How to Stop Violent Crime Without Stop and Frisk

Surely there are methods for reducing violent crime that don't require indiscriminately throwing innocents against walls.
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Stop and frisk's potential for "harassment, abuse and systemic discrimination" makes Ross Douthat sympathetic to its critics. "In a city as safe as New York has become, there should be room to weigh the costs and benefits of different policing tactics," he writes, "and at the very least the Bloomberg administration needs to do more to answer the skeptics who question the link between this specific policy and the city's overall success combating crime."

But he isn't yet convinced that it ought to be abandoned. "New York's relatively low incarceration rate does make a powerful case for the Bloomberg approach, since the social costs of stop-and-frisk are much lower than the costs of mass incarceration," he continues. And "it's also important for would-be reformers to have a clear sense of what that success (in New York and nationally) has meant for the average citizen's odds of being victimized. Thanks to two decades of falling crime rates," the chance a city dweller will be the victim of robbery, rape or assault has been halved, he estimates.

As a would-be reformer who wants stop and frisk to end, I'd like to emphasize that I am also fully cognizant of how salutary the nationwide drop in violent crime has been (though the very fact that it is a nationwide drop suggests stop and frisk isn't the reason for it). In fact, I think violent crime is so terrible that, even with the drop, I favor taking additional aggressive steps to reduce it even more. I just don't happen to think massive Fourth Amendment violations and racial profiling are appropriate options, regardless of efficacy -- any more than it would be appropriate to make it easier to convict criminals by lowering the burden of proof or tracking all city dwellers with ankle bracelets. If we're going to incur costs to fight crime, they shouldn't come at the expense of core liberties, and they shouldn't be born almost entirely by ethnic minority groups.

Thankfully, there are other promising options that could reduce crime while spreading the costs more equitably and without violating the Constitution. Here are some ideas:

  • Hiring additional police, assigning experienced officers to high-crime areas, and actual community policing are all more expensive than using a smaller force to indiscriminately throw black and brown people against walls and search them with "reasonable suspicion" so dubious that more than 80 percent turn out to be innocent. I'd say the additional cost is worth bearing.
  • There's strong evidence that speedy punishment for the guilty has a significant deterrent effect. So spending more on courts, prosecutors, and public defenders might show dividends, and more quickly and reliably punishing parole and probation violations would almost certainly be useful. 
  • Infrastructure improvements as varied as better-lit streets and air-conditioned community centers open late in dangerous neighborhoods during the summer seem like they're worth trying.
  • Increased rewards for tips about illegal guns and helping police to apprehend murderers and rapists (especially where there is physical evidence) could also help police to catch criminals. 
  • As James Forman and Trevor Stutz put it: "Developed by the criminologist David M. Kennedy, focused deterrence is in many ways the opposite of stopping and frisking large sections of the population. Beginning with the recognition that a small cohort of young men are responsible for most of the violent crime in minority neighborhoods, it targets the worst culprits for intensive investigation and criminal prosecution. Focused deterrence also builds up community trust in the police, who are now going after the real bad guys instead of harassing innocent bystanders in an effort to score easy arrests. This strategy was responsible for the dramatic decline in Boston's homicide rate during the 1990s. In 2004, Mr. Kennedy and his colleagues successfully adapted it to combat violent open-air drug markets in the West End neighborhood of High Point, N.C."

I'm open to being persuaded that alternatives to any of these suggestions would be a better use of resources, so long as they don't rely on indiscriminately harassing orders of magnitude more innocent people than guilty people. Stops of innocents by police should be rare misunderstandings, not a daily reality for blacks and Hispanics in certain neighborhoods of major cities. 

There is one more big change I'd like to see tested. Given my druthers, I'd reorient the criminal-justice system so that violent crime costs more, in relative and absolute terms, than it does today. I'm appalled by the percentage of citizens who are incarcerated, and very much favor reforms, including better conditions in juvenile lockup, a push to stop all prison rape, and the end of insanely long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. There are all sorts of sentences I'd commute. Continuing to incarcerate non-violent offenders in service of a hopeless war on drugs is foolish.

But I retain one law-and-order impulse: If you break into someone's house with a weapon, or drag a woman into the bushes and rape her, or hold someone up at knife point, or clock someone with a tire iron, or beat them up and steal their wallet, you are someone who ought to be locked up for a long time. There are lots of non-violent crimes that should be punished. Still, what I want to do is draw a bright line around violent crimes and say, "This, especially, will not be tolerated." 

"The initiation of force will not stand."

That means shifting massive resources away from drugs and toward violent crime. (The DEA employs 11,000 people. How far do you think the murder rate would fall next year if starting today they were rechristened the Homicide Prevention and Investigation Task Force? Would we come out ahead in lives?)

It means looking at our prison system, and deciding, okay, there are ways to punish people that don't involve paying their room and board while they socialize with a network of other criminals -- let's take advantage of technology, rehabilitate folks whose transgressions aren't dangerous, and save the expensive cages for those who perpetrated or attempt to perpetrate violent crimes, even after they've been shown that every incentive, from the chance of getting caught to the speed of trial to the length of incarceration, makes violence an extremely foolish choice.

America will always have criminals, and resources should always be directed toward fighting even nonviolent crimes. But it would be nice if criminals or would-be criminals had it in the backs of their heads that, whatever mischief they perpetrate, any hint of violence just isn't worth committing. What if they were incentivized to avoid it at all costs? There would still be violent crime.

There will always be violent crime. But might there be much less of it?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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