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Posted 12/14/09


Camden PD fights crime and violence.  And its own officers.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Being first is normally an honor.  But when the FBI reported that Camden, New Jersey, pop. 76,182, had 1,777 violent crimes and 54 murders in 2008, yielding a sky-high violence rate of 2332.6 per 100,000 and a dismal murder rate of 7.1 per 10,000, it was hardly bestowing praise.  Just like in 2004 and 2005 (and nearly 2007, when it was number two) Camden was once again the most dangerous city in the U.S.

     While the UCR warns against simply ranking communities – after all, there are demographic variables such as age, educational attainment and income to consider – there’s no escaping the  implications.  Aggregating all Part I crimes except arson, Camden’s 2008 crime score was twenty-four percent higher than runner-up St. Louis, a stunning fifty-eight percent more than fifth-placed Flint, and a ridiculous two-hundred-and-four percent higher than twenty-ninth placed Newark, itself no slouch in the violence sweepstakes.  Current-year figures are mixed.  As of last month homicides and shootings were both down (although still ahead of 2006) but aggravated assault has increased, driving overall violence up five percent over 2008.

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     No matter how one slices and dices, the troubled community’s crime stat’s are grim.  Reproduced from an earlier posting about Newark, these crime charts (Camden was included as a worst-case scenario) portray what many consider the indisputably criminogenic effects of de-industrialization.  Adding insult to injury – the troubled community’s poverty rate has for years hovered at one-third – its unemployment rate reached a stunning 17 percent in May 2009.

     It’s no surprise that in 2002, in what was billed as the “biggest municipal takeover in American history,” New Jersey brought Camden under State control.  Taking over in exchange for injecting a $175 million stimulus, it appointed a “Chief Operating Officer” with authority to approve all decisions of the Mayor and City Council.  One year later New Jersey’s attorney general appointed a “Police Director” to oversee the struggling police department.

     What’s been the result?  A recent headline by the Philadelphia Inquirer says it all:  “Camden Rebirth: A promise still unfulfilled.”  Despite years of intervention the local economy remains stagnant.  Empty, boarded-up storefronts litter vast sections of the city.  During rainstorms raw sewage overflows into basements, driving hapless residents from their homes.  And while crime and violence remain unacceptably high, police strength, which Trenton promised to keep at then-existing levels, has plunged from fifteen to thirty-four percent depending on how one’s counting.  Equipment shortages and malfunctions are also rampant, with police cars in such disrepair that twenty recently flunked State inspection.

     That’s not to say that the State hasn’t tried.  In 2008 a leap in the homicide rate led to the sixth command change in as many years.  Luis Vega, a tough-minded ex-NYPD cop became the new police director while veteran Camden officer John Thomson was installed as the new chief.  Tactics were thoroughly revamped.  Compstat is being used to track crime patterns and assess effectiveness.  Police regularly swoop down on hot spots, ticketing and arresting petty violators in an attempt to remedy quality-of-life problems that were supposedly ignored in the past.  To insure that cops are doing as they’re told Jose Cordero, the attorney general’s gang czar, shows up each week to monitor progress.

     Alas, there’s been considerable blowback from the rank-and-file.  With only 290 officers on active status, as compared to 440 when the State took over, the weight of the new style has fallen heavily on the shoulders of ordinary cops.  Their complaints range across a broad spectrum, from missing lunch breaks and being denied vacation time, to being pressed to arrest and stop citizens without adequate cause, to being told how and where to patrol while camera-toting internal affairs detectives run around making sure they comply.

     Something had to give, and it did.  Like each of his predecessors, Police Director Vega lasted only one year, resigning in August for “family reasons”.  If Camden’s Mayor has her way, he won’t be replaced:

    I dare anyone to show me any police department in the country that has been studied as often as the Camden Police Department, has had as many leadership changes and . . . [such a] confusing and fractured command structure.

     Is Camden’s aggressive approach the appropriate response?  Hot-spot strategies are nothing new, but the city’s “mobilization drill” version seems more like the work of an occupying force than a civilian police:

    ...out of nowhere, 16 police cruisers, lights flashing, pull into the neighborhood. Car doors slam, officers fall into formation.  There's a 30-second briefing before officers are off to look for speeding motorcycles, teenagers smoking pot, and men wanted on warrants. In less than two hours on a summer evening, 38 pedestrians are questioned, 14 traffic tickets are issued, and one arrest is made...

     Citizens aren’t the only targets.  The union leader calls Compstat meetings “nightmares.”  A recent example featured Mr. Cordero, the AG’s man, browbeating a veteran captain because one of his teams made only a single arrest in four days.  (A newsman who was present didn’t report whether Mr. Cordero asked about the nature of the case.)

     Any city that thinks it can cite and arrest its way out of a perfect storm of poverty and joblessness is badly mistaken.  Same goes for any department that tries to bully cops or turn them into robots.  It’s no secret that many of the forty officers who left the department last year did so because they were disgruntled.  What’s more, those still hanging around don’t seem much happier. That’s a bad sign.  In the real world – and that presumably includes Camden – most police work is done outside the presence of supervisors and internal affairs.  It’s well known that micromanagement and heavy-handed supervision can destroy morale and stifle innovation.  They can also break the bond between staff and line, yielding platoons of independent contractors who could care less what the chief thinks.

     As the Mayor suggests, Camden PD really is an excellent case study.  It’s for that reason that its troubles became the topic for a midterm essay at Cal State Fullerton.  Here is what a student who happens to be a working street cop had to say:

    The problem associated with the officers’ resistance [to being told what to do] stems from the type of individual that is hired for law enforcement.  An assertive, decision-making type of person would not want to be told when to exercise that assertiveness and how to make one’s decisions.

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     Camden PD badly needs to find a balance that will allow it to implement effective strategies while allowing officers the discretion and flexibility they need, and the job satisfaction they seek.  Perhaps its managers could begin by looking past Compstat and asking those most familiar with field conditions – their own officers – to help devise sensible and sustainable responses to crime and violence.

     If they’d like, we could send a couple students to help them get started.

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Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I)  (II)     The New Normal     A Tale of Three Cities

Posted 11/15/09


In hindsight everything’s simple.  But policing takes a lot more than hindsight.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  So much violence, so little time!  While the (virtual) ink from “Hidden in Plain Sight” was still wet we were shaken by horrific news from Cleveland, where police were unearthing human remains at the home of registered sex offender Anthony Sowell.  As digging continues eleven bodies have been found, all female.  So far the identities of ten are known.  Ranging in age 25 to 52, most were reportedly addicts and sex workers.  Sowell, who had been released in 2005 after doing fifteen years for rape, had apparently lured them in with drugs and liquor.

     How was he caught?  It wasn’t because police and public health authorities followed up on complaints about a horrible stench emanating from the residence (they didn’t).

