The Jenga Theory and Abolishing Police

It’s never entirely clear what makes crime go up or down, although theories abound. Sometimes, like the crack epidemic of the late ’80s, a causal connection between cheap, ubiquitous drugs and crime smacks you in the face, but the subsequent diminution of crime remains a mystery. The cops take credit for it, naturally, because it can’t be proven that it wasn’t their brilliant work that made crime drop precipitously. But there’s no evidence to back it up, and there’s plenty of evidence that whatever they claim is doubtful.

Nonetheless, we’re now experiencing a significant rise in murders, even if they remain at historic lows and the percentage increases seem bigger than they really are given the law of small numbers. Then there’s the fact that while murders are up, other crimes are down. That makes little sense, but yet that’s the case. Why?

Former Baltimore cop turned author and professor at John Jay College of Coppery and Shoe Repair,* Peter Moskos, who got his Ph.D. at Harvard for you elite education whores, has a theory.

Bit by bit, the blocks of public safety have been removed. The push to decriminalization and end prosecution for “minor offenses” — open container, public urination, disorderly conduct, marijuana, turnstile jumping, even theft and illegal gun possession — limits police authority. Without legal authority and political backing to enforce existing laws, police have lost their “or else.” Rowdy kids now tell cops where they can go, and the cops comply.

For many, this is a feature, not a flaw. A new breed of progressive prosecutors has battled to see who can prosecute the least. As a result, arrests in 2019 decreased 35% from 2016. Reducing incarceration is desirable, and New York has been doing so literally for decades without jeopardizing public safety.

More recently, since November, because of bail reform and COVID releases, the number of jailed inmates dropped another 40%. People are coming out of jail, and few are going in. Many applaud this because incarceration disproportionately affects Black and Brown people.

When we smurf reforms, talk about them one by one without putting them together, each seems good and laudable and none seems to court disaster. But that’s not how the world fits together.

But so does non-enforcement and the rise in violence. In 2018 (the latest year with published data), 95.7% of shooting victims in New York City are Black or Hispanic. Just 4.3% of victims are white or Asian. When violence goes up, more Black and Hispanic people are shot.

If you find dead black and Hispanic people to be a bad thing, regardless of who pulls the trigger, this is concerning. Moskos compares it to a game of Jenga.

It’s like a game of Jenga in which the wooden blocks of public safety are stacked into a tower. Each player in turn pulls out one block. The tower holds. But as more and more blocks are removed, one too many is pulled — one that may have been removed earlier and without consequence — and now the entire tower is tumbling down.

There are plenty of theories about what causes crime, often grouped under the worthless rhetoric of “systemic racism” which fails to describe or identify problems to be addressed rather than some mystical force that makes everything awful and removes all responsibility from its victims. There are tons of explanations, rationalizations and excuses for why we need to reinvent everything, even if there’s little thought put into how that reinvented world might be viable.

But in the process of pulling out wooden blocks, one by one, without consideration of how it will effect foundation of the structure, does there come a time when we’ve pulled out one too many and the structure comes tumbling down?

Maybe it’s the “straw that broke the camel’s back” (apologies for being camelist). Maybe it’s the elimination of one law, rule or norm that is far more critical to the maintenance of the structure than appreciated. Maybe it’s not the particular wooden block, but the cumulative effect of too many blocks being pulled out. Regardless, down comes the structure, which is a metaphor for society, and then it’s gone. Was that what we wanted to accomplish?

Moskos’ theory is interesting, regardless of whether it gives too much credit to police in either preventing crime or serving society. While he’s not antagonistic toward reform, he’s also not antagonistic toward the existence and need for police.

Years of political advocacy have resulted in the intentional erosion of legal police authority. There is less prosecution. Most miscreant activities have been decriminalized. The city survived and even benefited from many reforms, but now the camel’s back is breaking.

For many of us, the need for reform when society was hugging them some cops for keeping them safe from the danger du jour was a matter worthy of address, with facts, reason and a clear understanding of the interconnection between the many moving parts of the Rube Goldberg machine we call the criminal justice system.

Today, the advocates for change are far more passionate than knowledgeable, some being either remarkably clueless or deliberately disingenuous. And so their slogans and quasi-false cries of heartbreak emotionally manipulate their followers to march for what they call “justice.” If you ask a dead black guy shot last weekend whether it’s “justice,” you won’t get an answer because he’s dead.

While I’m far less of a supporter of policing, in general, and policing as it manifests in the over-militarized, under-empathetic, fashion of the past couple decades, it’s wrong to ignore the pain of crime victims as we exaggerate the pain of those who harmed them. Both require thought. Both need to be considered in deciding which wooden blocks can be safely pulled out, and which will make the structure collapse. Neither leaving all the wooden blocks alone, nor pulling them out mindlessly, is going to keep the structure standing.

For those of us who don’t want to see the structure fall, because we reject the idea that some glorious structure will magically materialize in its place, Moskos’ theory should give some serious pause before siding with whatever new scheme your team comes up with. It just might be the wooden block that brings it all down.

*That’s the unofficial name. Well, my unofficial name, anyway.

10 thoughts on “The Jenga Theory and Abolishing Police

  1. Ahaz01

    You’re making too much sense today. I firmly oppose the policing model we have today, yet know good and constitutional policing is needed for any society to exist. How to get to the latter is problematic. People don’t know how many times SWAT are deployed in their neighborhoods just for search warrants. Too many are oblivious to civil asset forfeiture and the predatory nature of policing today. And then there is the general malaise, because much of the public doesn’t care so long as the abuse happens to the “other” person. I once had a conversation with a conservative member of our state house judiciary committee about SWAT deployments in Maryland, where 92% of SWAT deployments are for search warrants. Her general attitude was that she trusted her Sheriff in her district to make the right decisions. And perhaps that’s that also prevents reforms. The Reagan principle “Trust but verify” doesn’t apply to LE.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Too bad most folks disregard their slinky and instead reach for their cell phone while riding out a block tower failure.

    Good thing there is a foundation under the Jenga tower, but who needs a foundation when the blocks are made out of styrofoam? There in lays the problem esteemed one…

    Comes a time, usually after realizing string doesn’t push very well, that it becomes apparent even the best engineering don’t mean shit if you “starve” the blocks and deny them an orderly opportunity to play the tower game.

    But don’t you worry tooling up the slinky factories is still a thing until there is nobody left to turn the lights…

  3. Mark Brooks

    Dear Mr. Greenfield

    As you know I am not a citizen of the USA nor am I a “green card holder”. However, this does not mean I am not aware of the ongoings in your country. From an outsider’s perspective and observing the current situation as you have so well described, the USA seems to be like a pendulum, swinging back and forth, between the “sublime to the ridiculous”. I keep on going back to that Caterpillar ad, “There are no simple solutions, only intelligent choices”, but it seems voices of reason are silent.

    Kind Regards
    Mark Brooks
    St. Elizabeth

    1. SHG Post author

      I keep worrying that the pendulum is going to hit me in the head as it swings past me with great velocity.

      1. Guitardave

        “Thus the condition of man, bound on an island
        from which he can never hope to escape …”

  4. Noxx

    I feel like the author strolled right past a number of very plausible explanations for this violent summer on his way to his hobby horse.

    1. SHG Post author

      Could that be why I chose not to raise that question, so no one would ignore the point of my post to discuss instead his explanation?

      Yes. Yes it could.

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