Posted 5/3/21


Cops can’t correct what most needs fixing

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. It’s a heartbreaking sight, and no less so because we know how things turned out for the sixteen-year old.  Alas, little about Ma’Khia Bryant or her circumstances were likely known by the Columbus, Ohio officer who pulled up to the chaotic scene in response to a 9-1-1 call about someone aggressively wielding a knife. (For a video taken from across the street click here. For a stop-motion bodycam video click here.)

     Clearly, the cop had only moments to act. But as one might expect, he was promptly condemned. No less a figure than LeBron James quickly tweeted a sarcastic “YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY.” Once body cam and bystander videos surfaced, though, their depiction of the speed at which events unfolded and the imminent threat to life somewhat muted the criticism. Taking the time to “de-escalate” could have been the same as doing nothing. Colleagues and citizens from across the racial spectrum have come to the star-crossed officer’s defense. Yet regardless of their (admittedly belated) support, consider how killing a young person must feel.

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     However justifiable, the shooting reignited chronic discontent. Only six years after Columbus resolved a DOJ patterns-and-practices inquiry into alleged police misconduct, its Mayor asked (and activists demanded) that the Feds launch another. We’re well aware that the present tenor is to blame poor outcomes on the cops, and only the cops. And we agree that there’s always something to gain by dispassionately analyzing their practices. We’ve done it ourselves. This time, though, let’s focus on something that’s beyond the power of even the most enlightened officers to change. We’re talking, of course, about place.

     We’ll start with Columbus. It has twenty-six regular ZIP codes. We collected their population and poverty rates from the Census, and computed the number of aggravated assaults using the LexisNexis community crime map, to which Columbus PD contributes. (2019 was chosen to avoid the influences of the pandemic.)

Check out the scattergram. Each ZIP code is represented by a dot. Note how poverty and aggravated assault (rate per 100,000 pop.) increase in nearly lock-step fashion. Their association, which yields a robust .79 “r” coefficient, reflects the powerful relationship between crime and economic conditions that we harp about in our Neighborhoods essays.

     To make the connection between poverty and violence even more evident we compared the five ZIP’s with the lowest aggravated assault rates with the five ZIP’s at the other end. Look at the their rates. Their contrast could hardly be greater. Ma’Khia Bryant lost her life in a different neighborhood, ZIP 43232. Its poverty and aggravated assault rates, which seem sizeable from an outsider’s perspective, fall about midway through the city’s distribution. But Ms. Bryant wasn’t raised there. Her mother lost custody of her four children long ago. About two years ago, after a stint with grandma didn’t work out, social services assigned Ms. Bryant and a younger sister to be fostered by a White couple. That’s where they were living when the tragedy happened.

     Minneapolis is another place that’s been long battered by poverty and episodes of policing gone wrong. Derek Chauvin isn’t the only MPD cop who’s been convicted of murder. Only two years ago then-MPD officer Mohammed Noor was found guilty of murdering a 9-1-1 caller whom he impulsively mistook as a threat. And there’s been some recent local competition. On Friday, April 11, as Chauvin’s trial closed its second week, a police officer employed by Brooklyn Center, an incorporated Minneapolis suburb of about 30,000, accidentally drew the wrong weapon. Although Kim Potter yelled “Taser” three times, the trigger she squeezed was that of her pistol. Daunte Wright, a Black 20-year old man, fell dead.

     Mr. Wright had been stopped for a license plate issue. But when officers tried to arrest him on a gun-related warrant, he bolted for his car. That’s when the 26-year year police veteran committed that rare but not unheard-of blunder. Honest mistake or not, the tragedy led Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar to insist that her colleagues pass the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.” (It seeks, among other things, to ban chokeholds and end qualified immunity for police.) Senator Klobuchar also offered some pointed remarks at Mr. Wright’s funeral. “True justice is not done as long as having expired tags means losing your life during a traffic stop,” she said.

     Ms. Potter and her chief both resigned. They were soon joined by the city manager. Instead of murder, though, the former cop was charged with 2nd. degree manslaughter. If convicted she faces “only” ten years.