     It wasn’t because a woman accused Sowell of choking and raping her last November.  (Sowell was arrested but the case was dismissed, apparently because the victim didn’t seem credible.)

     It wasn’t because a deputy checking up on sex offenders got suspicious when he stopped by to chat with Sowell last month.  (The officer didn’t enter the home.  Maybe it smelled too bad.  Anyway, there was no need, as Sowell was reporting as required.  A psychologist even declared that he was unlikely to reoffend!)

     It wasn’t because a woman told police that shortly after the deputy left Sowell choked and raped her, then offered her money to keep quiet.  (She supposedly didn’t show up for an interview.)

     And it wasn’t because a naked woman landed on the street after “falling” from Sowell’s upper-floor window. (She reportedly refused to talk to officers who went to see her at the hospital.)

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     In the end Sowell’s September victim finally met with the cops.  What she said led them to obtain arrest and search warrants.  Once inside the home, their noses led them to two bodies.  Hmm, something suspicious here!

     Only days after the grim discovery in Cleveland another mass killing rocked the nation.  This one happened all at once.  On November 5, 2009 a thirty-nine year old Fort Hood psychiatrist went on a shooting spree, killing thirteen and wounding twenty-eight.  Major Nidal Malik Hasan now stands charged with capital murder.

     Hasan had a troubled history.  According to a former classmate at the Medical University of the Armed Services, he frequently expressed opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and considered himself “a Muslim first and an American second.”  Hasan once gave a lecture on “whether the war on terror is a war against Islam.”  When students challenged him about the topic’s relevance (it was an environmental health course) Hasan got “sweaty and nervous and emotional.”

     After graduating in 2003 Hasan was an intern and resident at Walter Reed Medical Center.  If anything, his clashes with colleagues got worse.  Hasan seemed distracted.  He was often late for work and made himself unavailable even while on call.  Co-workers said that he was occasionally belligerent and belittled colleagues.  Hasan’s detached attitude and extremist orientation (he gave a bizarre lecture in which he remarked that “the Quran teaches that infidels should have their heads cut off and set on fire”) led colleagues to worry about his mental health.  Indeed, superiors considered terminating Hasan’s residency, but the procedures were onerous and they were afraid he would accuse them of religious bias.  In the end Hasan was dealt with in the time-tested manner: he was promoted (to Major) and transferred to Fort Hood.

     While at Walter Reed Hasan exchanged e-mails with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.  Designated by the U.S. as a “global terrorist,” the imam lives in Yemen, where he went after leading a Virginia mosque that Hasan attended.  Picked up by routine intercepts, the e-mails were forwarded to a Joint Terrorist Task Force.  Agents apparently contacted a top official at Walter Reed, who surmised that the messages were in connection with Hasan’s research on post-traumatic stress.  Concluding that the e-mails were innocuous, the task force closed its file.  But what did they really know about Hasan?  Had they been told that his PowerPoint presentation on post-traumatic stress included a slide with the purported Muslim warrior creed, “we love death more than you love life”?  Were they aware that he was trying to get an early separation because of alleged religious persecution?

     Neither Walter Reed nor the task force were in a position to investigate an odd duck at Fort Hood. That was a job for Army intelligence or CID.  But they weren’t alerted, so the puzzle remained unassembled.  Even had they looked they would have missed a key fact: Hasan had recently purchased a handgun.  And not just any handgun, but an unusually expensive, highly lethal, high-capacity cop killer that was never intended for civilian use.  Of course, since the Feds and Texas lack centralized gun registries, there was no way to know that Hasan bought a gun short of asking him or visiting gun stores.

     Everyone (like your blogger) who’s kicked off an intelligence program knows to prepare for an avalanche.  Whether information arrives electronically or through word of mouth, there are hardly enough resources to examine data let alone pursue more than a tiny fraction of leads.

     That embarrassment of riches affects everyone, from the pointy-heads at police HQ to the cop on the beat.  Cast your net too broadly and you’ll invariably commit a rash of “Type 1” errors, sending out trivial leads and squandering your credibility.  Narrow your search and you’ll get bit by “Type 2” errors, missing worthwhile targets like Sowell or Hasan whom any idiot should have known to investigate.

     Police are expected to accomplish something.  As we’ve pointed out, catching real terrorists is tough, so it’s not surprising that given limited resources the Feds might choose to “rope in” dummies.  More generally, the tendency to reach for low-lying fruit is manifested in a preference for so-called “actionable” intelligence, meaning that the underlying offense is self-evident or nearly so.  Put simply, until a victim signed on the dotted line Sowell was just another of the umpteen weasels polluting Cleveland’s troubled Imperial Avenue neighborhood.  Hasan?  He wasn’t even on radar.

     It’s a truism that Type 2 errors of omission usually go undetected, so the chances of being seriously embarrassed by not acting are small.  Sowell and Hasan were exceptions.  Their dangerousness wasn’t appreciated because the default strategy is to dismiss, dismiss, dismiss.  Unless there’s an obvious violation, officers may go to extraordinary lengths to routinize information and interpret questionable behavior in its most favorable light.  Consider for example the Madoff scandal, where the Feds overlooked blatant inconsistencies and ignored detailed tips in a rush to “prove” that all was well.

     Doing nothing is easy to justify.  According to the spokesperson for the Cleveland sheriff, the deputy who talked with Sowell didn’t go in the house because he didn’t have the authority.  Hasan was promoted because kicking him out might have triggered controversy.  Absent an underlying crime – Sowell’s murders were as yet undiscovered; Hasan’s were still to be committed – neither case offered an obvious entry point or investigative path.  Intending no pun, there was plenty of reason to dig, but the calculus of political, bureaucratic and individual needs mitigated against anyone picking up a shovel.

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     As we suggested in “Hidden in Plain Sight,” disorganized, poverty-stricken neighborhoods are particularly challenging.  Sowell preyed on victims who were indisposed to turn to police, and if they did, were unlikely to be believed.  Citizens besieged by violence had long given up trying to wake up the city to their plight, while overburdened cops looked on even the oddest circumstances, like women tumbling from windows, as just another symptom of the miserable conditions on their beat.

     In the end, it’s that last observation that offers the hint of a remedy.  Rare events such as mass murder are difficult to predict precisely because they are rare.  Our best shot at preventing them lies in avoiding the urge to routinize and in paying close attention to the unusual and offbeat, like naked women falling from the sky and military officers e-mailing with terrorists.

     Solving cases retrospectively is easy.  Developing the ability to anticipate crime and work prospectively is the real trick.

UPDATES (scroll)

9/9/20  Seven Fort Hood soldiers have been murdered since January 2016, and seventy-one have committed suicide. Authorities attribute the grisly toll to  emotional problems, harassment and bullying. A 2009 study suggested various factors, including prior drug and alcohol abuse, involvement in crime and combat experience.

