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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

May 1994

Crime and Community

Beyond the specific provisions of the new federal crime bill is a set of broad assumptions--ideas about the strategies the police should employ not just to arrest criminals but also to prevent crime, and about sentencing and incarceration and how effectively they deter, incapacitate, or punish offenders. In this article, the first of two, the author reports on the debate among law-enforcement professionals over community policing, the federalization of crime, and the future of gun control

by Wendy Kaminer

Crime control is not a science; nor is it a religion, a simple matter of revealed truth, except perhaps to those who blame rising crime on the abolition of prayer in the schools. God knows whether restoring school prayer might lower the crime rate. Eighty percent of people surveyed last August believed that increasing the number of police officers would significantly decrease violent crime, and what 80 percent of the people wanted they quickly got from their elected officials: one of the most popular provisions of the new crime bill is the promise of federal dollars for 100,000 new police officers. It has intuitive, commonsense appeal. Even if the police have no direct effect on crime, many people feel safer in their presence, assuming they don't harbor suspicions of police brutality, and when people feel safer, they are more likely to venture out of their homes to make their neighborhoods safer.

The 100,000 new officers are specifically intended to help revitalize neighborhood life; they're supposed to be trained in community policing, a progressive model of police work embraced, at least rhetorically, by practically everyone. Community policing calls for a partnership of the police and local residents, and expands the focus of the police from arrests to intervention and preventive "problem solving." In its most reductive form, this approach is viewed as a shift from deploying police officers in patrol cars that randomly cruise the streets and answer calls for assistance to deploying them on the street and encouraging them to establish ongoing relationships with residents. Community policing is often described simplistically as a return to cops on the beat who are integral parts of the neighborhood.


In its sophisticated form, however, community policing entails what William Bratton, formerly Boston's and now New York City's police commissioner, has called a "sea change" in the concept of policing, from reactive, "incident-oriented" law enforcement to a hybrid of enforcement and community-service work aimed at crime prevention. It envisions the demilitarization of police departments, a shifting of authority down through management to the ranks, so that cops on the street will have more discretion and can go beyond making arrests to analyzing underlying problems and responding to them with community cooperation. At its most cosmic, community policing requires teaching critical-thinking skills to people who have traditionally been taught to play by the book. Advocates of community policing stress that it is not simply a new program or strategy but a transformative new philosophy--what a New Age cop might call a paradigm shift.

Some observers are skeptical that using federal dollars to hire local police officers will facilitate community policing or enhance public safety. In general, community policing doesn't rely on increasing the numbers of police officers. It seeks to increase community participation in crime control. The idea is that police departments will become more effective not by increasing their numbers but by extending their reach into communities. The ratio of officers to citizens is, in fact, a "poor predictor of violent crime," according to Michael Smith, the president of the Vera Institute of Justice, in Manhattan. People fear street crime greatly, but while crime against strangers is rising, much violent crime still occurs between people who know each other. Private relationships need to be policed, as the history of domestic violence shows, but they need to be policed differently from holdups of convenience stores. Additional police officers will have an impact, however marginal, only in areas where the police departments are now grossly understaffed, Smith believes. In New York City "the number of new cops won't make much difference," he says. "When cutbacks reduced the number of police, the number of arrests per officer rose; crime went up and down during that period." Smith is dismissive of federal funding to hire additional officers: "The analytic work that tells you we need more cops across the board doesn't exist. It was a campaign promise."

Ronald Hampton, the executive director of the National Black Police Association, agrees that on the whole we have enough police officers; he contends that we simply don't educate or use them properly. "We need to focus on what police do, not how many of them are doing it," he says. "If I take a hundred thousand new police officers and put them through the present induction program, most of them won't end up on the street and they won't bring their heads with them if they get there. If we don't first change the philosophy of policing in this country, whatever police officers we add will fall into the black hole that exists in every police department."

Everybody talks about community policing, advocates agree, but few police departments practice it. Michael Smith calls it "rhetorical policing." Herman Goldstein, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, stressed last year at a Justice Department conference on community policing that the term "is widely used without any concern for its substance." He said, "Political leaders and, unfortunately, many police leaders hook onto the label for the positive images it projects but do not engage with--or invest in--the concept." Goldstein warns that if "community policing" becomes a catchall term (like "empowerment" or "codependency"), it will be regarded as a panacea for a catchall litany of urban problems. Successful implementation of community policing means fundamentally redefining both police functions and the community's expectations of the police, he says. Service-oriented policing is not intended to satisfy all the needs of communities that are "starved for social services."

