Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Summer Classic: Moral Panic over a Pier Shooting

It is a reminder of how hard the past is to leave behind (especially when your leading politicians belong to it).  By now the whole nation knows the basic facts.  Francisco Sanchez, a 45 or 52-year-old Mexican national shot and killed Kathryn Steinle, 32 year old resident of a nearby suburb in a chance encounter along San Francisco’s popular and seemingly safe waterfront Embarcadero Boulevard last week.  It had all the makings of what criminologists call a “moral panic” an untoward event, small or large, that becomes a vehicle for vast social and political anxieties over race, class, and national identity.  A low status villain---non-White, poor, non-citizen, long criminal record, multiple incarcerations, kills a high status victim--White, middle class, citizen, mother of children, never been in trouble with the law.   It occurs where it should not, in a place associated with comfort and recreation.  Events like this sometimes stay just local news, but given the right conditions, they can blow up into a policy storm of significant magnitude.  Will this one?

It comes at a time when White anxiety over the growing Latino population in the US has become a dominant obsession with the Republican party.  Indeed Republican politicians have found themselves in something of a dilemma over which to attack among two of their favorite targets; liberal cities like San Francisco, or the Obama administration.  Since the dominant media narrative has focused on the San Francisco Sheriff’s Departments decision to release Sanchez after the marijuana possession warrant he was being held on was dismissed, without notifying ICE (the Immigration Control and Enforcement agency) as requested, Republicans and now Senator Diane Feinstein have decided to focus their rage on the City’s sanctuary policy, which mandates non-cooperation with the aggressive detention and deportation policies of recent years.   Feinstein wrote SF Mayor Ed Lee yesterday, excoriating the City and its sanctuary policy, and all but blaming them for the crime.

The story line is a familiar one to politicians of Feinstein’s generation who rose to maturity and power addressing it.  In Feinstein’s case this was quite literal, as she became mayor of San Francisco in 1978 after the high profile City Hall murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor and civil rights leader Harvey Milk.  According to the logic that became common sense during the high crime eras of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, state and local justice systems were overwhelmed by crime and prone ignoring criminal threats by dumping known threats on the streets.  According to this thinking (which I described at length in my 2007 book, Governing through Crime) only tough laws limiting judicial discretion, and federal mandates requiring that felons serve the vast majority of their sentences and protect Americans.  The result: mass incarceration and mass deportation.

A closer look at the narrative surrounding the Sanchez case reveals it for the ideological construction it is.  In fact Sanchez epitomizes why the logic of exclusion and segregation that undergird our wars on crime and terror can never achieve public safety.  Start with the focus on San Francisco’s Sheriff and the City’s sanctuary policy.  It seem obvious and outrageous to Senator Feinstein that Ms. Steinle would not have been killed that night but for the Sheriff’s and the City’s failure to incarcerate him until he could be deported.   But who was really the proximate cause of Mr. Sanchez’s presence in San Francisco? He didn’t start here, but instead in federal prison where he was serving time for repeated unlawful entries to the United States. Nothing in federal law required ICE to bring Sanchez to San Francisco to address a twenty-year-old warrant for marijuana possession.  Such charges are routinely dismissed in San Francisco and other cities, and the feds had apparently deported him five times during that period without feeling compelled to bring him to answer justice in San Francisco.  Most likely the overworked ICE staff found the warrant and realized it would be easier to dump him on San Francisco then complete the paper work necessary to deport him promptly (or even generate the kind of immigration warrant rather than “hold” that would have prevented Sanchez’s release even under the sanctuary policy).