12/7/19  CNN has tallied more than twenty shootings on U.S. military bases since 1993. Four have taken place since November 5, 2009, when troubled Fort Hood psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed thirteen and wounded twenty-eight. Two occurred only this week. On December 4 Gabriel Romero, a U.S. Navy sailor standing guard at Pearl Harbor, opened fire with his issued weapons, killing two and himself. Two days later, Saudi military student Mohammed Alshamrania used a pistol to kill three and wound eight at a Florida base. He was shot and killed by police. Romero was in trouble with the Navy and getting counseling. Alshamrania had reportedly posted hateful tweets and recently gathered friends to watch mass shooting videos.

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When a Dope Can’t be Roped     Catch and Release     Hidden in Plain Sight     An Illusion of Control

Doing Nothing, Redux


VPC report on “big boomer” handguns     Defense Dept. report on Fort Hood massacre

Posted 9/13/09


The unintended consequences of sloppy policing

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In 2006 a 911 caller reported that women and girls were “living in squalor” in the rear yard of a home in Antioch (Calif.)  A deputy contacted the homeowner and warned him that living outdoors in a residential area was a code violation.  According to the complainant, the officer explained that he didn’t go inside or enter the yard because that would require a search warrant.  He then left.

     Two years later Phillip Garrido went to the UC Berkeley P.D. to apply for a permit to hold a religious event on campus.  He was accompanied by two teens he introduced as his daughters.  Worried about their “robotic” behavior and washed-out appearance, an officer asked Garrido to return the next day.  Meanwhile she punched his name and birthdate into the computer.  Bingo!  The 58-year old man was on life parole for kidnapping and rape.  He had spent eleven years behind bars.

     Called by the cops, a stunned parole agent said no, Garrido didn’t have any children.  Why were they asking?

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    It turns out the 11 and 15-year old girls who were with Garrido were indeed his, fathered with a woman whom he snatched eighteen years earlier in Placerville, a town about two hours’ drive away.  Then only eleven, the girl was grabbed at a bus stop outside her home as her horrified stepfather looked on.  For the next eighteen years she and the two daughters she would bear lived in a ramshackle arrangement of tents and lean-to’s behind the house that Garrido and his wife Nancy shared.

     On September 4, 2009 San Bernardino (Calif.) police went to the group home where Trevor Castro lived to arrest him on a drunk driving warrant.  After six months of being held captive in the squalid facility the 23-year old developmentally disabled youth was delighted to be handcuffed.  After what he had experienced going to a real jail would be a pleasure.

     Once inside officers were horrified by what they saw and smelled.  Nearly two dozen elderly and mentally ill persons were living in modified chicken coops with no running water, using buckets as latrines.  Running away was impossible, as the compound was encircled by a block fence topped with razor wire.  Physical beatings were common.

     The home’s operator had a history of run-ins with the authorities.  Police arrested her on sixteen felony counts of elder abuse.

     Neighbors applauded the action but wondered why it took so long.  Patrol cops frequently responded to disturbances outside the home but always left without going inside, explaining that they couldn’t do so without a warrant.  Complaints to code enforcement fell on deaf ears.

     Doing nothing for lack of a search warrant is a lousy excuse.  Inquisitive cops and detectives often probe private space by obtaining the consent of owners or occupants.  There are also plenty of other things that can be done.  Had the deputy simply run a criminal record check he would have learned that Garrido was on life parole for an offense that made any contact with teens highly irregular.  Officers could have searched the property without a warrant or alerted a parole agent.

     But the deputy didn’t check.  Assuming, perhaps, that the complainant was exaggerating, he reportedly spent a half-hour with Garrido, then left.  Too bad for Garrido’s victims, who wound up doing another two years in captivity before UC cops stepped in.  “We are beating ourselves up over this,” said the Sheriff.  “I’m first in line to offer organizational criticism, offer my apologies to the victims and accept responsibility.” (Click here for a video of the news conference.)

     It was much the same story at the group home.  Police could have asked to look around from the very start.  If refused (an unlikely event) they could have referred matters to regulators.  They, in turn, would have quickly discovered what officers would have learned had they bothered to check:  the home was unlicensed.  It could have been shut down and its owner arrested months earlier.

     But officers never checked.  Embarrassed city fathers now promise to investigate.

     What trips up ordinary cops can also trip up the almighty Feds.  Knowledgeable insiders had warned for decades that Bernard Madoff’s investment returns seemed grossly excessive, yet not once did the G-Men (and women) try to confirm that the trades which supposedly yielded the enormous profits were actually made (they weren’t.)  Why bother?  Madoff had a sterling reputation; what’s more, no Ponzi scheme of that magnitude could possibly exist!

     But it did.

     When your blogger ran an ATF gun trafficking group in the nineties he was astounded by the thousands of relatively new guns that LAPD recovered each year.  Where did they come from?  It turned out that many had been going out the back door of corrupt gun stores.  (One such case accounted for 10,000 guns in two years.)  It happened, in part, because ATF inspectors didn’t compare what dealers said they bought against distributor invoices, enabling crooked licensees to create piles of firearms for illegal resale by the simple expedient of leaving incoming guns off the books.

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     For police the first step towards recovery is to concede a weakness for jumping to conclusions.  Serious crime isn’t always apparent, and as cops filter information through their storehouse of experiences and preconceptions it’s not surprising that they’ll occasionally goof.  Fortunately, testing assumptions is often as simple as grabbing a mike, making a phone call and using a keyboard.  Taking the trouble to confirm what’s “obvious” can keep officers from overlooking the unexpected, like captives living in tents and chicken coops.

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Catch and Release     When One Goof is One Too Many     Missed Signals     An Illusion of Control

Doing Nothing, Redux


San Francisco Chronicle series on Phillip Garrido     El Dorado County D.A. report on Phillip Garrido


Simple policing strategies are the best

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  It’s as close to a Nobel as a criminologist can get.  David L. Weisburd, a professor with joint appointments at Hebrew University and Virginia’s George Mason University was awarded the 2010 Stockholm Prize in Criminology for demonstrating that hot-spot policing doesn’t displace crime.  One of a growing number of academics who propose that offending is rooted in place, Dr. Weisburd believes that concentrating efforts at crime-prone locations deters crime and can minimize conflicts between the public and police.

    In the mid-90’s Dr. Weisburd and his colleagues tested an enhanced drug hot spot strategy in Jersey City (N.J.)  Police identified fifty-six open-air drug markets.  At half undercover officers bought drugs and made arrests as usual.  In the others they cranked things up, selecting targets in advance rather than ad-hoc, placing extra cops on patrol and sending in housing and liquor inspectors.  What happened?  Both the old and new approaches suppressed drug activity about equally.  Effects from the enhanced sites also benefitted adjoining areas, contradicting the conventional wisdom that intensive policing displaces crime.

