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Courage, Ebony, and Ivory

July 26th, 2010 8 comments

The courage to get it right?

Last year, during black history month, Eric Holder, our first black AG, called us “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race. That was the single phrase seized on by many in the media, on both the right and the left, and it was the phrase used to praise or denigrate Holder’s speech and the current state of racial affairs in the United States. The speech itself was lengthy and only somewhat nuanced, but there was a lot more there than most people were willing to discuss – black or white… or any other color for that matter. Let me use a part of the same sentence where the offending phrase was found: I believe that “in too many ways,” Eric Holder was right. Whether you agree with him or not, I’d urge you to listen to the entire speech in context, or of course, read the text of the speech – much faster results.

Part of his point is that while Americans have moved to the point of working, lunching, and attending functions together, on weekends, we pretty much self segregate… and that isn’t good in his view. I am more sanguine about our progress than Holder, but I do believe he is right about our general unwillingness to discuss racial matters in an open and honest manner. Lots of reasons for that little problem, but I’d like to open up this can of worms… because “in too many ways,” not many people are willing to expose themselves to the consequences Holder so blithely suggests we all should risk.

I had several people at work try to dissuade me from heading in this direction (I often bounce some of my more controversial ideas off of several folks I know), but I thought, “Hey, screw it. This blog has had me on the carpet more than once.” And, as some of you know, I have often argued that courage is a thing to value.

Rather than throw a rant on why I think the AG is full of it, I’ll just throw out a few facts, a few statistical certainties, and wait for the charges to fly. Keep in mind here, that I am NOT offering explanations at this point, nor am I making any allegations or interpretations of the facts I’ll be laying out. I’d really like to hear what you have to say – providing you can keep the conversation civil, accurate to the best of your ability (in other words, be prepared to back it up), and really aimed at affording all of us the opportunity to get a better grasp of the realities involved.

In addition to the Bureau of Justice Statistics site, you can also find some of this information at Heather Mac Donald’s Weekly Standard article, Excusing the Oakland Rioters: Looting is not a form of civil rights protest, and the city of New York’s crime statistics.

  • Blacks commit nearly 6,000 murders annually (most of whom are black), and whites & Hispanics commit a little more than 5,300 murders a year (most of whom are white or Hispanic). Whites & Hispanics comprise about 81% of the population, while blacks comprise about 13% of the population. Since the US has just over 300,000,000 people, the math is pretty straight forward. Blacks murder almost 154 people per 100,000 of their own population. Whites & Hispanics murder almost 2.2 people per 100,000. The murder rate for blacks is 70 times higher than the murder rate for whites and Hispanics.
  • The 73rd precinct in New York is mostly black, and “the per capita rate of shootings there is 81 times higher than in the mostly white 68th precinct…”
  • The police stop rate of vehicles in the 73rd precinct is 15 times higher than in the 68th precinct.
  • In New York City, blacks “commit 80 percent of all shootings, whites 1.4 percent, though blacks are 23 percent of the population, and whites 35 percent.”
  • At the beginning of 2009, there were nearly 1800 whites on death row and there were just over 1300 blacks on death row (both the white and black numbers include some Hispanics).
  • During 2008, there were 20 white and 17 black people executed.

As I said earlier, at this point I’m not trying to explain these numbers, nor will I offer any interpretations of the meaning in these numbers. I’ve got questions about these and other numbers. Why are these kinds of numbers rarely if ever mentioned when discussing race in America? Especially on the “big three” news stations, PBS, NPR, CNN when their prolific little series on race air on national television? For the elites that are concerned with the brutality of the police and their unnecessary taking of black lives, why are they not equally concerned with the unnecessary taking of black lives in the inner city? Why don’t these victims get the same care and concern from our nation’s elite, the media, and the professoriate? Especially when they are so obviously more numerous?? Why doesn’t the unnecessary taking of white lives by the police rate the same air time and outrage?

Finally, in closing this post, remember, please keep the comments and email civil, and as important, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt about our honesty and earnestness in seeking out the truth. I’ll be using the replies to guide some of my follow up posts – posts aimed more at our nation’s intellectuals than at everyday Americans.

Cheers – all of you!

Friends… on Crime (Part 3)

January 15th, 2010 3 comments

Once, there was only one...

