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The logic of policing

Whenever there’s a serious crime, police, DAs, etc., call for more police. But take a serious look at the logic of what they’re asking for. Police get to crime scenes after crimes have been committed. Theirs is largely a mopping up operation. Other agencies and organizations get there before there’s a problem. Social workers, youth programs, parks departments, religious institutions, swimming programs, after-school activities, community colleges, training programs, are all in the prevention business, and thank heavens people are going back to work at last.

Police force size can affect crime rates. But data show that crime goes up and down, regardless of whether the police forces have gotten larger or smaller. Many other factors have much more impact on the crime rate and are far beyond the ability of police departments to handle.

In the years when it was a woman’s right, the availability of abortion and contraception reduced the number of unwanted babies so far fewer grew up where they weren’t wanted, where they became more susceptible to criminal paths.

The recent pandemic disrupted every aspect of life, put many out of work, increased frustration, even desperation for some, and left many with nothing to do. The pandemic caught government between terrified teachers and desperate parents, between essential workers who couldn’t stay home to care for their families and schools which couldn’t be staffed. The results stressed everybody and left many young children without the adult direction children need. The stress, lack of supervision and daily structure all contributed to increased violence.

And the effort to blame bail reform is equally misguided blame shifting – it was much more significant that the pandemic slowed or closed courts making justice unavailable. And remember, it’s bail that’s catch and release – as the Governor has been explaining, many provisions allow judges to keep dangerous people behind bars, without giving judges vague and unbounded discretion that allow their prejudices to determine whether to ruin people’s chances at productive and decent lives by locking them up at the cost of their jobs, their families, their kids and their futures.

It's important to support agencies that show up before there are crimes to investigate. We once paid much more attention to getting young people off the streets and into group activities. And there were lots fewer guns on the street. The police are just one agency among many whose jobs are much more directly related to prevention.

Some people are much more committed to retribution than prevention. We used to call prisons penitentiaries where people can become penitent. We often call them the clink, cooler, or house of detention where people are stored away from everyone else. And then we started calling them reformatories and houses of correction which are supposed to change and prepare inmates for return to society – though our prisons are still our best schools for criminal and gangs behavior. Recidivism is high. But we “save money” by ending programs that actually decrease future crimes like education in prisons. Too often we stress retribution over prevention and get punishment without prevention.

Loading conflicting demands on police departments that they’re not well designed to fulfill doesn’t do justice to them or to us. The logic of public safety is that the police are the people who show up after the damage is done, while other agencies show up before things go wrong and provide the assistance and direction people need. We need to support the agencies that work with people before the crimes are committed.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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