     In a later study Dr. Weisburd and others geocoded 14 years (1989-2002) of Seattle crime data to reflect “street segments” (both sides of the street of a contiguous block.)  Their analysis replicated earlier findings that crime concentrates at relatively few places.  They also discovered that offending at these hot-spots was stable over time, and that the city’s crime drop, which coincided with a general improvement across the U.S., was mostly due to declines at high-crime “micro-locations.”  (“Trajectories of Crime at Places,” Criminology, 42:2, May 2004.)

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     Dr. Weisburd returned to Jersey City to revisit the crime-displacement hypothesis.  Two hot spots were selected; one prostitution, the other drugs.  Police hit the prostitution site with a series of reverse stings, each time arresting dozens of clients.  They also set up checkpoints between operations to inform and warn potential customers.  A narcotics task force, a violent offender squad and intensified patrol took care of the drug location.  (A few non-law enforcement tactics were applied at both locations, but what the cops did seems by far the most salient.)

     Prostitution and drug offending plunged at both sites, with gains remaining evident after policing subsided.  Again, there was a “diffusion of benefits” to surrounding areas and no substantial displacement.  Offenders later explained to researchers that relocating was not so much in the cards as it would be difficult and unsafe.  (“Does Crime Just Move Around the Corner?” Criminology, 44:3, August 2006.)

      Drug, vice and stolen property stings (remember the LEAA-funded storefront operations?) have been around for decades.  To respond to shootings and gang violence police across the U.S. have deployed specialized gang and anti-violence units and staged stop-and-frisk campaigns.  As effective as such strategies may be (credited with a 32 percent 2007-2008 homicide drop in Milwaukee) they also tend to sweep in innocent citizens, making it crucial that officers are well trained and supervised and that there is good communication between the police and the community.

      Multi-agency task forces are very popular.  Philadelphia’s “Operation Pressure Point” deploys teams of police, probation officers and Federal agents to crime hot spots on weekend evenings, when most violence occurs.  In Charlotte (N.C.) police partner with ICE to combat violent Central American gangs.  U.S. Marshals regularly stage fugitive apprehension  projects.  A recent California example netted more than 1,000 wanted persons, including thirty-one homicide suspects.

     Long-term Federal-local racketeering investigations seem particularly promising.  Last month the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles struck at the MS-13 gang, indicting twenty-four members on charges that could in some instances draw life terms.  In May he indicted 147 members of the Varrios, a gang that is centered in the tiny, impoverished unincorporated community of Hawaiian Gardens.

     Despite their many successes, the literature still treats police as though they’re in the nineteenth century.  It’s assumed that crime can’t be deterred without (a) bringing in outside experts to (b) design stunningly complex programs that (c) involve special innovations and (d) call for multiple “partners.”  And we haven’t even mentioned the impenetrable, eye-popping rhetoric that’s usually offered in justification.  In fact, there’s pitifully little proof that tacking on extraneous interventions -- slapping lipstick on the pig, if you will -- adds significant value to the core component of most anti-crime strategies: the police.  As Cincinnati discovered, adding complexity can create turmoil, making programs so unwieldy that they can’t possibly be sustained.

     It may not seem so from TV cop shows, where everything gets resolved in sixty minutes and there’s no paperwork, but even simple arrests consume lots of resources.  Police must also jump through legal and procedural hoops that civilians can’t begin to fathom.  Most officers accept the limits of their authority and try to be effective within established law and procedure.  Asking them to do things far removed from the norm is a recipe for confusion.  Consider how Baltimore officials reacted to the notion (a strategy actually applied in High Point, N.C.) of making buys from street drug dealers, then calling them in and threatening prosecution if they don’t behave:

    Representatives from the Police Department, state's attorney's office and mayor's office attended training last year sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance to learn about how it works, and determined it wasn't a good fit for Baltimore, where much criticism of law enforcement focuses on repeat offenders who avoid prosecution.  “When you have a city as violent as Baltimore, if you have enough to bring an indictment, we're not going to give bad guys a choice,” said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.  [A mayor’s representative] said elements of the strategy might work, “but having enough information to indict somebody and then not actually doing so is not something that this group felt was appropriate.”

     “Not giving bad guys a choice” is hardly the most pressing issue.  In his younger days, when your blogger worked undercover buying everything from machine guns to a stolen front-end loader (don’t ask) he quickly learned that there’s no such thing as a “routine” deal.  Explaining why someone got hurt while police were fulfilling the odd requirements of an “innovative” program is not something that any chief or prosecutor would want to do.

     Tightening the law enforcement screws may be easier than dealing with the underlying conditions that breed crime.  But keeping things down once the cops are gone is tough.  Even crooks learn, and once the low-hanging fruit gets picked -- and get picked it must -- taking it to the next level may require far more resources than a local agency can spare.  (That’s where the Feds can help.)  Initiatives such as Weed and Seed have sought to sustain gains with social service and community-building programs.  Results, though, have been uneven, possibly because of the very heavy lifting that’s needed to turn disorganized communities around.

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     We may be asking far too much from the police while giving them far too little credit for their knowledge and accomplishments.  As the ones most intimately aware of their environment, they’re in the best position to design and implement appropriate responses to crime.  Outside advice can be useful, but it must be offered humbly and accepted with a critical eye.  In the end, encouraging police to work where they’re most comfortable and productive, while offering them the resources and information they need to do a quality job, will insure that the critical things only they can do are done right.

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Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I)  (II)     Location, Location, Location     Role Reversal

Murder, Interrupted?     Forty Years After Kansas City     Policing on a Budget

What Can Cops Really Do?     Of Hot-Spots and Band-Aids     Too Much of a Good Thing?


New Yorker article on Ceasefire     NIJ Symposium on Predictive Policing

NIJ Policing for Crime Prevention (in Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising)


DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?        Science is Back. No, Really!     Ignorance is Not Bliss

Slapping Lipstick on the Pig   Part I     Part II


“Proving” that crime-control strategies work is laden with pitfalls

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In August 2005 the prestigious journal Criminology & Public Policy published “Did Ceasefire, Compstat, and Exile Reduce Homicide?”, an analysis by Richard Rosenfeld and two colleagues from the University of Missouri-St. Louis of three celebrated violence reduction programs: Boston’s Project Ceasefire and Richmond’s Project Exile (both discussed in Part I) and Bill Bratton’s Compstat, a program that began in New York City and spread throughout the U.S.