A second phony element is the idea that Sanchez was obviously dangerous because of his seven felonies.  In fact, as the media realized pretty early, all but one of these felonies are for drugs or illegal reentry, one was for assault (the least serious form of crime against the person, the equivalent of a fist fight).  If anything, Sanchez’s record is monument to how stretched the felony concept has become in our time.  Seven felonies sure sound scary, until you actually look at them.  There is nothing about his record that would have signaled to San Francisco Sherriff’s deputies that Sanchez posed a serious threat.  He appeared to be a not untypical inmate in the jail: poor, disorganized, a drug user without a stable family or work life, and probably some mental illness (indeed I suspect he has a chronic mental illness and decompensated for lack of proper treatment during his federal imprisonment).   The shooting of Kathryn Steinle appears to be a tragic escalation of this lifestyle.  The weapon was apparently found on the beach (the latest reports suggest it belonged to a federal agent).  He admits to having been high on cannabis and sleeping pills.  She was shot in the back, consistent with his “accident” defense.   His most persistent deliberate pattern was apparently returning to the United States; not to prey on its citizens ala Donald Trump, but to support himself and perhaps to stay in contact with family here.

So what to conclude from the Sanchez case?  Trying to protect ourselves from random violence by incarcerating and deporting people on the basis of race and often inflated criminal records is deeply flawed (and far from the slam dunk solution that Senator Feinstein believes).   The underlying theory here is that crime is a product of dangerous people.  Lock up or deport the dangerous people and problem solved.  But criminology now suggests that crime is situational, a product of people with chaotic lives, substance abuse, and chance encounters in environments that provide either accelerants or de-accelerants (think of the gun that Sanchez found).   There is no perfect solution, save for the ideal of fixing all our “broken toys” (and even unbroken ones break in the spur of the moment).  Instead careful mental health screening of the jail population and attentive post-release efforts to keep people with mental health needs and drug abuse histories on the right medications and off the wrong ones could do far better than incarceration for people like Sanchez (what about his previous imprisonments protected us?).  Nor quite clearly is deportation a solution.  For two decades now we’ve been aggressively deporting people we label “criminal aliens”, creating significant gang problems in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador (as many of them have recreated the same gang milieus they used to survive in the US) without doing much to reduce crime here.

I suspect this moral panic will run its course without uprooting San Francisco’s sanctuary policy or placing Donald Trump in the White House.  The general trend is away from harsh and exclusionary policies in both criminal justice and immigration.  Sadly, the punitive storm that has arisen around the Francisco Sanchez and killing of Kathryn Steinle is a reminder of how powerful the hold of crime panic journalism, and hyperventilating crime warrior politicians like Feinstein remains on our public policy and how slow reform will probably be.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

To Start a Race War: Dylann Roof and the Ideology of White Supremacy

The mass murder of parishioners at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina law week, by a young white supremacist intensified the already profound national conversation about racism and violence that has been building since the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.  There are more topics in play around Charleston than any single post (even an over long one like this) can address.  So a couple of brief points before an extended discussion of one question, already taken up here on Prawfsblawg by Rick Hill (but I come out a bit different).  whether to categorize the act as one of terrorism or as an example of a mentally deranged or ill person taking an otherwise unthinkable action.  My answer is: its an act of terrorism that calls for a political response, but we need a more complicated framework to think about how mental illness and acts rooted in diseased ideation can parallel acts of terrorism.

So briefly, two strands that in my view should not receive significant attention.

On the political right, or at least its penumbras on Twitter, the bogey of “black on black crime” has been raised; as if to say, white killers are not the real threat facing black communities.  Suffice it to say that this is a total dodge.  So called “black on black” violence, overwhelmingly a problem of young men in super segregated communities of urban poverty is a terrible problem, but unlike acts of racist violence, it plays no role in maintaining the legacies of white supremacy; including segregated neighborhoods, white privilege in access to jobs, educational opportunities, and even sexual partners.  We need social and economic strategies to reduce levels of violence among young men in predominantly black communities but it is by no means an answer to what occurred in Charleston or a reason not to vigorously pursue one.

On the political left, one major response has been to revive the ever-flagging gun control debate.  While less invidious, I also think this is something of a dodge.  Roof was not using an assault rifle that could fire scores of bullets in a short time.  He apparently used a 45 caliber handgun and had to reload several times to carryout all nine killings.  No politically realistic gun control proposal for decades has attempted to bar access to such weapons and one is not going to emerge now.  If President Obama could not lead a national movement for gun control after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, he sure isn’t going to do it now.  Period.

