What Works? D.C. Moves Forward on Fighting Crime

As Atlanta prepares for the none-too-soon departure of the current mayor and police chief, it’s worth considering the example of cities where reasonable, engaged crime-fighting policies seem to be working:

Washington D.C. is experiencing the lowest murder rate in years.  Why? D.C.’s fairly new and interesting Police Chief, Cathy L. Lanier, attributes the drop in murder rates to intensive use of communication tools and intensive planning to anticipate trouble at certain events and between certain gangs:

She said police are able to target specific locations or types of crime and policing is so high-tech that investigators are analyzing crime minute-by-minute and have greater ability to attack crime before it happens. . .

In the District, the department creates a weekly “Go-Go report,” which details where and when home-grown bands are playing, because go-go concerts often bring together rival gangs, causing violence, Lanier said. There is also a weekly gang report that tells officers which gangs or crews are feuding that week.

Armed with that information, police can better predict where crimes might happen and take measures to prevent them.

Lanier also cited community policing and reward money for tips:

She pointed to a better relationship between the department and the community as a factor, saying it has helped get more violent repeat offenders off the streets. She said tips from the community have been flowing faster than ever, due in part to patrol officers knowing their beats and developing connections in the community.

Of course, what often goes unstated is that better communication with the police is a two-way street.  The community must do its part as well, instead of simply blaming cops for every ill, including those caused by criminals and by lenient courts.  Crime-fatigue plays a role in the numbers, too: even the most relentlessly dysfunctional communities reach a tipping point when residents tire of seeing young men killing each other and start cooperating with the authorities despite the presence of loud “community activists” who paint law enforcement as the enemy.

One such tipping point occurred in the mid-nineties, when crack cocaine had take such a profound toll that law-abiding citizens in high-crime neighborhoods were emboldened to demand harsher law enforcement and longer sentences for drug traffickers, dealers — and users.

I’ve had more than one former co-worker tell me that a prison term back in the 1990’s saved his life.  You won’t see lives saved that way now.

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But a less-acknowledged factor in the drop in crime in formerly high-crime cities is population-shifting.  As Atlanta shut down their centralized housing projects, crime dispersed to the surrounding suburbs.  Counties outside Washington D.C. have also been dealing with influxes of criminal activity for more than a decade now.  Too much celebration of plummeting inner-city crime rates might not withstand a closer look at some suburban enclaves where crime has skyrocketed.  Nonetheless, according to the Washington Post, crime is even down in nearby Prince George’s County, which is (somewhat) to D.C. what Clayton County is to Atlanta — an outer suburb that saw crime rates explode as conditions in the inner city worsened or the population relocated:

In Prince George’s, violence had been steadily rising since the 1990s, when the county started absorbing spillover crime from the District. But this year, crime is at a 20-year low, and homicides are down almost 17 percent.

Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said that since he took over the department in September, there has been a more defined mission about how to attack crime.

He identified car thefts as one of the county’s major problems and a “gateway” crime, meaning if criminals get away with stealing a car, they sometimes become emboldened and begin committing more daring acts. In 2004, about 18,500 cars were stolen in the county, more than in all of Virginia.

Since then, the department has focused on arresting car thieves and educating the public about protecting their cars, and the number of car thefts has shrunk by half.

There’s a thought.  Logistically, in metro Atlanta, a car is vital for committing many crimes.  Yet car thefts are still being downgraded by judges who view property crime as unimportant.  Perhaps if prosecutors and judges stepped up to the bat and began imposing real penalties for stealing cars, even when the offender is a juvenile, more of those juveniles might live to see 30, even if they spend a few years in jail in the interim.

Most analyses of crime trends still neglect the influential and negative role judges play by letting offenders off easy.  When cops and commanders, know that they’re not going to be able to get somebody off the streets, they are naturally less motivated to waste time and resources trying.  Then they have to single-handedly shoulder the public’s ire, as well.  As policing techniques grow more sophisticated, the courts have collapsed, and nobody notices.  The police do a lot, but they can only do so much.

Gary LaFree, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, said it has taken police decades to figure out how to effectively target crime.

“In the ’60s, crime was like an act of God, like a tornado or earthquake,” LaFree said. “Where policing has changed is that we’ve gotten the idea this is a problem we created and there are human solutions to it. Obviously, crime is not randomly distributed. It is connected to hot spots in cities and other areas.”

LaFree is one of the most credible voices in criminology today (I am trying to say more positive things about criminologists).  Two of his books, out of print now, I think, are very much worth reading for their non-ideological efforts to understand crime:

The Post reporter notes that LaFree and others discount the theory that crime goes up during economic downturns:

LaFree and others agree that crime doesn’t automatically go up when the economy is poor. Property crime is also trending down in many jurisdictions, including the District, Prince George’s and Montgomery. The FBI reported last week that bank robberies across the country fell in the first quarter of the year, with 1,498 reported, compared with 1,604 in the first quarter of 2008.

Criminologists point to the Great Depression in the 1930s as a time of relatively low crime compared with the Roaring Twenties, when the country experienced more violence.

Atlanta’s next mayor could do worse than looking to Washington D.C. when filling the role of Chief of Police.  D.C. Chief Cathy L. Lanier likely isn’t going anywhere, but the example she sets — a homegrown cop who started in the District on foot patrol; sticks close to her troops and the streets; promotes open communication channels, and is known for her “tireless work ethic” — is the type of chief Atlanta needs:

She has created a Web site where cops can take their gripes and advice directly to her. She gives out her business card to everyone she meets, and often her private cell number as well. (She guesses at least a thousand D.C. citizens now have it.) She insists on being called every time there is a shooting in the city.  “A lot of people have criticized me a little for being too far down in the weeds,” Lanier admits. “But if you separate yourself from the people involved in and impacted by crime, you’re going to fail.”

Imagine that.

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