     Each program was widely credited with success.  But according to the authors none had been satisfactorily evaluated.  Using sophisticated statistical techniques, they sought to determine whether declines in homicide in Boston, Richmond and New York City went significantly beyond drops that were being experienced elsewhere.  Corrections were taken for police coverage, incarceration rate, level of cocaine use, population density and resource deprivation, the last a composite measure that includes factors such as poverty rate and male unemployment.

     Their conclusions rattled more than a few cages.  Once extrinsic factors were taken into account  New York’s drop in homicide didn’t significantly exceed that of comparable areas.  Compstat might be a terrific idea, but in this study it wasn’t demonstrably so.  Richmond, on the other hand, easily passed the test, its adjusted 22 percent yearly decline in firearm homicide proving significantly better than reductions elsewhere.

Click here for the complete collection of strategy and tactics essays

     Ceasefire proved to be a mixed bag.  As this chart from the Ceasefire report illustrates, a steep and persistent decline in the number of youth gun homicide victims coincided with the project (pre/post-intervention means 3.5/1.3.  See “Reducing Gun Violence: the Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire,” National Institute of Justice, September 2001, p.58)

     Examining an extended three-year post-intervention period, Rosenfeld and his colleagues calculated that Boston enjoyed an adjusted 30-percent yearly drop in youth gun homicides, nearly twice the 16 percent yearly reduction reported in comparable cities.  However, since the actual number of deaths was few, the 14 percent improvement wasn’t enough to reach statistical significance.  (Expanding the victim age range, thus increasing their number by only three yielded what the writers termed “marginal” significance.)

     But let’s not quibble.  Boston Ceasefire posted impressive real-world results.  That’s to be expected.  Police, probation officers and Federal agents served warrants, did stop-and-frisks, made drug and gun busts and conducted probation and parole checks.  Yet, although the NIJ Research Report concedes that the program incorporated the “certainty, swiftness and severity of punishment” aspects of the deterrence model, the tendency has been to credit Ceasefire’s success to its unique notification and warning aspects.  That explanation has become so common that when discussions at the recent NIJ conference turned to the program one could be excused for thinking that there was no enforcement component at all.  On the contrary: as the descriptive sections of the NIJ report make clear, police & probation efforts were very substantial. They were certainly so from the perspective of offenders, who are unused to concerted law enforcement measures, and particularly if they persist.

     Teasing out just how much of Boston Ceasefire’s fourteen percent gain came from locking people up and how much from everything else was impossible then, and it’s impossible now.  As one of Project Safe Neighborhoods’ evaluators told the blogger, specifying the effects of, say, notifications is well-nigh impossible.

     In 1999 the  University of Illinois School of Public Health initiated Chicago Ceasefire.  Don’t be fooled by the “Ceasefire” label -- this is an unique approach.  Street workers and “violence interrupters” prowled inner-city areas, identifying and counseling high-risk youth, mediating disputes and defusing situations that might lead to violence.  Every effort was made to keep staff members independent and credible.  Unlike Boston, there was no deployment of police, and while official tips about violence were welcomed, information only flowed one way.

     A recent NIJ evaluation reports mixed results.  Seven of Chicago Ceasefire’s sites were matched with seven locations where the program was not in effect.  Homicides fell significantly more than in the matched area at only one site (again, death counts were very small.)  Other  results were more promising.  When compared to matched locations, four project sites experienced additional decreases of 17 to 24 percent in shots fired, and four demonstrated additional decreases of 16 to 34 percent in actual shootings.

     Evaluating Chicago Ceasefire presents many challenges.  There were other projects, including PSN, operating in and near Ceasefire sites.  Assessors also raised serious doubts about the equivalency of the comparison sites.  That’s a potentially fatal flaw.  High-crime locations such as those where Ceasefire was deployed tend to attract more policing.  Without data on the nature and intensity of law enforcement activity, attributing improvements to program effects is risky.

     There’s another concern.  Consider, for example, the far higher violence rates of PSN vis-Ó-vis non-PSN cities.  Of course, you say: that’s how sites were selected in the first place!  But extreme scores are unstable and apt to revert to more moderate levels for no discernible reason.  If a generalized crime drop is already underway, precipitous changes could be easily misinterpreted.  Absent a robust research design, bundling high-crime locales is just asking for trouble come evaluation time.

     In “Knowing when to fold 'em: an essay evaluating the impact of Ceasefire, Compstat and Exile,” UCLA statistician Richard A. Berk gloomily concludes that unless programs are specifically designed to be rigorously evaluated doing so may be unwise.

    What if random assignment, a strong quasi experiment, or a convincing analysis of observational data are not in the cards?  Even if the policy questions are vital, it may be wise to throw in the hand. Suspect science, even the best that can be done under the circumstances, does long run damage to the credibility of all science. The position taken here is that under these circumstances, responsible researchers should withdraw until stronger studies are possible. It may even be possible to help make those stronger studies more likely.

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     Guilding the lily with unsupportable claims ultimately works to everyone’s disadvantage.  Yet public servants don’t have the luxury not to decide, and their decisions must be based on something.  Often that “something” is their best judgment, informed with hefty doses of real-world experience.  Next week in the (hopefully) final part of this series we’ll examine some promising real-world approaches to fighting crime and violence.

UPDATES (scroll)

3/7/23  A widely used approach to reduce armed violence, “Project Ceasefire” targets violent offenders with deterrent messaging delivered one-on-one and through group meetings. Over the years it’s been deployed in many communities, and assessments are often positive. But according to a study in Detroit, researchers found “no statistically significant effects” on shooting victimization overall. Ceasefire participants were not less likely to be arrested for having a gun. But those who attended “call-in” group meetings were significantly less likely to be arrested, including for violent crimes.

9/19/22  Proactive policing and harsh sentencing are two components of the “hard-nosed” anti-crime approach known as “Project Safe Neighborhoods.” According to a recent NIJ evaluation of its implementation in Tampa, “the program led to a statistically significant reduction in violent crime.” Gun crime, though, was unaffected.

8/17/22  During 2016-2018 Tampa, Fl. police implemented “Project Safe Neighborhoods,” a popular approach that combats violent crime by, among other things, targeting chronic violators for special attention. NIJ recently reported that, compared to four nearby areas that did not implement a program but had similar pre-test crime rates and other characteristics, Tampa’s violent crime rate was significantly reduced. However, gun crimes did not seem to be affected.

11/25/20  A new DOJ evaluation of Oakland’s implementation of Project Ceasefire during 2010-2017 rates it as effective in reducing the frequency of gang shootings. Comparing matched blocks, Ceasefire areas had 23 percent fewer shooting victimizations that non-Ceasefire areas. Ceasefire sites received “special enforcement attention” from joint Federal-local police strike teams and direct intervention from gang workers who offered “services and opportunities” to help gang members desist. Oakland city site

6/19/20  The Department of Justice announced it would continue to support and emphasize Project Safe Neighborhoods, which was “revitalized” in 2017. Coordinated by US Attorney offices throughout the U.S. and funded in part by DOJ, PSN initiatives target crime-impacted areas and armed offenders and are reportedly highly successful in reducing violent crime.