A much bigger issue in my view is the question of how this crime is being characterized, and particularly the politics behind the alternatives of viewing it as terrorism versus a deranged act linked to some sort of serious mental illness.  Many commentators on Twitter and in columns and Jon Stewart, have pointed out that early responses from politicians and mainstream media figures shied away from identifying the perpetrator Dylan Roof as a terrorist; raising instead the possibility that mental illness lay behind this terrible act of violence.  The critique is that white people who kill are rarely described as terrorists (or other categorical terms like “thug”) while people of color, especially African Americans and Middle Eastern or South Asian Muslims are.  This point is indeed well taken.  In media and lay discussions, mental illness tends to emerge as an explanation for behavior that strikes the speaker as out of character for the type of person involved.  Since we typically know little about the actual people involved, at least initially, race is hugely salient in forming this judgment about character.  When the people unreflectively assign white people who kill the label “mentally ill,” the assignment testifies to the speaker’s probably unconscious assumption that white people do not engage in unprovoked acts of violence (but that African Americans and Muslims, do).

It would be a mistake however to go further and assume that any claim of mental illness to explain a person’s acts of violence is dissembling.  There are many homicides where the delusional beliefs generated by psychotic processes are clearly at work.  James Holmes, who killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2012, is a likely example.  Few people can make sense of his crime without relying at least in part on his well-documented history of mental illness.  As is typical is such cases, even the prosecution acknowledges the presence of mental illness but asserts that it fails to reach the extreme threshold established for a legal “insanity” defense in most states today (what amounts to delusions so profound that they prevented the perpetrator from understanding that nature or societal proscribed nature of their conduct).  It is also not uncommon for people living with psychotic mental processes to be attracted to extremist political ideologies and conspiracy theories, because their content often has a striking affinity with the paranoid pattern of psychotic ideation.  Such people may sound like racists or anti-Semites but their narrative comes from the disease, not their values.  At the same time we should not be surprised that many of the participants in clearly politically motivated terrorist attacks, who are drawn to the values behind those politics, also have mental illnesses (not typically the leaders, but sometimes those persuaded to undertake the fatal or at least very dangerous acts involved). 

Putting aside the legal test of insanity, what should be most salient to the public conversation about such acts of extreme violence is whether a particular incident seems to be best explained by political beliefs and values or by psychotic mental processes that lie behind it (even when both are involved).  Are the key ideas behind the crimes (and there always are key ideas, describing violence as senseless is almost always incorrect) rooted in the subject’s values, long-term beliefs, and commitments?  Or are they more likely to have been filtered from the ever available stream of hateful ideas through a mind disordered by disease.  Or to put it another way, is the best way to prevent another such incident to expand mental health screening and treatment services, or does it require a political process of some sort (from war to conflict resolution to social movements).

In what follows, I would like to offer a preliminary (and possibly flawed) framework for thinking about acts of violence so awful that normal human motivations (jealousy, anger, despair) simply do not seem sufficient.  I start with a typology that moves from those most clearly influenced by disease, to those most clearly influenced by values.

No political beliefs or values can explain the Aurora killer, James Holmes’ actions.  Even his prosecutors view him as person motivated by individual considerations, e.g., to achieve fame, or in response to being rejected by a girlfriend, (considerations that rarely result in actual violence where mental illness is not at least a background factor).  Whether or not the jury decides that Holmes’ deserves the death penalty, few if any people can seriously believe that executing him will prevent the next movie theater massacre.  Meanwhile, expanding mental health screening, and treatment, certainly for those seeking to purchase assault weapons, would provide at least some measure of protection.

At the other extreme are the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.  At least one of the convicted plot participants, Zacharias Moussaui, exhibited behavior throughout his trial (in which he was most problematically allowed to represent himself) consistent with major mental illness (although he was found competent to stand trial, that is a fairly low threshold that excludes most defendants with mental illness).  Yet even if Moussaoui and other plot participants were in part influenced by their mental illnesses to become involved, the plot as a whole had an overwhelmingly political logic.  The attack appears to have been motivated by a strategy of provoking a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian west and the Muslim world (a strategy that seems at least partially successful in generating the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of Isis, and a host of other developments still far from settled).  There is no easy political option to resolve terrorism associated with militant Islamic extremism, but surely politics represents the only realistic path.  Few could believe that even the most generous expenditures on mental health screening and treatment (presumably on a global basis) are unlikely to significantly reduce further acts of terrorism.

