Monday, December 29, 2008

Crime and the Mayor: Not just an Oakland tale

As Mayor Ron Dellums reaches the midpoint of his term as Oakland's Mayor, the celebrated politician who served for years as one of Congress' few lions of the left, finds himself crucified on the issue of crime. So long as the public and the media (read the SFChron midterm report card) views Oakland as an unacceptably dangerous place do to crime, nothing else Dellums accomplishes will be considered success. However, mayors have few significant tools to address either crime or fear of crime.

In recent years many have come to believe that police, one of the few crime control tools that mayors at least influence, can make a difference. The best case of this, as my colleague Frank Zimring has shown in his book The Great American Crime Decline is New York City, which enjoyed approximately twice the crime decline that the rest of America enjoyed in the 1990s. But New York may turn out to be a unique case because of the enormous urban density that allows police pressure (especially on the heavily used subway system) to be maximally effective on both potential perpetrators and the general public (thus impacting both crime and fear of crime). Few American cities are like NYC in this regard, and certainly not sprawling Oakland.

The Mayor (and beleaguered Chief Tucker) are right to resist pressure to ratchet up arrests for the sake of a show of force. Simply feeding more young men into the jail and prison system can have little if any effect on crime or fear of crime. But what are they to do? Nobody I know has a great answer. The simplest solution, taking the drug trade away from criminal gangs (by creating a legal and heavily regulated and taxed market for the most popular and safest drugs) combined with new jobs for urban youth would produce a dramatic change in both crime and fear of crime, but mayors and chiefs of police can do nothing about that.

However, the Mayor is wrong to think that it is simply media failure to highlight the positive that is generating his political malaise. After a generation of war on crime, Americans, even in progressive Oakland, have come to believe that security against violent crime is the one and virtually only right that citizens have a claim to with government (read the case for this in my book, Governing through Crime).

My recommendation for the Mayor's New Year's resolution list is to play to your strengths. The Mayor must engage the public and the media in a sustained discussion of the real security challenges facing Oakland in which crime plays only a part. Moreover he should turn his formidable oratorical skills to a sustained attack on the failed war on drugs including shaming the incoming president (who has already signaled his timidity on this issue) to fundamentally reconsider it. His question should be the following.

Mr. President, as you have suggested, Oakland and other cities can help save America (and the world) from global warming by offering Americans a sustainable low carbon lifestyle based on diverse multi-use walking communities and public transportation. But how can you ask Oakland to help solve our national problem when the federal government continues to impose demonstrably failed policies that are sustaining a violent subculture that keeps middle class Americans from taking the responsible decision and moving back to the cities?


Andre Gaio said...

Dear Professor Simon,
I Think that your book Governing through is a major contribution on law&order process in US. Here, in Brazil(Federal University of Juiz de Fora),We are learning the main aspects of US crime and crimnal justice. I think that here have some singular dynamics. Do you believe that Governing trough crime can elucidate some aspects of the new governmentality in Latin America?
André Gaio

Jonathan Simon said...

Based on Teresa Caldiera's City of Walls: Crime, Segregation and Citizenship in Sao Paolo it would seem Brazil has its own well established logic of governing through crime. It would be fascinating to undertake a more comparative study of crime transforms both political subjectivities and institutions in the two societies.