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Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I)  (II)     Role Reversal     Murder, Interrupted?


New Yorker article on Ceasefire


DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?        Science is Back. No, Really!

Ignorance is Not Bliss     Slapping Lipstick on the Pig   Part I     Part III


Do elaborate violence-reduction initiatives make a difference?

“Given his extensive criminal record, if there was a Federal law against
jaywalking we’d indict him for that.”

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Issued by United States Attorney Don Stern (yes, Stern), the pithy threat, which was plastered throughout a violence-ridden Boston neighborhood, was actually part of Operation Ceasefire, a strategy devised by Harvard researchers to combat youth gun violence.

     Ceasefire had two components: a law enforcement campaign to curb gun trafficking, thus reduce the supply of firearms, and a so-called “pulling levers” approach intended to reduce the demand for guns.  Beginning in 1996 gang members in selected crime hot spots were summoned to group meetings where they were warned by police, probation and the Feds that if violence continued serious consequences would follow.  Educators, job training specialists and community workers were also on hand to offer alternatives.  Posters were put up to spread the word about the project and what happened to those, like Freddie, who dared to ignore it.

       Once the notification and publicity phases were done the hammer fell.  Cops swarmed problem locations, doing stop-and-frisks and arresting drug dealers, gun possessors and those with outstanding warrants.  Probation officers conducted surprise searches.  Thanks to United States Attorney Don Stern’s enthusiastic participation, felons and drug dealers caught with guns -- or, as in the above example, ammunition -- wound up in Federal court, where bail was rare and sentencing tough.  Progress was soon evident.  Comparing the two-year implementation period (May 1996 - May 1998) to the five years preceding the intervention, the mean number of monthly gun deaths for ages 24 and under fell sixty-three percent.  Citywide gun assaults declined by a quarter.

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     During 1998-2000 a violence-fighting initiative called SACSI sought to implement the Ceasefire model in ten cities:  Indianapolis, Memphis, New Haven, Portland, Winston-Salem, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Detroit, Rochester and St. Louis.  U.S. Attorneys were in charge of each site.  Once the preliminaries were done police and the Feds hit the streets with all they had.  Their gloves-off approach yielded promising results.  Gun assaults in Indianapolis fell 53 percent.  Portland enjoyed a 42 percent decrease in homicide.

     Although SACSI gave lip service to “pulling levers” NIJ’s own report reveals that for better or worse the focus was overwhelmingly on law enforcement:

    Each of the SACSI sites implemented both enforcement and prevention strategies, yet all sites, particularly at the start, emphasized enforcement and prosecution. Many of the initial strategies were enforcement oriented -- targeting hotspots and repeat offenders, crackdowns, sweeps, saturation patrols, serving warrants, and making unannounced visits to probationers....Prevention activities in most sites were meager and implemented late in the SACSI program....(pp. 10, 15)

     Evaluators tried to assess the effectiveness of notification and warning strategies.  Their conclusions weren’t encouraging:

    The impact of the lever-pulling approaches was mixed.  Three of four sites found that offenders had indeed “heard the message” about new violence bringing swift and certain law enforcement action. Yet, in those same sites, there was no difference in the recidivism rates of lever-pulling attendees and those of comparison groups of offenders. Researchers in Indianapolis found a general deterrent effect due to offenders’ awareness of increased police stops, probation sweeps, and the like, rather than their awareness of SACSI “offender notification” meetings and messages. (pp. 4-5)

     Federal law treats gun-toting criminals harshly.  Title 18, United States Code, section 924, imposes a mandatory minimum 5-year penalty on drug dealers and violent offenders caught with guns.  Armed felons with three prior convictions for violence or drug trafficking are subject to a fifteen-year term with no possibility of parole.  In 1997 these provisions became the centerpiece of Project Exile, a program intended to rid Richmond (Virginia) of armed thugs.

     Unlike Ceasefire, there was no pre-hammer component -- it was all vigorous policing from the very start.  Within a year gun homicides were down forty-one percent.

     In 2001 the U.S. Justice Department blended components of Ceasefire, SACSI and Project Exile into an anti-violence initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN).

     U.S. Attorneys in each judicial district were encouraged to work with mayors, police chiefs, local prosecutors and probation and parole to devise and implement comprehensive, locally-attuned strategies to fight violent crime.  Trainers and IT experts were provided.  Although the emphasis was on law enforcement, sites were encouraged to incorporate Ceasefire’s “pulling lever” components, and many did.

     A recently published evaluation of PSN offers a mixed picture.  While Federal prosecutions increased overall, philosophical differences and workload concerns made some U.S. Attorneys and judges reluctant to take on street offenders, whom they viewed as a local responsibility.  In districts where PSN took hold the partnerships were mostly among law enforcement agencies rather than the broader spectrum envisioned by Ceasefire.  And getting probation and parole involved wasn’t always easy, a significant issue given their key monitoring and sanctioning roles. (Probation officers may have been reluctant to play “cop,” thus lose credibility with their charges.)

     Evaluators identified eighty-two cities where PSN was implemented and 170 cities where it was not.  Violent crime rates were compared between the pre-intervention period of 2000-2001 and a four-year period, 2002-2006, when the program was in effect.  PSN cities (also called “target” cities) were classified by “dosage”, meaning the program’s rigor -- high, medium or low.  (It’s too complicated to go into here, but dosage was measured in a way that heavily weighted law enforcement efforts.)  Both PSN and non-PSN cities were also categorized by level of Federal prosecution -- high, medium and low.

     Statistical significance aside, PSN’s effects seem insubstantial.  Overall, violent crime per 100,000 pop. fell about 4 percent in PSN cities (top trend line) while in non-PSN cities it declined about 1 percent.

     PSN’s effects might have been attenuated by weak implementation.  As the chart demonstrates, sites higher in “dosage” fared better at the start.  (Why the effects of medium dosage persisted, while high dosage did not, is an open question.)

     High levels of Federal prosecution seemed helpful for PSN and, to a lesser degree, non-PSN sites, while low levels appeared catastrophic for the latter.  Again, there is some inconsistency, as low level of Federal prosecution is associated with a greater reduction in violence than medium level.

     Whatever their causal mechanism, most gains were wiped out over time.  By 2005 the trend in violence was on the upswing for non-PSN cities regardless of prosecution level, for PSN cities at all prosecution levels, and for PSN cities at both low and high dosages of program implementation.