Yikes! Ok, soup for you! I had initially planned to respond to comments on Friends… (Part 2) with return comments, and in fact started that process with Jeff’s comment, but *sigh* it worked itself into something a little more extensive. Part of the reason is the sheer number of journal articles everybody’s comments called to mind. I can’t say how pleasant I found it that everybody was courteous enough to be concerned about offending someone – on the other hand, I was also a little down on the fact that the concern was necessary at all in a rational discussion. If you haven’t read the above post’s comments, they are all worth the read! …and of course, reading these comments is at least in part necessary to make sense of this post.

A small caveat before we get going here – if I can find a link to the journal articles I’ll provide it, otherwise I’ll just provide the journal citation. Now then, part of what caused this excursion is a journal article entitled Boredom, Crime, and Criminology (Ferrell, 2004) and the way its contents triggered a quote Jeff gave me quite some time ago:

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.

~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Why? It’s part and parcel of some of the ideas expressed in the journal article. Part of the point is that when a society/government impoverishes human experience then a response of some sort isn’t a real stretch to expect:

So, for example, when Reclaim the Streets illegally shut down London’s M41 motorway in 1996, the subsequent ‘festival of resistance’ featured booming music, street dancers, carnival figures and a big banner warning of enforced boredom’s apocalyptic consequences: ‘The Society that Abolishes Every Adventure Makes Its Own Abolition the Only Possible Adventure’ (Ferrell, 2004).

Combine these feelings with those of “oppression,” and a certain sense of “entitlement” we might have at least a little explanatory power with crime. The reason I put entitlement in quotes is because it represents a bit more specialized use of the word. When a person or group perceives that they have been deprived of something that another person or group possesses, this is referred to as relative deprivation in a theory by the same name. Although it is commonly associated with poverty, it need not be – it can be a comparison of relative possessions in economic, political, or social deprivations. More to the point, it “sensitize[s] us to the process and emotion of crime” (Webber, 2007). Like I said, I tend toward the eclectic view of crime explanation because specific theories rarely have the explanatory power to encompass all crime. Boredom (and risk taking), oppression (and risk taking), and entitlement (and risk taking) all have some utility in explaining crime, and pretty much all have some foundation in criminological studies.

Given these elements so far, I’ve got to start this the way Jeff did in a follow up post to Tom in the comments section of Friends… (Part 2): “For someone who claims to ‘know nothing, repeat, nothing about crime theory,’ you have some very interesting ideas.” That was an excellent post, Tom. I really enjoyed your take on a synthesis of your own observations and those of your professor’s. I wonder if your professor was a professor of sociology or political science (perhaps even a history professor). The theory placing more emphasis on why there is “more” crime in America rather than what “causes” crime is interesting in itself, and it has as its presupposition about causal factors specific cultural traits or patterns (including cognitive patterns). While this does run contrary to a lot of popular crime theory, it doesn’t run contrary to many well established but less popular theories. Like Jeff’s post, I imagine your thoughts on this might offend some people, but I think many people, both in and out of the field, would find your take on it worth a good look.

There are a number of excellent studies out there concerning voluntary risk taking behavior in terms of crime, as well as an emerging (re-emerging) group of studies choosing to call itself cultural criminology. While cultural criminology pays attention to historical narrative (Tom’s list of reasons for coming to America), it also emphasizes current cultural influences; for example, media representations of what one should believe. I am fairly certain that elements of these theories would be found “objectionable” or “offensive” to some people. Despite that, elements of these reflect Tom’s thinking about risk taking and our own histories.

The antecedents of cultural criminology lie within the longstanding recognition of the importance of cultural ethnographies and artifacts in understanding human social behaviour. This ongoing tradition acknowledges that what is important is the analysis of the way in which humankind makes sense of and, at times resists, existing and developing social structures. Such privileging of ‘culture’ enables cultural theorists to view behavior as dynamic rather than determined and opens up the possibility of other ways of ‘seeing’ transgressive and therefore criminal behavior (Presdee, 2004).

Finally, both Tom and Mr. Grim point out something that is worth quoting to introduce the last “theory” associated with their comments. First, Tom wrote:

I also believe that the breakdown of society is a big factor in crime. Most societies are constructed to maintain a certain order. Much of this is done through peer pressure. But, peer pressure will affect crime in two ways, in my opinion. One, when there is sufficient peer pressure as in small towns where everyone knows one another; it is more difficult to break the societal norms (laws). Also, in big cities, there is more anonymity and fewer peers to apply the pressure to adhere to societal norms. Two, is the situation when there is peer pressure to break down societal norms (break laws) as occurs in gangs. As Jeff, above, comments, this can be a very big cause in antisocial behavior, law breaking.