     Let’s subject Minneapolis to the same looking-glass we used for Columbus. Minneapolis also contributes to the LexisNexis crime map. However, in 2019 it identified crime locations by neighborhood instead of ZIP code. There are eighty regular neighborhoods in the city. For each we obtained population and median household income data from the Statistical Atlas of the United States. We used the latter (/1000) instead of poverty rates. Here’s the scattergram:

Once again, the association between economic conditions and violence is crystal clear. As income increases aggravated assault rates literally plunge. (Thus the correlation statistic is negative, meaning that the “variables” move in opposite directions.) We also compared the five Minneapolis neighborhoods at both extremes of the aggravated-assault scale. Here are the results, with place names abbreviated:

Again, the link between poverty and violence is readily apparent. As we harped about in “Repeat After Us,” when it comes to assessing crime city names are meaningless. It’s really places that count.

     So what’s the takeaway? Given the vagaries of both officer and citizen temperament, counting on cops to de-escalate and do all the “right” things while working under the uncertain, often threatening conditions of the “real world” is a tall order. Think you can do better? Start off with inadequate resources and a lack of information. Add a heady portion of citizen non-compliance, substance abuse and personal issues. And by all means stir in some inappropriate behavior by colleagues and superiors who want to do things “their” way (remember, um, Chauvin?) Voila! You’ve cooked up the toxic brew that even well-meaning cops (and these are in the vast majority) consume each day. Enjoy!

     Law-abiding citizens who endure the everyday violence and gangsterism that accompanies poverty have been speaking out. In the aftermath of the police killing of Adam Toledo, a thirteen-year old resident of Chicago’s impoverished “Little Village” neighborhood (household median income $31.5K), a deeply-researched story in the Tribune featured the sentiments of residents who were fed up, and not just with the police:

  • Seventy-four year old sidewalk vendor: “We are tired of gang violence; it’s sad what happened with the young boy, but he had a gun with him and his friend had been shooting, so the officer responded to the threat.”
  • Thirty-eight year old man doing his laundry: “We can’t even go out safely because there are random shootings everywhere and you never know if a stray bullet might hit you.”
  • Fifty-nine year old grandmother (she tries to keep away from gang members and cops): “The only reason people are talking about (killings) now is that it was a police officer who shot and killed the kid.”

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     To be sure, the craft of policing can always improve. But poverty and the things that come with poverty can make even “routine” policing exasperating. As we recently noted in “Fix Those Neighborhoods!” and “Human Renewal,” making a real difference would require a concerted effort to provide needy areas with resources and services that might prevent the next Adam Toledo from running around with an armed gang-member at one in the morning. That calls for major investments in child care, tutoring, job training, apprenticeships, health care and housing. And yes, it would be expensive, and yes, residents of better-off areas might complain.

     But look at those faces. Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo and Daunte Wright were clearly troubled souls. Each could have used some quality social, educational and health supports far earlier in life. But here we are, in the supposedly enlightened twenty-first century, and we still ignore the profound, life-shattering consequences of being raised in poverty. And when cops dealing with these intractable issues misstep, as they sooner or later will, it’s once again time to levy discipline, crank up the rules and turn out those massive studies and reports.

     Sound familiar?

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Memo to Joe Biden: Focus on Neighborhood Safety (The Crime Report, Dec. 7, 2020)


Special topics:  Neighborhoods

Fix Those Neighborhoods!     Gold Badges      Human Renewal     Repeat After Us:

A Not-so-Magnificent Obsession     Three Shootings     A Tragedy, Yes

Posted 2/22/21


Violent crime is reportedly way up. But do we all suffer equally?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. According to the the Los Angeles Times, 2020 was “a year like no other.” Murder, it breathlessly reported, hit “a decade high after years of sustained reductions,” and shootings soared nearly forty percent. But L.A.’s hardly alone. According to the Chicago Tribune, the toll in perennially lethal Cook County hit a historic high, with “more gun-related homicides in 2020 than any other year, surpassing the previous record set in 1994.” Even New York City, which habitually boasts about its low crime numbers, feels cause for alarm. A recent New York Times opinion piece, “The Homicide Spike is Real,” calls killings and shootings “the city’s second-biggest challenge” next to the pandemic. But when it comes to gunplay “the way forward is less clear, and the prospects for a better 2021 are much dimmer.”

     Check out the graph. Homicide in Chicago increased fifty-six percent in 2020, soaring from an already deplorable 492 killings to an eye-popping 769 (the per/100,000 rate jumped from 18.2 to 28.5). While perhaps less mind-bending, increases in Los Angeles (38 percent) and New York City (45 percent) were also pronounced. Indeed, violence surged in large cities and small.