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     As the PSN evaluation suggests, and as recent events in Boston, Cincinnati and elsewhere illustrate, lean economic times and other factors can make programs like Ceasefire, SACSI, Project Exile and PSN difficult to sustain.  Expending scarce resources on complex partnerships with non-governmental entities and on elaborate techniques such as offender call-ins and notifications raises even more questions.  How well such approaches work and whether they add sufficient value to justify their distraction and expense are among the issues we’ll look at next week.

UPDATES (scroll)

3/7/23  A widely used approach to reduce armed violence, “Project Ceasefire” targets violent offenders with deterrent messaging delivered one-on-one and through group meetings. Over the years it’s been deployed in many communities, and assessments are often positive. But according to a study in Detroit, researchers found “no statistically significant effects” on shooting victimization overall. Ceasefire participants were not less likely to be arrested for having a gun. But those who attended “call-in” group meetings were significantly less likely to be arrested, including for violent crimes.

9/19/22  Proactive policing and harsh sentencing are two components of the “hard-nosed” anti-crime approach known as “Project Safe Neighborhoods.” According to a recent NIJ evaluation of its implementation in Tampa, “the program led to a statistically significant reduction in violent crime.” Gun crime, though, was unaffected.

8/17/22  During 2016-2018 Tampa, Fl. police implemented “Project Safe Neighborhoods,” a popular approach that combats violent crime by, among other things, targeting chronic violators for special attention. NIJ recently reported that, compared to four nearby areas that did not implement a program but had similar pre-test crime rates and other characteristics, Tampa’s violent crime rate was significantly reduced. However, gun crimes did not seem to be affected.

11/25/20  A new DOJ evaluation of Oakland’s implementation of Project Ceasefire during 2010-2017 rates it as effective in reducing the frequency of gang shootings. Comparing matched blocks, Ceasefire areas had 23 percent fewer shooting victimizations that non-Ceasefire areas. Ceasefire sites received “special enforcement attention” from joint Federal-local police strike teams and direct intervention from gang workers who offered “services and opportunities” to help gang members desist. Oakland city site

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Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I)  (II)     Role Reversal     Murder, Interrupted?

Forty Years After Kansas City     What Can Cops Really Do?     Crime-Fighting on a Budget

The Gangs of L.A.   Of Hot-Spots and Band-Aids     Love Your Brother -- And Frisk Him Too!


New Yorker article on Ceasefire


DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?        Science is Back. No, Really!

Ignorance is Not Bliss     Slapping Lipstick on the Pig   Part II     Part III

Posted 6/21/09


DOJ promises that, henceforth, research will drive crime control policy

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Last Monday a throng of academics, practitioners and grantees (and this blogger) assembled in Arlington, Virginia for the 2009 Conference of the National Institute of Justice.  It was obvious within moments that DOJ had a special message to put across.  Kristina Rose, NIJ’s acting director had hardly taken up the mike when she launched into an ebullient portrayal of a rejuvenated, researcher-friendly, scientifically-oriented organization anxious to develop evidence-based strategies to combat crime, drugs and terrorism.

     The hotel’s immense ballroom felt like a revival tent.  At long last, science is here to stay!

     Ms. Rose then turned over the podium to her boss, Laurie Robinson, acting head of the Office of Justice programs, the umbrella agency of which NIJ is a part.  While Ms. Rose, a key NIJ official during the Bush years looked on, Ms. Robinson sharply rebuked the preceding Administration for snubbing research.  Declaring that “science will once again be respected at the Department of Justice,” she said that extensive safeguards had been put in place to prevent political meddling.  Hours later the same assurances were put forth in a luncheon address by her boss, Attorney General Eric Holder.

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     Allegations that Bush and his cronies were hostile to science aren’t exactly new.  Yet when the new kids on the block wind up sounding like Elmer Gantry one wonders whether they’re merely slapping lipstick on the same old pig.  That’s not an idle concern.  Although the AG and his underlings seemed sincere, it hasn’t been that long since the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that a host of forensic “disciplines” touted under both Republican and Democratic administrations lacked a scientific basis.  NIJ’s brazen, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to suppress the study helps explain why the NAS suggested that an independent organization be created to oversee forensics, as “advancing science in the forensic science enterprise is not likely to be achieved within the confines of DOJ.”

     Writing in a recent issue of The Criminologist, a former president of the American Society of Criminology voiced serious doubts about placing DOJ in charge of criminal justice research.  His concern, that political appointees might be tempted to twist conclusions to fit policy (or, one might add, ideology) isn’t the only drawback.  Confounding complexities, a lack of basic knowledge about the causes and prevention of crime and a paucity of valid metrics can make it well-nigh impossible to determine whether newfangled interventions offer unique advantages.  DOJ, as a law enforcement agency, expects its components to demonstrate success in the fight against crime.  As the conference wrapped up one well-regarded researcher (and frequent grantee) privately complained that NIJ’s eagerness to showcase solutions is a recipe for exaggeration.

     There were other issues.

  • Little or nothing was said about about preventing police misconduct and excessive force.
  • Not unexpectedly, the silence about gun control (as opposed to gun violence) was deafening.
  • A few participants expressed distress about the overarching emphasis on DNA, which they saw as a money pit that can starve the development of other deserving technologies.  For example, the effectiveness of ballistic vests has hardly improved in the last two decades, yet basic research in this area has been essentially abandoned to private industry.

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     PoliceIssues will be commenting on specific aspects of the proceedings in the coming weeks.   To contribute your thoughts -- and we hope that you will -- please click on “Feedback.”

     Stay tuned!

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Cops Aren’t Free Agents


DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?          Ignorance is Not Bliss

Slapping Lipstick on the Pig     Part I     Part II     Part III

Posted 3/29/09


Dissecting the murder of four police officers, and its implications

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  The blame game’s already underway.  Only hours after parolee-at-large Lovelle Mixon shot and killed four Oakland (Calif.) police officers, the horrific event was being portrayed as another example of America’s losing battle against crime and violence.

     Some, including California Attorney General Jerry Brown, wagged their fingers at the State’s much-maligned correctional system, which routinely places dangerous men like Mixon, who did six years for armed carjacking, under the supervision of vastly overburdened parole agents (Mixon was one of seventy.)  Meanwhile Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and writer-activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson bemoaned practices that keep ex-cons from getting the jobs and education they need to succeed in law-abiding society.  Gun control advocates complained of the ease with which would-be killers can circumvent the few meaningful restrictions that exist (two of the officers were reportedly shot with an assault rifle that is illegal in California but easily obtainable elsewhere.)  Concerns were also raised, albeit far more discreetly, about the tactical decisions that might have led four experienced police officers, including two SWAT-team sergeants, to be gunned down by a single assailant.