Of course, I do not mean to imply it will always be easy to determine whether a particular atrocity is best understood as a reflection of political values or diseased ideation.  Consider Theodore Kaczynski, known as the “Unabomber” for his practice of sending letter bombs to scientists and engineers involved in research that Kaczynski associated with the rise of technological civilization.  Kaczynski’s manifesto, published originally in the New York Times and the Washington Post, in a controversial deal to end his attacks, presented his belief that industrialization has done irreparable harm to both nature and humanity and that therefore killing people in an attempt to halt it was justified.  His ideas clearly have a political logic, one that resembles the beliefs of others involved in what is sometimes labeled “eco-terrorism”.  Still, a close reading of the manifesto suggests a highly idiosyncratic perspective and narrative, shared in fact by few others; and acts far more violent than those typically undertaken by even militant environmentalists.  Mental health screening (perhaps of overachieving academics), seems more promising than a political or security strategy to stop the next Unabomber.

This brings us at last to Dylann Storm Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston AME massacre.   I would not be surprised at all if forensic psychiatric examination by both defense and prosecution turns up evidence of mental illness, but the logic of his act and even the words he articulated have a clear political sensibility to them; one of unremitting racialized hatred and fear of African Americans.  We still do not know precisely where in his life, these ideas and values began for Dylann Roof.  I would begin by looking at the beliefs of his parents (does anyone know whether spelling Dylann with two “n’s” and giving the middle name “Storm” is any indication that his parents were involved in Neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups and ideologies?).  Most of us get our ideas about race and racism from our parents.  Mine (of blessed memory) were white allies of the civil rights movement and taught us to believe that the project of completing emancipation was the defining mission of the modern American nation. The discovery of Dylann Roofs’ online manifesto of race hatred provides a direct link to the thinking and language of existing white supremacist organizations.  Unlike Kaczynski’s, Roof’s ideas are not idiosyncratic or even marginalized but belong to a well-developed body of ideas that once dominated Southern politics and continue to have an important influence nationally on Conservative and Republican politics.  Indeed, Roof specifically cited the ideas of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a well-known white supremacist group with roots in the violent segregationists of the 1960s and continuing interest in the Republican Party.

What was the strategy?  Roof reportedly told a friend that wanted to start a race war.  I’m no expert in the logic of race wars, but this rings true to me as the primary motivation for the act.  It explains the target, a historic church long a focus of white terrorism against African Americans, and where the victims would draw the maximum amount of outrage and clarity as to the racial meaning of the murders.  Likewise the date, June 17, corresponds to date on which a slave rebellion was planned to launch in Charleston in 1822 and which involved Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was a founder of Emmanuel AME Church.

I would love to hear from some historians on the origins of the “race war” trope in American racist ideology.  Its most significant modern proponent until now is Charles Manson, who taught his followers to prepare for an apocalyptic race war  culminating in a black uprising that would overthrow the United States (a fear he apparently shared with J. Edgar Hoover) and that his Family would then emerge to lead what was left of civilization. Manson orchestrated the murders of privileged white victims and then sought to blame the crimes on African Americans by leaving stolen items in clearly black neighborhoods.  He imagined a law and order crack down on African Americans would lead to an uprising and ultimately his rise to power.  Manson called his plan “Helter Skelter” after the Beatle’s song which he believed contained a prophesy of these events.  Manson, originally from Oklahoma, has been racist all his life, recall the swastika he carved on his forehead during the trial, who assumed necessarily inferior blacks would lead the country into a disaster and leave his Family in charge. 

The whole idea of race war seems to be a distinctively white supremacist fantasy/nightmare.  I could be mistaken, but from my knowledge of history, even armed and militant African American groups have always used violence defensively, or to eliminate perceived movement traitors, not to provoke a race war that African Americans, very much a minority demographically and in political influence, would almost certainly be the ultimate victims of.

