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?
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.