Friday, March 13, 2009

The Promise of Police

Some of the smartest people I know who think hard about criminal justice from academic posts think that police offer a promising alternative to mass incarceration as a way to address crime in American communities (Bill Stuntz, David Sklansky, Frank Zimring, Justin McCrary among many others). A well reported article by Chip Johnson in today's SFChron offers an intriguing picture of that promise.

Crimes reported to the police are dramatically lower than for the first quarter of last year.

Since Jan. 1, felony crimes against people and property have dropped 23 percent, according to the Oakland Police Department.

Homicides alone decreased by 50 percent, to 14 slayings from 29 over the same period a year ago. Robberies fell by 16 percent during the same period, while auto theft dropped by one-third.

Although, as Johnson is careful to note, a quarter, is hardly a trend in the world of crime stats, its not too early for Oakland's politically shaky police department to take some credits for new tactics (take a bow from the wings, Chief Tucker). Especially after an alarming pattern of armed robberies last year, and fears that the economic depression would drive up crime, this is good news.

Some of these new tactics do sound different and intriguing (not a repeat of Bratton/Giuliani style policing which, whatever its crime repressing effectiveness would ultimately be unacceptable to the Bay Area).

From the article it appears that the major tactics are more beat cops walking commercial streets and the creation of a new police linked (but not managed) "outreach" initiative aimed at stalling conlicts in Oakland neighborhoods before it turns lethal.

No doubt the beat cops are reassuring, especially to business people like the furniture store owner interviewed by Chip Johnson:

"We had homeless people sleeping in our doorways, people wandering up and down the block, but when he came, that all vanished," said Ford, 68. "I would say about four out of six days a week, he will stick his head inside the door and say hi. It's been a great relief."

Whether a strategy of chasing homeless people away is constitutional or sustainable in the Bay Area (especially when many of our neighbors may soon be joining their ranks) we will leave for another post, let alone whether it has any effect on violent crime.

More intriguing is the outreach initiative which Johnson credits to Mayor Ron Dellums:

Toribio said outreach workers paid for through the city's Measure Y program have established a "strong working relationship" with some street toughs. The workers regularly target areas with patterns of violence.

"We send them in when we've determined there may be trouble brewing, and they work to try and let calmer heads prevail," Toribio said.

"Most of these guys (outreach workers) grew up in some of these neighborhoods. They recognize guys from the street," he said. "Some of them have been to prison and battled their demons, and they have a lot of credibility on the street."

Leave aside the interesting constitutional questions of an apparatus that "work with police", but "they aren't agents of the police and don't share information." The approach sounds promising to me.

Ironically it underscores some of the problems that shadow the promise of the police. Why do the police lack so much credibility in neighborhoods suffering from violence that they need a parallel apparatus to provide them information as needed to stop or solve violent crimes? When we put more police offices on the streets how might their conduct actually exacerbate violent crime?

1 comment:

Vineet Kumar said...

It is good to see that crime graph comes low this year

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