So how to prevent another racist massacre? In my view the political option of an aggressive social movement to finally drive white supremacy out of its existing strongholds in American society is what is called for.  Don't get me wrong we should spend a lot more money on mental health as well. Compared to money spent on prisons, seeking the death penalty, or even hiring police officers, mental health spending is probably a good way to prevent violence in general.  I fear, however, that it would do little to prevent the kind of racist violence we are dealing with here.  So long as white supremacist narratives are spread by groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, and sheltered by the powerful Republican Party, there will be no shortage of marginal characters, some of them with mental illness, attracted to its ideology and willing to put their ideas into action. 

If we are to prevent this kind of atrocity, a political strategy is clearly necessary.  My colleague here on Prawfs, Rick Hills worries that if forced to choose between their Southern heritage and common decency, they will choose the former.  I feel we need a strategy that forces that choice.  (We’ve had Fifty years of letting them slide by on being American and Confederate, its time to choose).  It consists of calling out, boycotting, demonstrating against and generally shaming the leadership of racist political organizations, and politically destroying any politician that doesn’t place miles of distance between themselves and this entire ideology.  This requires acts of public memorialization such as have been undertaken in other countries with a history of systematic racist violence, like Germany.  This means cleansing the American South of the residual honorific symbols of the Confederacy: everything must go, flags, statutes of Confederate generals, or parks or streets carrying their names.  This also must extend to the segregationist descendants of the Confederacy.  Pictures of segregationist governors should be removed from state houses (they can go to museums along with the flags and statues).  The Congress of the United States, dominated by segregationists for most of the 20th century, should remove any monument to, and posthumously condemn all of the major figures (most prominently former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond).  Just as importantly it is time to finally make the history of white supremacy and racist violence against African Americans visible in every American city through museums (a new Smithsonian museum of African American culture is about to open in Washington D.C.), public monuments, and street names (Charleston can have nine new ones). 

Fortunately, American society is lot less prone to race wars than white supremacists believe in their fevered fantasies.  Manson’s murders failed to launch one (although they did help fuel the punitive turn in American penal policy) and clearly Dylann Roof has failed in his ambitions as well.  But let us make sure his victims did not die for nothing.  Their blood calls on all Americans of conscience to join an unrelenting cultural war against white supremacy in all of its manifestations.

Cross posted from Prawfsblawg

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Capital Punishment's Loyal Officer