If communities are apt to expect too much from community policing, many police departments are still prepared to deliver too little. The scope of the reforms that would be needed and the intensity of internal resistance to them are routinely underestimated or ignored. Hampton says that it could take up to ten years to implement community policing in a typical metropolitan police department, a task complicated by the fact that the average tenure for a police chief today is only about three years.

Mayors come and go as well, which can bring changes in policing priorities. Shortly after taking office this past January, New York City's new mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, called for a reform of the community-policing programs adopted by his predecessor, David Dinkins. Giuliani, a former prosecutor with a penchant for talking tough, criticized community policing for its focus on social services. He suggested that social service is at best an "add on" to police work and at worst a distraction from crime control. Giuliani's remarks typified the response of law-enforcement traditionalists to new models of policing and missed the point made by advocates of community policing: that crime control includes crime prevention, which requires an understanding of a community's character and its social-service needs.


Community policing may be a particularly hard sell at a time when a frightened and angry public is demanding a more punitive justice system, not a more understanding one. But even in the most judicious of times community policing would be difficult to implement. The "ship of policing" will turn slowly, Commissioner Bratton cautions, because "we have to change everything we do"--recruitment, training and supervision, and militaristic management policies. Bratton says he is unaware of any program that teaches community policing "the way we would like it to be taught." There is resistance from the "old guard," who fear losing authority and control as police departments are decentralized, and there is resistance from recruits, "who come in expecting to chase people and do shoot-ups." Bratton says, "Eighty-five percent of police work is not that. The average police officer in America is never going to draw his gun in his entire career."

The image of policing is still shaped by the entertainment industry, Ronald Hampton observes. "Some recruits expect to come here and be Dirty Harry or Don Johnson. We need to shift from a spirit of adventure to a spirit of service." Hampton adds that some recruits who do enter the police academy with an ethic of service leave with a taste for authority, which they find easier to satisfy by policing racial minorities. "The way you police in an affluent white community is not the way you police in a poor black community," he says, and goes on to tell this story of a young black police officer engaged in on-the-job training in the predominantly black neighborhood where he was raised: "I asked him a few questions about his assignment. He said he was assigned to Georgetown, which is about ninety percent white, but he'd been training in a ninety-nine percent black community. He said, 'I'm disappointed. I don't want to go to Georgetown.' He said he wanted to work where the police tell the people what to do, not where the people tell the police. That kid wouldn't have said that before he went into the police academy. Now he's calling the people he grew up with trash; he's calling them scum."

These caveats about the prospects for community policing in the near future do not necessarily mean that the federal promise of new police officers is misguided. Congressman Barney Frank asserts that the current failure to use the police force with the utmost effectiveness and efficiency is no reason not to increase its numbers. Inefficiencies are built into any bureaucracy, he observes, adding that liberals fall back on arguments about inefficiency when they have ideological objections to hiring more officers. "Do they say this about housing? Do they say we shouldn't build any more housing until we learn to use what we have efficiently? They don't say 'No more aid to poor countries unless we learn to do that efficiently' either." Bratton believes that some police departments do need additional officers, although their needs will vary. The Boston Police Department lost people over the past decade through attrition, Bratton notes; Michael Smith stresses that New York City paid for more police officers by raising taxes.

The trouble is, Michael Smith points out, that if the government allocates funds for additional officers, a city like New York will apply for them regardless of need. "Politically, you take what you can get and try to deal with the down side of the gift." What might be the down side of increasing the local police force? Additional officers making additional arrests put additional burdens on local prosecutors, defender services, courts, probation services, and jails. A change to community policing is not necessarily supposed to result in more arrests, since its focus is on prevention. But the standard measure of police effectiveness is the arrest rate, and this will not be abandoned anytime soon, despite all the talk about community policing. Senator Joseph Biden acknowledges that with an influx of new police officers "costs will go way up." (How far up an official at the Justice Department could not say.) Perhaps in Boston the benefits will outweigh the costs. In New York they may not. More than new police officers, Michael Smith says, New York needs new drug treatment programs.


Underlying the concern about federal funding for cops are larger questions about federal funding in general. Different localities have different public safety needs; why should Congress decide they need more cops and not more computers ("There are police departments using dial telephones," Senator Orrin Hatch says) or better foster-care or drug-treatment services? One view emerging among many local officials, not surprisingly, favors "decategorizing" federal funding, in order to return to something like a block-grant system that would allow localities some discretion to diagnose their own problems and prescribe their own cures. Instead of allocating money for police officers, the argument goes, Congress should establish a more general, flexible fund for public safety or domestic security. New York could request drug-treatment programs, and Boston could request more police officers. At least Congress could offer localities a menu of law enforcement options, allowing them to choose one from column A and one from column B or C--more cops or computers or security guards for schools.