And second, Mr. Grim put it this way:

I would like to back things away from those who actually broke rules of sufficient stature to deserve punishment through our criminal justice system for a minute. Instead, I would like to point my pudgy finger at what I term “the rule-breakers”.

“Who are the rule-breakers,” you may ask?

Why, it is all of us. You, me, Hell just about anyone you may know qualifies as a “rule-breaker”.

Little things, like parking in a fire zone while you jump out to use the ATM. You know you’re not supposed to, but you do it anyway. Or driving 70 MPH on a 65 MPH zone. Bah, it’s a stupid rule anyway. Or throwing that candy wrapper in a nearby bush instead of shoving it in your pocket until you can find a garbage can. Meh, it’s paper, sort of, it’ll biodegrade.

Each of these can be seen as expression of James Q. Wilson and George C. Kelling’s ideas that came to be known as the “Broken Windows Theory.” I’ll focus less on risk taking and more on “societal breakdown” for reasons of space, but both elements are expressed in current criminology theory.

First, the broken windows concept focuses on neighborhoods and communities rather than “cities at large.” In other words, it focuses on logical patrol areas. More important, it focuses on precisely what Mr. Grim called “rule breakers.” The idea with the community policing concept was to establish the “informal rules” as well as formal rules for the neighborhood and enforce them as a community. While the reason for breaking the rules (stupid rule, lemmings, or being inconsiderate) is less important than the fact that they are being broken, the primary idea is that the community as individuals must have the moral courage to support their rules. Littering, jumping subway turnstiles, harassing passersby, etc. are all examples. It’s worth a portion of the article here:

The people on the street were primarily black; the officer who walked the street was white. The people were made up of “regulars” and “strangers.” Regulars included both “decent folk” and some drunks and derelicts who were always there but who “knew their place.” Strangers were, well, strangers, and viewed suspiciously, sometimes apprehensively. The officer – call him Kelly – knew who the regulars were, and they knew him. As he saw his job, he was to keep an eye on strangers, and make certain that the disreputable regulars observed some informal but widely understood rules. Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden. If a dispute erupted between a businessman and a customer, the businessman was assumed to be right, especially if the customer was a stranger. If a stranger loitered, Kelly would ask him if he had any means of support and what his business was; if he gave unsatisfactory answers, he was sent on his way. Persons who broke the informal rules, especially those who bothered people waiting at bus stops, were arrested for vagrancy. Noisy teenagers were told to keep quiet.

These rules were defined and enforced in collaboration with the “regulars” on the street. Another neighborhood might have different rules, but these, everybody understood, were the rules for this neighborhood. If someone violated them the regulars not only turned to Kelly for help but also ridiculed the violator. Sometimes what Kelly did could be described as “enforcing the law,” but just as often it involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order. Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

Second, it is worth an extended quotation to explain where the broken windows idea originates because it describes Tom’s notions of societal breakdown in terms of Mr. Grim’s rules:

…at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within ten minutes of its “abandonment.” The first to arrive were a family – father, mother, and young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began — windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult “vandals” were well dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the ‘vandals” appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder, and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx — its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of “no one caring” — vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers — the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility — are lowered by actions that seem to signal that “no one cares.”

We suggest that “untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers… (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

Now those are the two elements associated with Tom and Mr. Grim’s ideas in their posts. An important element of Tom’s, and the last major idea in this post, is Tom’s statement:

He made the assumption that a very large part of our Society was made up of those who lacked a respect for ruling authority and law. Hence we had more people willing to risk going against that law and the society that supported the law. I tend to believe he is onto something.

I agree. So do Wilson and Kelling. The corollary of course is that people don’t simply pay lip service to the support of law and order. It needs to be tangible. Respect for the ruling authority and law is important. Why? In keeping with Mr. Grim’s rubric, well, a certain friend of mine once said something to the effect, “I hate cops. I have absolutely no respect for them, and if they don’t like that they should find another line of work.” Same caveat goes: “please note that the quotes are to indicate dialogue and are not meant to indicate the statement is verbatim.” Whether it’s laws, rules, police, judges, etc., that we think are stupid or useless, should we not, make use of our democratic processes to change the nature of the laws, rules, police, judges, etc?

