been fomented by the federal government. While states have done the hard work of building and filling prisons, the federal government has helped build both public demand, and the revenue resources, to lead states into escalating crime wars.

Sometimes these overt efforts to buy the attention of local law enforcement and prosecutors, overriding the constitutional order of local choices about police power, come to surface in embarrassing ways. On Monday, San Francisco DA, Kamala Harris issued a statement promising a full investigation of why her office took over 5 million dollars of federal money since 2004 as part of the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative intended to compensate local prosecutors for prosecuting border enforcement related crimes. (Read Jaxon Van Derbeken's story in the SFChron) Cracking down on immigrants is not popular in liberal San Francisco, but that didn't stop the office from being the largest grant recipient in Northern California. Of over 2,000 cases submitted to the federal auditors, none was a genuine "border crime," according to the feds. Harris vowed to investigate the office's use of grant funds and the basis for their claim that in the absence of active prosecutions of border related crimes

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

War Crimes and Crime Wars

The Bush Administration added another terror suspect to its emerging line up of planned war crimes trials before military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani stands accused of central involvement of the bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania in 1998, a crime for which he was indicted then a decade ago. Captured in 2004, Ghailani will now get the post-9/11 treatment along with 9/11 planner, Khalid Sheik Muhammed. The announcement suggests the administration is planning to make sure that the rest of this election year will focus on its preferred topics, the existence of men intent to killing scores of Americans at a time and the appropriateness of torture, limited due process procedures, and ultimately the death penalty for doing justice in such cases.

Read William Glaberson's reporting in today's NYTimes