Attorney General Janet Reno has been obliquely advocating such decentralization for some time. In a speech to the American Bar Association last August she explained the problem of categorized funding like this: "We have created a giant federal government with many agencies designed to help people, and they come up with wonderful programs and come to the community and tell the community, 'We've got this wonderful program but, I'm sorry, you're not eligible for it. Our round grant won't fit in your square hole.' The federal government comes to communities and says, 'We can tell you how to do this; we know best.'" Communities know best, Reno and others suggest.

Perhaps. Increasing local control of federal grant money would be effective to the extent that local officials are smart, innovative, and reasonably honest. It is also true that federal control of funds is as effective as federal officials. Politics, ideology, venality, and incompetence are apt to drive programmatic priorities at the local, state, and federal levels equally. Still, it makes sense to assume that local officials in general have a better, more visceral understanding of local problems. And whether or not decentralization encourages corruption at the local level, corruption is a constant problem that requires constant monitoring at every level; a centralized design of programs may only encourage a different kind of corruption. Local officials complain privately that categorized funding encourages them to lie and vie for programs they don't really need.

There are also questions about how wisely federal officials will distribute funds. The Justice Department recently awarded a small number of community-policing grants, in some cases favoring suburbs and towns with low crime rates over more crime-ridden cities. The relatively bucolic Sandwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, won out over the beleaguered city of Lynn, among other places. Indianapolis lost a grant to an affluent suburb. It doesn't make sense, the city's mayor, Stephen Goldsmith, says. "People in high-crime areas pay taxes that are then allocated, in the form of policing grants, to communities with less crime."

Goldsmith, a former prosecutor, initially welcomed the promise of new police officers. Now he is skeptical about how the Justice Department will implement it. Stressing that crime is primarily a local problem, he contends that decategorizing federal money may be the most important step the federal government could take to enhance public safety.


That crime, like politics, is a local affair is a universally acknowledged truth. In Congress politicians, right and left, often begin discussions of crime control by pointing out that 95 percent of all crime is local. Then they explain the rationale for imposing federal penalties on whatever crime is of particular concern at the moment--carjacking and spouse abuse have been targeted recently. There are good reasons for federalizing these offenses: stolen cars and parts move in interstate commerce; spouse abuse is still ignored in many states, and if gender-based violence is a form of discrimination, women arguably have a federal right to be free of it.

Indeed, the federalization of a great many crimes can be rationalized; an interstate nexus is rarely hard to find. (The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination in public accommodations was based on the commerce clause of the Constitution.) Arguments about federalization tend to be more political than principled. Liberals tend to contest the federalization of criminal behavior except when civil rights are involved. Conservatives tend to oppose federalizing racial or sexual discrimination, in deference to either states' rights or a free market. People usually want the federal government to extend jurisdiction in areas in which they favor stepped-up enforcement. Or, as Congressman Barney Frank says, "People favor federalizing what they don't like and oppose federalizing what they like."

No one likes juvenile violence, which has increased dramatically and disproportionately. According to a report by Northeastern University's National Crime Analysis Program, from 1985 to 1991 the number of males aged thirteen to seventeen arrested for murder rose by more than 100 percent. Juveniles have been involved in high-profile cases (a thirteen year-old was among those implicated in the fatal shooting of a British tourist in Florida last fall), and the spectacle of children with guns and no apparent empathy or conscience is particularly chilling. The rise in serious juvenile crime overshadows a recent modest decline in violent crime overall and accounts for much public outcry over violence. So it's not surprising that the Senate voted to federalize a great deal of juvenile crime. Amendments passed hastily by the Senate, without hearings, required that juveniles over the age of thirteen be federally prosecuted as adults for certain crimes involving firearms, federalized the possession of handguns and ammunition by juveniles, and federalized gang activity, loosely defined.

In voting for significant expansions of federal jurisdiction over juveniles, the Senate was undeterred by the absence of a federal system for prosecuting juveniles or federal correctional facilities for incarcerating them. Juvenile justice has traditionally been the province of the states. Federalizing juvenile offenses could require the establishment of a redundant federal system and could also impose additional burdens on the states, if they're required to house juveniles subject to federal prosecution. New York City's commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice opposed the Senate bill federalizing the possession of handguns and ammunition in the expectation that it would strain local facilities and increase delays in processing juvenile cases.