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     So our first question is...why?

     Two major reasons have been offered: the pandemic, and police killings. These dreadful events have led to economic chaos and social unrest, impairing the functioning of the state and fracturing its connection with the citizens it ostensibly serves. Not only has the pandemic taken cops off the street, but their deployment’s been deeply affected as well. As the Washington Post noted, this “thinning” of ranks can have serious consequences:

    In many departments, police ranks were thinned significantly by the combined effect of officers being out sick and being assigned to manage unrest on the streets. And given the concerns about spreading the coronavirus, officers were going to fewer places and interacting with fewer people, allowing more opportunities for people to settle disputes themselves.

Chicago’s new police superintendent, David Brown, was brought in by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to deal with the chaos. He attributes much of the increase in violence, to “extended periods of heightened civil unrest and looting” that were sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. It’s not just about Mr. Floyd. Noted criminologist Richard Rosenfeld believes that our legacy of lethal police-citizen encounters has actually damaged the state’s moral authority:

    During a period of widespread intense protest against police violence, it’s fair to suppose that police legitimacy deteriorates, especially in those communities that have always had a fraught relationship with police. That simply widens the space for so-called street justice to take hold, and my own view is that is a part of what we are seeing.

     Considering just their reaction to COVID-19 constraints, it’s clear that some citizens have become less willing to comply. Eager to avoid conflict, and with fewer officers to spare, many agencies have severely pared back on enforcement. Aggressive, focused approaches such as “hot spots policing” and “stop-and-frisk” seem threatened with extinction. LAPD Captain Paul Vernon, who runs his agency’s Compstat unit, feels that this purposeful pulling back has reduced gang members’ fear of being caught and led to more shootings and killings. What’s more, some cops may be reacting to the “new normal” by purposely slowing down. According to the New York Times, that’s exactly what happened in the Big Apple. If so, it’s not a new phenomenon. Three years ago in “Police Slowdowns” we wrote about the protracted slowdown that followed the arrest and prosecution of a handful of Baltimore’s finest after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. (Ditto, Chicago and Minneapolis.)

     Whatever its causes, the decline in proactivity has serious implications. In his recent paper, “Explaining the Recent Homicide Spikes in U.S. Cities,” Professor Paul G. Cassell proposed the “Minneapolis Effect”:

    Specifically, law enforcement agencies have been forced to divert resources from normal policing to patrolling demonstrations. And even as the anti-police protests have abated, police officers have scaled back on proactive or officer-initiated law enforcement, such as street stops and other forms of policing designed to prevent firearms crimes.

     Of course, it’s not just about policing. Folks have suffered from the closing of schools, parks and libraries. Chicago P.D. Sgt. Jermain Harris, who works with youths, offers his take on what happens when community supports disappear:

    You take away the businesses, all the pieces of society that generally have eyes out, and you are left with young people, and a lot of young people, who don’t have resources or that level of support if they are left on their own.

     Well, it all seems plausible enough. Yet your blogger, and probably most who skim through our essays, lives in a middle-class area that seems just as peaceful as before the madness began. Other than the officer who lives a few houses down, cops are hardly ever around, and their absence is thought unremarkable. So that brings us to the second question: who suffers most?

     LAPD Chief Michel Moore knows. He recently pointed out that in L.A., the increase of violence has mostly affected areas long beset by gangs and gunplay:

    Nearly all of the loss of life and shooting victims are centered in the Black and brown communities. The lack of jobs and supportive services, a sense of hopelessness, easy access to firearms and ineffective parts of the criminal justice system have created a perfect storm to undermine public safety gains built over the last decade.

Chief Moore is referring to the same poor neighborhoods whose chronic problems with crime and violence are the stock-in-trade of our Neighborhoods special section. Bottom line: it’s not about cities but about the places within cities where people live.  Check out this graph. As we noted in “Mission Impossible?” there are even some relatively safe spots in...Chicago! For instance, Rogers Park, Chicago PD District 24. Its 2020 murder rate (thru 12/27) was more than a third lower than the Windy City’s overall. Yet in downtrodden Englewood, Chicago’s P.D.’s 7th. District, the already sky-high 2019 rate soared seventy percent.