For the most part I would say yes. Of course, like any other problem solving exercise, it’s important to start isolating those elements most in need of change and those that really won’t make a difference for each community. Also, for the most part, I would suggest that Tom and Mr. Grim have the best take on what to fix first – the broken windows in our part of the neighborhood. That was my primary reason for writing this – to note that people thinking about crime and its causes tend to bring up elements or pieces of existing theory – knowing part of the problem gets us on the way to answering: “What do we do to fix it?”

“Crime seems to me to be as complex as any other human emotion, action, or desire. That is why it deserves study.” And that “…we want our neighbors to act as we do and want to understand how to keep them from acting out against societal norms.” Mostly, it seems like many people agree, and yet we tend not to want to talk, debate, and argue over these elements that would help us produce change.

Huge thanks to you guys for an excellent discussion of the causes and correlates of crime. I really appreciate the discussion and I hope it provides some inspiration for some of the many ways we can each do our part. So a little anecdote/story about a mutual person of interest between Mr. Grim and me.

I was returning to work from lunch one day, and parked near the back of a full parking lot. As I turned toward the street I heard and saw two things that occurred in swift succession. First I saw a pop can leave the hands of a male on a BMX bike. Second, about the time I heard the full pop can strike the street, I heard my boss bellow, “HEY! Pick that up!” The teenager (I think), obviously embarrassed, stopped his bike and picked up the pop can.

Cheers All!

Ferrell, J., “Boredom, crime, and criminology,” Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 8, No. 3, 287-302 (2004)

Webber, C., “Revaluating relative deprivation theory,” Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 11, No. 1, 97-120 (2007)

Presdee, M., “Cultural Criminology: The long and winding road,” Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 8, No. 3, 275-285 (2004)

Wilson, J.Q. and Kelling, G.L., “Broken Windows,” The Atlantic, March (1982); there is also a PDF version of this article at the Manhattan Institute.

Friends… And the Cause of Crime? (Part 2)

January 11th, 2010 6 comments

Does poverty cause crime?

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, and she recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that garnered quite a range of responses. Tom, over at Responsibility, was kind enough to send me a link. I think Mac Donald’s title pretty much covers the premise of her article: A Crime Theory Demolished: If poverty is the root cause of lawlessness, why did crime rates fall when joblessness increased? (WSJ, 20100104). This actually raises the specter of crime theories – there are a number of them. They are worth mentioning simply because the “root causes” notion of poverty is so well embedded in popular belief (even amongst law enforcement practitioners) that other theories are simply not a part of the conversation.

Perhaps the only theory (apart from “I’m poor, that’s why I…”) that is also a part of the vernacular is the so-called Classical Theory. I say “so-called” because criminal justice text-book authors have chosen that label. Essentially, this theory boils down to free-will, a choice. Though much is made of the “age” of this theory, there are plenty of modern day advocates (e.g. Stafford & Warr, Patternoster, Cornish & Clarke, and a few others) who have provided a new label: Rational Choice or Deterrence Theories. This newer version emphasizes the notion of a “costs v. benefits” analysis, but it still is heavy on the free-will concept. Those are just two theories that are a part of popular dialogue; however, there are a host of others that are not a part of our community conversation:

  1. Positivist – crime is caused or determined by biological, psychological, sociological factors. Claims to use science to determine the factors associated with crime.
  2. Trait Theory – this theory believes that criminals differ from non-criminals on a number of biological and psychological traits, and in conjunction with the environment… well, cause crime.
  3. Anomie / Social Disorganization Theory – as communities break down, informal social controls fail to control crime and criminal cultures emerge.
  4. Differential Association, General Strain, Strain, Control, Control/Balance, Feminist, Postmodernist, Chaos Theory…. You get the idea – lots. Most have some basis for deserving a portion of the “market share” he he he.

I’m a fan of eclecticism, because sometimes, one explanation just isn’t enough. Of course, people from both the right and the left say moderates are simply unable to get the fence post… So, let me remove the fence post from my posterior and say I think Mac Donald is right. As theories of crime go, I believe the notion that “the root cause of crime lies in the income inequality and social injustice” (WSJ, 20100104) has been thoroughly discredited. This is especially true if we remember the difference between causation and correlation. As comments and emails have made plain in response to the last post on this subject, while many readers doubt poverty is the “cause” of crime, they do believe it plays a part in the scheme of things criminal.