But if there are loose theoretical limits and few principled ones to extensions of federal jurisdiction, there are practical limits to what federal prosecutors, defenders, and courts can manage. Federal district courts are already swamped by drug cases that should probably be tried in state courts. It's becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a civil trial. Federal judges tend to oppose the expansion of federal jurisdiction, and the Justice Department seems wary of it as well. An official at the department asserts that some thought has been given to issuing guidelines advising federal prosecutors when to exercise jurisdiction over crimes that are federal and local concurrently. Political reasons for establishing federal jurisdiction don't necessarily translate into legal reasons for exercising it. Congress may enact a broad range of federal criminal laws that federal prosecutors may enforce only erratically, if at all--but there's no clamor yet for truth in legislating.

In recent years Congress has extended federal jurisdiction dramatically in cases involving the use or possession of firearms as well as of drugs. Whatever salutary effect this has had on gun violence has been too subtle to quantify. Liberals have long argued that instead of simply increasing penalties for the illegal use of guns, the federal government should restrict sales to the public. Last year Congress took a small practical step, or a great symbolic leap, in this direction when it passed the Brady bill, which imposes a waiting period on buyers of handguns and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton seven years after it was proposed. The Senate also passed a ban on the sale of guns to minors (which is already illegal in many states) and on the manufacture of certain assault weapons.


These were not exactly controversial measures, although they were quite difficult to pass. There is strong majority support for gun control. Seventy percent of Americans want stricter gun laws, according to Gallup; nearly 90 percent of the public favors the Brady bill.

But even supporters of the Brady bill are likely to concede that it will probably have little effect overall on gun violence. Colin Ferguson, who opened fire on a crowded Long Island commuter train last December, killing six people and wounding nineteen, bought his gun in California, after undergoing a sixteen-day waiting period (the store owner added a day "for good measure" to the state's legally mandated fifteen-day period), and there's no persuasive evidence that waiting periods have decreased violent crime in states that already mandate them. A federally mandated waiting period may save a few lives, people say, and it represents a crucial, symbolic defeat for the National Rifle Association. It may also lead to more-stringent gun-control laws, as advocates hope and the NRA fears, such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's proposal to tax ammunition or ban certain kinds of it. But with some 200 million firearms already at large, including 60 million handguns, there's no reason to have high hopes for traditional point-of-purchase prohibitions. Now that this initial battle for gun control has been won, it has become nearly irrelevant to the war against gun violence.

Because gun-control debates have been defined by efforts to restrict the sale of firearms in the face of NRA opposition, alternative strategies for regulating the nation's enormous stockpile of weapons have barely been considered until recently. A report published last year by the National Academy of Sciences suggests adopting some of the tactics used against drugs--focusing on illegal transactions and undesirable uses. A shift in focus away from sweeping, hotly contested bans on possession and use would at least have significant political advantages. The NRA could hardly object to attacks on the black market.

This proposal to concentrate on illegal gun markets does not equate drugs with guns, or one market with the other; nor does it necessarily imply that we should focus exclusively on the illegal supply of guns, as we have traditionally focused on the illegal supply of drugs, ignoring conditions that create the demand. But it is an acknowledgment that effective near-total prohibitions on guns are as unrealistic as prohibitions on drugs and alcohol. Given the American tradition of violent individualism, the staggering number of guns already in circulation, and the likelihood that more or less law-abiding citizens concerned with self-defense will continue to desire guns, the belief that this might someday be a gun-free country seems more and more utopian.

The failure to enact meaningful gun-control measures twenty-five or thirty years ago has made the slogan "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" seem almost true. So far the explosion of gun violence may have increased the desire for gun control more than the desire to own guns. (Reported ownership of firearms has remained fairly stable during the past ten years, according to Gallup, while support for gun control has increased.) But the balance could shift if the violence continues; if people lose all faith in the government's ability to protect them, they will take drastic steps to protect themselves, with public approval. Last year a Louisiana jury acquitted Rodney Peairs of manslaughter after he shot and killed a Japanese exchange student who mistakenly rang his doorbell seeking a Halloween party at another address. In the belief that he was defending his home, Peairs asked no questions; the entire encounter took about one minute.

With more and more people feeling besieged, even at home, by nameless strangers, like the man who abducted and killed twelve-year-old Polly Klaas in California, studies demonstrating that keeping a gun at home nearly triples one's risk of being killed (often by someone one knows) will probably have less effect than studies linking smoking to lung cancer. Millions of people start smoking and continue to smoke because they don't really believe that lung cancer will ever attack them. Frightened people will buy guns in the belief that they will never turn them against each other. For many middle-class people who live and work in low-crime areas, fear of crime is often fear of people they don't know.