     In “Location, Location, Location” we mentioned that Los Angeles has a number of relatively safe spaces. Say, Westwood. Populated by about fifty thousand of the (mostly) well-to-do, the prosperous community suffered one murder in 2019 and none in 2020. Alas, most L.A. residents aren’t nearly as fortunate. Consider the chronically troubled Florence area (pop. 46,610) of South L.A. With ten killings in 2019 and ten in 2020, its murder rate wound up more than twice that of the city as a whole.

Conditions in New York city also “depend.” Contrast, for example, the affluent Upper East Side’s (pop. 225,914) zero murders in 2019 and one in 2020 with bedraggled Brownsville’s (pop. 84, 525) eleven killings in 2019 and twenty-five in 2020. To be sure, Brownsville seems a less threatening place than L.A.’s Florence district or Chicago’s Englewood. Yet its contrast to the rest of the city within which its borders lie seems equally pronounced. It’s as though there are two cities: one comprises Rogers Park, Westwood and the Upper East Side, and the other is made up of Englewood, Florence and Brownsville.

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     This graph brings it all together using 2020 data. (To save space, Englewood’s sky-high murder rate runs off the top.) It’s no news to our readers that economic conditions and their correlates – here we use number of residents with four-year degrees – are deeply related to crime and violence. So what can be done? Prior posts in our “Neighborhoods” section have rooted for comprehensive approaches that offer residents of low-income communities job training, tutoring, child care and other critical services.

     Grab a quick look at “Place Matters.” Whether it comes from “neighborhood revitalization” programs such as promoted by Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, or from that “Marshall Plan” we ceaselessly harp about, there’s no question – none – that a concerted effort to give needy neighborhoods a boost would greatly improve their socioeconomic health and reap fabulous human benefits. And, not-so-incidentally, keep their inhabitants from becoming the “usual victims” whose demise our posts persistently quantify.

     Violence is not an equal-opportunity threat. But of course we all knew that.


4/24/21  Located in a neighborhood of “neglect” and “entrenched poverty,” a Knoxville high school has lost five students this year to gunfire. It started in January with the shooting death of a football player, and ended on April 12 with the police killing of a 17-year old who was wanted for domestic violence and reportedly fired at officers in a bathroom. During the confusion one officer reportedly wounded another.

4/11/21  A 21-year old man on probation for a gun crime opened fire in a violence-beset Chicago neighborhood as a vehicle passed by. Shot-spotter devices alerted police, and officers quickly appeared. The suspect bolted but was promptly arrested. His companion, 13-year old Adam Toledo, also ran off. He now had the gun. Officers say that the youth turned at them with the weapon, and they shot him dead.

3/21/21  Three Chicago officers have been shot within a week, two more since our last update six days ago. One, seriously wounded in the stomach, was off duty, sitting in his car at a traffic light. Two suspects are being sought. The other officer suffered a hand wound while responding to a call about gunshots. Her assailant was arrested. Chicago’s also beset by carjackings, many by small groups of thugs. There have been 370 so far this year, the most in at least two decades.

3/15/21  On September 14 gunfire broke out at a “pop-up” party in Chicago’s bedraggled South Side. By the time it was done fifteen were wounded and a 30-year old woman and a 39-year old man lay dead. Officers found four pistols and attribute the incident to gangs. Hours later a gunman drove by a police station in the South Side and opened fire, wounding a sergeant who had just stepped outside.

3/10/21  BJS reports that the local jail population decreased about twenty-five percent during the twelve months ending June 30, 2020. Inmates being held on misdemeanors declined about 45 percent; those held for felonies, about 18 percent. At mid-year 2020 the jail incarceration rate was 167/100K, the lowest in three decades. COVID-imposed restrictions are considered the primary cause. Report

3/9/21  Lethal gunplay is way up in Los Angeles, with 64 murders and 267 shootings thru March 2 compared with 46 murders and 111 shootings during that period last year. While many killings continue to be attributed to gangs, armed robberies are taking place throughout the city. And in what an LAPD assistant chief called a “disturbing trend,” holdup victims are increasingly being shot.

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Memo to Joe Biden: Focus on Neighborhood Safety (The Crime Report, Dec. 7, 2020)


Special topics:  Is Crime Up or Down?     Neighborhoods

Four Weeks, Six Massacres     Punishment Isn’t a Cop’s Job     Should Police Treat the Whole Patient?

Don’t Divest – Invest!     Place Matters     Turning Cops Into Liars     Mission Impossible?

Repeat After Us     Police Slowdowns (I)  (II)     Be Careful  (I)  (II)     Location, Location, Location


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