It was a zinger worthy of a Presidential debate (and almost certainly just as planned).  Justice Samuel Alito, confronted Federal Public Defender Robin Conrad in the midst of her oral argument on April 29 in Glossip v. Gross, a case challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection execution procedure.
Yes. I mean, let's be honest about what's going on here. Executions could be carried out painlessly. There are many jurisdictions ­­ there are jurisdictions in this country, there are jurisdictions abroad that allow assisted suicide, and I assume that those are carried out with little, if any, pain. Oklahoma and other States could carry out executions painlessly. Now, this Court has held that the death penalty is constitutional. It's controversial as a constitutional matter. It certainly is controversial as a policy matter. Those who oppose the death penalty are free to try to persuade legislatures to abolish the death penalty. Some of those efforts have been successful. They're free to ask this Court to overrule the death penalty. But until that occurs, is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the States to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?
The diatribe won the lions share of media attention on the case and much of it seemingly approving.  The stunning nature of his attack on our adversary system has gone little remarked.  Indeed Justice Alito seemed to be refreshingly candid (Chris Christie style): “let’s be honest about what’s going on here.”  He appealed to his media audiences common sense that executions could be carried out painlessly (although four of his colleagues doubted that the last time SCOTUS reviewed lethal injections in Baze v. Rees).  He acknowledged that abolitionists have been making significant political progress lately winning legislative abolitions, with “red” Nebraska only the latest state legislature to express a desire to rid the law of capital punishment.  He invited direct challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty: an invitation that might have seemed totally empty a few years ago but now seems to have increasing constitutional force (see Jones v. Chappell finding the California death penalty unconstitutional on grounds of being arbitrary and capricious).  
But behind this this seemingly candid and refreshing acknowledgment was a remarkable attack upon a lawyer doing exactly what lawyers are supposed to do: zealously advocating for her clients.  Justice Alito (echoed by Justice Scalia) cast Federal Public Defender Conrad and her colleagues as duplicitous, pleading the terrible risk of pain facing their clients while working behind the backs of the courts and states to deny states access to chemicals that could painlessly cause death and thus subverting the honorable workings of justice.  Absolutely no evidence is presented or even suggested for this conspiracy.  In fact, it is a mirror image of reality.  The problems American states are confronting in finding drugs to make lethal injections look kind and gentle lie in a growing global movement against capital punishment in which America is increasingly seen as part of an anti human rights “axis” along with Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia. Federal public defenders (and indeed many other Americans) may well sympathize with this global movement but they are hardly relevant to that movement.  As Justice Alito must surely know, the European Union-our major trading partner and political military ally and the site of many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical producers---are legally bound to oppose the death penalty where ever it exists.  Federal public defenders are even more irrelevant to the completely understandable fact that many businesses will need no additional reason other than publicity to choose to disassociate their products from the deliberate killing of human beings.
The real guerilla war is being waged by death states that continue to pursue executions even as crime remains at historic lows and public opinion turns against this archaic ritual.  Many of these states are making a farce of the Court’s own decades long effort to forge a more legal and more humane death penalty by using all means, legal or otherwise, to acquire execution drugs; and obstructing prisoners and their advocates from discovering even the most basic scientific facts about how the state proposes to take their lives.  Meanwhile the death penalty majority on the Supreme Court has fought its own battle to prevent continued judicial oversight of state executions.  Indeed, the first named petitioner in the case in which Justice Alito delivered his appeal for honesty was executed earlier this year even as the issue he raised was scheduled for Supreme Court argument.
Justice Alito is correct that the times are changing rapidly for the death penalty. In retrospect, the rejuvenation of capital punishment in the 1970s after a couple of decades of declining public support may have had more to do with the high violent crime rates and toxic racial politics of that era---conditions that have changed in many respects---than any core American commitment to capital punishment.  Serious challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty may soon find themselves before the SCOTUS.  One can only hope that Justice Alito will bring a less closed mind to those arguments than he did to the ones Federal Defender Robin Konrad (and Justice Sotomayor) presented him in Glossip
It is our common law tradition that judges are to consider the fate of litigants one at a time, and answer the compelling legal questions that their treatment poses.  Yet in his exchanges with Ms. Konrad Justice Alito  showed an injudicious interest in capital punishment as an institution. In his  willingness to defend the death penalty (and his even odder insistence that if it is to end, it must receive the presumably more honorable dispatch of a direct constitutional assault) Justice Alito seems to be more committed to that institution than to our Constitution.
Justice Alito’s passion for the death penalty recalled for me the curious character of the "Officer” who conducts a “Traveler” to witness the execution of a condemned prisoner in Franz Kafka’s haunting story The Penal Colony The story, set in a little described “penal colony,” involves an execution ritual in which the condemned are placed into a complex machine known as the “harrow” that effectively kills them by slowly inscribing the name of their crime into their body with metal needles as they are rotated within the harrow.   The harrow requires constant tinkering which the Officer enthusiastically supplies.  The Officer acknowledges to the increasingly uneasy Traveller that the colony’s commitment to this strange ritual is in fact waning fast, but he remains so loyal to it that he abandons all restraint and ultimately even self preservation in attempting to obtain for it at least one last victim. 
Like the penal colony’s harrow, our execution machinery needs constant tinkering, both technical and legal.  Some Justices, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, once supporters of the death penalty, eventually renounced “tinkering with the machinery of death” and denounced the penalty as irreconcilable with commitment to the rule of law.  More Justices soon must make clear that their decades long servitude to this institution must come to an end. But perhaps the last will be Justice Alito, who like Kafka’s Officer seems increasingly willing to depart from his role in order defend the machinery of death against law itself. 

cross posted on prawfsblawg

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Do we really need the police? Not as much as we need air.