Fear seems to play an important role in the proliferation of guns among juveniles, particularly urban minorities, according to David Kennedy, a research fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. A recent National Institute of Justice study of male juvenile offenders and male students in inner-city high schools found that "self-protection in a hostile and violent world was the chief reason to own and carry a gun." Twenty-two percent of the students reported owning a gun. Thirty-five percent reported carrying a gun regularly or occasionally; family, friends, and illegal markets were their primary sources. A majority of students (69 percent) came from families in which men owned guns, and nearly half (45 percent) reported having been "threatened or shot at on the way to or from school." Kennedy remarks that youth culture in the inner cities is akin to prison culture: "captive, lawless, dangerous, self-regulated." Depressing as this is, he adds, it does suggest that the market for guns among juveniles may be malleable: control the fear and you control the guns, which in turn decreases the fear.

"Good kids have guns," John Silva, the director of safety and security for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools, observes. "From a district attorney's perspective, a good kid would never carry a gun, but the DAs don't live in the projects. There's so much fear. Good kids who want to go to school and do the right thing--they're afraid of the gangs and the drug dealers; they want to protect themselves and their families. Good kids, bad kids--the categories don't apply anymore."


If good kids use guns, then crime is not simply a failure of character, as Ronald Reagan once claimed. Nor is it merely a failure of government--to reduce poverty and enable good people to grow. If good kids use guns, then crime is a failure of community. That, at least, is the emerging wisdom about crime.

Talk about community is beginning to dominate criminal-justice debates. Community policing, community defender services, community courts, and community "empowerment" efforts are praised for their "holistic" approach to crime. ("Holistic" is another coming word in crime control.) The concept of community is one that both liberals and conservatives can embrace. The community is a private and a public place, located somewhere between the individual and big government. It combines conservative belief in individual responsibility with liberal faith in collective, civic solutions to the individual's problems.

Politicians who want to sound progressive sometimes claim that partisan approaches to crime are giving way to a new, bipartisan pragmatism. And it is true that liberals and conservatives seem to be staking out some common ground on crime control, at least rhetorically--although the neat divisions between liberal and conservative approaches to crime have always been a little facile. Liberals focus on root causes, we always say, while conservatives focus on controlling the effects of crime. But in fact liberals have never advocated disbanding police departments, tearing down prisons, and ignoring the effects of crime while we await its cure. Nor have conservatives ignored root causes; they've just defined them differently. Every time conservative preachers and politicians rail against pornography, or the media's attack on family values, or the legitimization of homosexuality, they are addressing what they see as root causes of crime. There have even been exceptions to the liberal attachment to individual rights and the conservative attachment to authority. In the gun control debate conservatives defended the rights of individual gun owners against liberal assertions of the need for social order.

Communitarianism has facilitated liberal appeals to order, because it finesses the conflict between individual rights and social control. Communitarians use the concept of communal "rights" to peace and security as a limit on individual rights to engage in deviant behavior. The concept is misleading: communities don't have rights under our Constitution; they have interests and a presumption of majority rule, which they're required to exercise with respect for individual rights. But the language of communal rights is politically effective; it provides liberals with a way of positing social order as a primary liberal value.

Is this common ground or merely common language? Liberals and conservatives still maintain very different notions about government's proper role in facilitating community development and instilling values in citizens. Orrin Hatch thinks that the federal government should allow each of the fifty states to develop a values curriculum for public schools, without worrying so much about strict separations of Church and State; some religious values, he says, are "generic values that help people realize there is a better way." Janet Reno talks about providing families with social services that will help ensure that every child is raised with a conscience. She talks about the need for community advocates who would help individual citizens obtain the services of their government and mediate disputes with landlords. She talks about pro bono legal work. Under the rubric of "community" Reno can call for a return to the legal-service ethic of the early 1970s while Orrin Hatch calls for government vouchers to ensure school choice, getting values into schools, and "cleaning up" television and movies. Reno does seem ready to provide the broom. It is one of the ironies of the crime debate that liberals and conservatives, while they argue over the ways to address violence directly in real life, may come together over the need to censor violence in the media.

It is fitting, however, that the media emerge as a battleground for crime prevention. Crime-control debates have always been driven by imagery. Members of Congress are used to gesturing on crime, passing laws that are less effective than expressive of an attitude toward crime (they're against it). Crime also undermines the image of America that politicians celebrate: "The American people are fundamentally decent," they intone, as if criminals were of some other species.

Violent crime became a pre-eminent problem last year not because fundamentally decent middle-class people, who set the political agenda, had an awakening of conscience. Rather, they were awakened by fear. Crime began to seem less contained in the inner cities as it spilled out onto highways, into shopping centers and suburban schools. Somehow, it seemed to take us by surprise. "How did this happen?" people ask, surveying the wreckage.

Copyright 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1994; Crime and Community; Volume 273, No. 5; pages 111-120.

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