Saturday, June 13, 2015

Do Police Prevent Crime? Do They Do More Good Than Harm?




"You know the worst thing about these statistics? They ruined this job."
--Major Howard Colvin, Baltimore City Police, Western District, "The Wire."

The New York Times today ran two separate pieces which made me think, "Oh, how far we've come."  In September, 2011, New York City police, along with fireman, were hailed by  the New York Times  as selfless heroes for their bravery, self sacrifice and clear concern for the citizens of New York City, whom they clearly tried to serve and protect on that day of horrors. 

But today there was one article about Mayor DeBlasio's efforts to reign in the "stop and frisk" tactics of the NYPD running side by side with a memoir by Gregory Orr, a white guy from New York who was savagely beaten in  several gauntlets  organized by Mississippi police to vent their hatred for civil rights demonstrators. 

In 2011, before DeBlasio took office, an astonishing 13 stop and frisks occurred every minute of every day for a year in New York City.  Can you imagine what that statistic translated into on the streets of Bed Sty in Brooklyn or in the South Bronx? Within two years of taking office, that rate was down to less than one a minute, every day of the year. 

One wonders about those statistics. Do the police actually enter into their computers each encounter? What if they don't? Who would know? But let's take the numbers as a rough index of their activity. First, we understand this activity is not typically seen along the streets of the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, or in Manhattan in general, or Staten Island, but likely in the poorer sections of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. And the color of the people who live there tends to be darker than where searches are not done. And I would bet more males are frisked than females. And more younger males than older. So, for the most part, young, non white (Hispanic or Black) young men are selected as likely suspects and what does that do the life, the daily experience and the mind of young Black males?  If you wanted to condition someone into resentment, distrust and paranoia, could you think of a more effective tool?

Which is not to say frisks turn otherwise decent citizens into criminals. The police will say most crime is committed by exactly the profile of those they suspect and frisk. 

But freedom is dependent not on what the most advantaged in our society experience, but on what the most disadvantaged are subjected to.  If freedom of speech means we have to tolerate speech and ideas we find repugnant, does freedom in general not mean we tolerate those we may distrust? And who is the "we" who have to tolerate?  One might say white cops distrust young Black males and that is the scene occurring 13 times a minute. Is that really true? Or were Black cops frisking Black males in these places? Would it make a difference to know that?

Mayor DeBlasio's critics accused him of: 1/ Undermining and demonizing police  2/ Putting the public's safety at risk.  The first accusation has to do with the mayor's mindset and what might be going through his mind and cannot be judged.  But there might be some way of examining statistics to see if dialing down the number of stop and frisks resulted in miscreants keeping their guns and knives and using them to wreck havoc upon the citizens of New York. The easiest, most simplistic number to cite is the murder rate in NYC, which actually fell slightly during the year the stop and frisk tactics got dialed back.

But, of course, as any devotee of "The Wire" knows, police can have almost no effect against those who murder in the cities. The reasons murders are done have to do with impulsive behavior by young males (mostly) or because of the business of the drug trade, and neither of these groups are at all influenced by police, the existence of the death penalty or whether or not a mayor or President is "soft" or "hard" on crime. 

Whether or not a murder, once it has happened, gets solved does relate to the money and effort expended by the police force, but that is after the fact, and likely little solace to the victims. 

There are all sorts of studies investigating the effect of policing on crime, on whether "broken windows" policing makes neighborhoods safer.  Mostly, right wingers tend to believe studies which suggest tough cops laying the heavy wood on unruly minorities keep the dangerous elements under control and left wingers tend to believe they do no such thing.  Law and order vs civil rights.

I've known plenty of cops, mostly New York City cops. They tended to be either from families of cops, mostly Irish, or they tended to be explosive, edgy people who liked to carry guns and beat up people.  The cops I knew hung out in the Emergency Room. They tried to pick up the nurses. Nurses married cops in those days. Like doctors, cops saw the raw side of life and they saw people at their worst.  I can't imagine the cops I knew much enjoying stopping and frisking citizens. Of course, these cops were from the 21st precinct in Manhattan, which covered the Upper East Side, so maybe they were different from the guys who wound up in Brooklyn's tough Bed Sty area. 

The Mississippi cops depicted in Mr. Orr's article were clearly just sadists and haters.  They were more criminal than cop, sanctioned and empowered by a vicious apartheid state; they were the soul mates of Hitler's SS and concentration camp guards. 

What we have now, I suspect, is the pendulum swinging back from a public perception of cops as heroes to cops as brutes.  I doubt the average White person looks at a cop and sees Gestapo, but I can't say what the young Black male sees. 

I don't know any Hampton cops. Not particularly eager to make their acquaintance. 

The question we always have to ask ourselves, when we hire cops and put them into place: Do we really need them? Will they do more harm than good?

Resort towns are particularly vexed by this problem.  People who can afford to live in resort towns tend to be somewhat more affluent than inner city populations, but that doesn't mean they don't need police now and then.  

The question is, do they need a jail or a policeman with an attack rifle?  Are we fielding a police force looking for work, like Arlo Guthrie's police in "Alice's Restaurant?" Or, are we hiring people who can be trained and expected to behave as if force is a last resort, to serve and protect?

I'm just hoping more citizens will reach for their smart phones and start the video rolling when the police swing into action. That would be good for everyone. 


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