The astoundingly crude and arrogant response of NYPD rank and file to the tragic murder of two officers by an unstable young man last month (read the fascinating story by Kim Barker, Mosi Secret and Richard Fausset in the NYTimes on the man who killed the officers here) raises an interesting question, do we really need the police?   Angry at Mayor Bill DeBlasio for winning an election on reforming police practices, and speaking honestly about how people of color feel about the police in the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings, NYPD officers have undertaken a public campaign of not using their arrest powers unless the situation absolutely requires it, resulting in an unprecedented drop in both arrests and parking tickets.  Angered that citizens and their elected officials should ever question how the police behave, NY "finest" are saying in effect, "you'll have it our way, or you won't have it at all."  May be, just may be, its time to say "let's not have it this way at all, and if you can't change, we need a new alternative. "

My criminological colleagues will be cringing.  Cannonical doctrine suggests that while better policing may lead to better public safety results, even the worse police department is better than none at all.  In a famous natural experiment in 1944, documented by criminologist Johannes Andeneas, the Nazi's arrested the entire police force of occupied Copenhagen (fearing that they would aid an Allied effort to liberate the city).  Despite the Nazi's own credible threats to execute criminals on site, and what one might expect to be strong feelings of solidarity among the citizens of the occupied city, robberies and larcenies soared; similar results have emerged from police strikes (see a summary by Lawrence Sherman of some studies here).

But we need not consider replacing the police with nothing.  The real question is why, despite a century and a half of incredible urban and political change in industrial democracies, we still cling to the idea of the police invented in the early 19th century to contain the dangerous classes of London and New York?  I'm not ready to float a comprehensive proposal now but a few thoughts to get our collective imagination going while we wait to see how NYPD's Copenhagen experiment plays out.

  • Most criminologists acknowledge that individual willingness to obey the law (because it seems legitimate to do so), and collective efficacy at naming and blaming those who do not obey the law, are more important than formal efforts at social control carried out by police and courts.  Indeed the latter can do little without the former.
  • Arrogant, aggressive police tactics that cause individuals to lose their sense of the law's legitimacy, and interrupt the communities capacity to enforce norms of civility, may encourage more crime than they deter.
  • Police departments are really conglomerations of services: traffic, detectives (homicide, robberies), narcotics/vice,  SWAT team, patrol.  In our current model, the generalist patrol officer who can wield a gun and a pair of handcuffs is the paradigm and all other variations have to come through this central paradigm.  Perhaps we should take a lesson from our neoliberal corporate friends and think about breaking up this conglomerate, reshuffling the segments so they can develop training methods and cultures conducive to their greatest efficacy.
  • In reimagining the police, questions of level of governance are worth considering.  Some functions, like detectives or SWAT teams, seem best organized and deployed from the center of the city with equal application to all neighborhoods.  Patrol, in contrast, might well be organized very differently in different neighborhoods to achieve the optimal forms of police presence in the community.
  • In 1970, Berkeley voters considered a proposal, supported by radical members of UC Berkeley's School of Criminology, to break up the police department into three neighborhood units and require police officers to live in the neighborhoods they policed.  The initiative was defeated overwhelmingly but that was at the height of the crime wave of the 1960s and at a time when middle class voters were becoming collectively traumatized by crime fear.  
Do we really need the police?  So far crime has not gone up in NYC, but criminological doctrine suggests it is only a matter of time before the criminally inclined decide there is little price to be paid for acting on those impulses.  On the other hand, crime is highly situational, and responsive to  individual and collective sensibilities.  Perhaps the same emotions that have led tens of thousands of New Yorkers to protest against aggressive policing (and earlier to vote for Bill DeBlasio) has led more individuals to feel a sense of legitimacy in the public order of the city and a sense of collective efficacy.

I would not want to rely on individual consent and collective efficacy to keep crime low on their own indefinitely.  We need something like the police, but not "the police" as we've known them.  Police are important, but they are not like air.  We can live without them when that is necessary.  And we can reinvent them.