Thanks largely to Johnson’s “Great Society” brain trust, this particular brand of “root cause” theory was widely accepted and turned into public policy. These ideas did enough damage that some strange conclusions were drawn, as Mac Donald points out:

If crime was a rational response to income inequality, the thinking went, government can best fight it through social services and wealth redistribution, not through arrests and incarceration. Even law enforcement officials came to embrace the root causes theory, which let them off the hook for rising lawlessness. Through the late 1980s, the FBI’s annual national crime report included the disclaimer that “criminal homicide is largely a societal problem which is beyond the control of the police.” Policing, it was understood, can only respond to crime after the fact; preventing it is the domain of government welfare programs (WSJ, 20100104). (Added emphasis is emphatically mine.)

Despite what many on the left continue to claim, data-driven policing continues to be effective in combating crime. Mac Donald’s article is worth the read for that alone, because she amply demonstrates the effectiveness of the “Compstat” mentality and makes it plain that:

mentality is the opposite of root causes excuse-making; it holds that policing can and must control crime for the sake of urban economic viability. More and more police chiefs have adopted the Compstat philosophy of crime-fighting and the information-based policing techniques that it spawned. Their success in lowering crime shows that the government can control antisocial behavior and provide public safety through enforcing the rule of law. Moreover, the state has the moral right and obligation to do so, regardless of economic conditions or income inequality (WSJ, 20100104).

She follows this up with a warning, and it is prudent – crime rates could still be affected by public safety funding cuts driven by the recession.

With all that being said, I think it’s worth noting that Mac Donald still runs a little loose with her observations. Even if national crime statistics are better than ever, it is also true that there is a substantial positive correlation between poverty stricken areas and crime rates. The bottom line here is that crime tends to be heavier in low income areas than in more upscale neighborhoods. Using a national statistic to “demolish” a local phenomenon isn’t quite true to the use of those statistics – and Mac Donald should know better than to be that misleading.

I suppose the final critique here is that unemployment, the basis for Mac Donald’s tag line in the title, is NOT poverty. Consider the number of households with more than one income, the number of unemployment claims being filed, and the few who are sustaining themselves on odd jobs and savings – with those considerations in mind, equating unemployment with poverty at this point approaches being disingenuous.

Just in case you weren’t sure, I do believe crime is a choice. Having grown up in what passes for poverty here in the United States, I don’t believe it causes crime… though it does limit one’s choices. On the other hand, perhaps my grandmother was right (being a voracious reader, I’m sure she was quoting someone): “We’re not poor, we’re broke. Huge difference. Being broke we can change, being poor is a state of mind.”

P.S.     Tune in next time when we show how engineering students living in Europe, waiting on their next check from home, were somehow living in squalor and utter wretchedness, and decide to fly a few planes into some buildings because they were… poor?

Cheers all!

Oh! The Disparity!

July 15th, 2009 No comments

Just another quickie – Thomas Sowell, hit tip to Neo-Neocon, writes a typically interesting and penetrating article. In an almost J. Swiftian way, he argues for changing the rules of basketball so he can compete equally with Michael Jordan. Though Sowell comes off as self-deprecating about his basketball skills, there is no doubt about his abilities as a writer:

Even under these conditions, you would be better off betting your money on Michael Jordan. But, conceivably at least, we might change the rules some more to make the results come out less lopsided, in order to create “social justice.”

Friends, Christians, and Communists contains my complaint about “social justice,” but read Sowell’s, it’s a lot more fun. Jeff’s comments on hate crime legislation are also worth the read. While your at it, another good read is NeoNeocon’s little screed against the use of “life-stories” in place of real news…

Cheers!

Hate Crime Legislation is sooo Useful

July 9th, 2009 2 comments

This is just a quickie (hat tip to Dr. Helen), but believe it or not, after what was clearly a racially motivated attack (the legal concept of a guilty mind is often inferred from statements made by the perpetrator), the Akron Police can’t seem to bring themselves to classify it as a hate-crime… Astonishing.

Akron police say they aren’t ready to call it a hate crime or a gang initiation.

But to Marty Marshall, his wife and two kids, it seems pretty clear.

It came after a family night of celebrating America and freedom with a fireworks show at Firestone Stadium. Marshall, his family and two friends were gathered outside a friend’s home in South Akron.

Out of nowhere, the six were attacked by dozens of teenage boys, who shouted ”This is our world” and ”This is a black world” as they confronted Marshall and his family.

Yes, all of the boys were black. The father spent several days in the critical care unit after trying to protect his wife and kids. Interesting reading.

Cheers!

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