     It all began when sergeant Mark Dunakin stopped Mixon for an expired license tag. Returning to his motorcycle, Dunakin discovered that Mixon’s driver license was fictitious and called for backup.  Officer John Hege arrived.  As Dunakin headed back to the car, possibly to make an arrest, Mixon stepped out with a pistol and opened fire.  Both officers fell, wounded.  Mixon walked up and shot them again at point-blank range.  Dunakin died at the scene; Hege lingered for hours before being declared brain dead.

Click here for the complete collection of strategy and tactics essays

     Mixon fled to his sister’s apartment, where he had stashed an assault rifle.  Less than two hours later, an Oakland PD SWAT team forced their way in.  Mixon, who was hiding in a closet, fired wildly through the walls, fatally wounding sergeants Daniel Sakai and Ervin Romans, who were struck in the head.  Other officers then shot Mixon dead.

     There’s no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop.  Just hours after the Oklahoma City Federal Building was brought down by a truck bomb, killing 168 and injuring more than 400, a highway patrolman stopped Timothy McVeigh for a traffic violation.  McVeigh, who had the advantage, could have reached for the loaded Glock 9mm. under his jacket.  But he didn’t.

     Mixon chose differently.  He had been avoiding his parole officer and probably guessed there was a warrant for his arrest.  What’s more, only a day before the shootings, Oakland police learned that Mixon’s DNA profile matched biological evidence recovered from the recent rape of a twelve-year old girl.  A suspect in a string of crimes including another rape, auto theft and murder (a witness who implicated him refused to testify), Mixon had just done nine months for parole violation after being caught with a drug scale and a stolen laptop.  For a time he worked as a janitor but according to a cousin Mixon bought the car he was driving with proceeds from a far more lucrative gig: pimping.

     Were the officers’ deaths preventable?  We can blame the “system” until the cows come home, but Mixon’s conduct clearly suggests that there was no way to control him outside of a cell.  And in a society where bearing assault rifles is considered a God-given right it was equally impossible to keep him away from guns.

     If it’s not the “system,” might things have turned out differently had the motorcycle officers taken more care?  Maybe, but cops can’t draw down on everyone.  Patrolling the inner cities, where a goodly proportion of adult males have spent time in prison, almost requires being in a state of denial.  Paradoxically, experienced officers may be at special risk.  Having managed to avoid serious trouble for years, they may get careless and ignore warning signs that would send a rookie diving for cover.  Perhaps the second officer’s arrival was a distraction.  Maybe it lulled both into a false sense of security.  We’ll never know.

    Once the unfathomable happened and two officers were down, having someone call to say where the shooter had holed up was an unexpected break.  Normally such situations are resolved with a “surround and call-out,” but Mixon didn’t respond.  A cop killer was hiding in an apartment building whose design reportedly offered no safe way to evacuate its occupants.  Since the murder of twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High School, SWAT teams have been far more inclined to act sooner rather than later when innocents are at risk, and that’s what they did here.  Throwing in two “flash-bang” grenades as a diversion, they stormed the apartment.  We know what happened next.

     Exactly how the SWAT team made entry and why it chose to proceed as it did will be a topic of analysis and debate for years.  Although some practices may change, the prognosis is ultimately poor.  Due to the penetrating power of modern ammunition and the difficulty of protecting the head many SWAT teams prefer to make entries “stacked” behind hard armor.  Unfortunately, full-height shields that can defeat rifle fire are too heavy and cumbersome to fit into tight spaces and may impede visibility.  Many agencies have deployed robots, but they’re also subject to constraints.  For one thing, they can’t see through walls; Mixon, it’s reported, was hiding in a closet.

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     Given the number of guns in civilian hands, when individuals are hell-bent to do the wrong thing assuring officer safety is well-nigh impossible.  For madmen with a rifle there is simply no solution.

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Cops v. Assault Weapons     “Friendly Fire”     Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough     There’s No Easy Solution

Reviving an Illusion     Disturbed Person

Posted 2/1/09


The devastating legacy of Al Gore’s reinvention movement

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In the wake of a mortgage scandal that brought on the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, current and retired FBI agents are doing something totally out of character: they’re sniping at their beloved Bureau.  In a recently published exposÚ a former agent charged that the agency’s shift of thousands of agents to counter-terrorism fatally impaired its ability to combat financial crime.  “The public thought the administration was resourcing counter-terrorism when in fact they were forcing cannibalization of the criminal program.  Now the chickens have come home to roost.”

     Crime may be hard to prevent but it’s usually easy to discover.  Victims are likely to complain.  And for so-called “victimless” crimes such as such as drug dealing and prostitution police can target the settings where these crimes are known to occur and use surveillance and undercover to draw out offenders.

     But what the mortgage shysters were doing was different.  To all appearances they were conducting a legitimate business.  Want to buy a home but lack proof of income?  No problem, just tell us what you make, and if it’s enough (wink, wink) you’re in!  Everyone got their slice of the pie, from brokers who sealed the deals to supposedly rock-solid financial institutions that bundled the shaky loans into tempting, high-yield securities.  In time, as teaser rates expired and homeowners found themselves unable to keep up foreclosures soared, driving down home values and rendering those nifty mortgage-backed investments worthless.  Felled by greed, Wall Street’s carefully nurtured fašade of invulnerability collapsed.  Surprise!  The Masters of the Universe had no clothes.

Click here for the complete collection of strategy and tactics essays

     Where were the cops while all this was going on?  Even the vaunted FBI is at its best after a crime has occurred and there are witnesses and victims to describe exactly what happened.  But borrowers weren’t complaining, at least not until they found themselves on the street.  Neither were lenders.  As a retired FBI official pointed out, “you had victim banks that would not acknowledge that they were victims.  ‘We're not out any money,’ they would say.  ‘Nothing has been foreclosed.’  The banks weren't reporting, the regulators weren't regulating, and the FBI was concentrating on external mortgage fraud as opposed to the underlying internal problem.”

     Regulators not regulating?  What’s that all about?  Rewind to the early 90’s, when in a Pollyannish fit of goodwill Vice-president Al Gore sought to bring Government and industry together in a new Great Hug:

    The Vice President introduced the idea of customer service for regulated industries -- that "good players" who want to comply with federal regulations often need information and assistance... Most importantly, the Vice President called on federal regulators to form partnerships with the community they regulated to explore even more groundbreaking ways to achieve goals like clean air and safe food. In February 1995, to reinforce the work of the Vice President and his regulatory workgroup, the President met with regulators. He directed them to cut obsolete regulations, reward results, not red tape, get out of Washington-create grass roots partnerships, and negotiate, don't dictate.

     Within a year sixteen-thousand pages of “unnecessary federal regulations” fell to the knife.  By 2000, when the National Performance Review had run its course, a glowing self-assessment boasted that agency rule books had been thinned by an astounding 640,000 pages.  But the NPR’s most tangible accomplishment was its impact on the Federal civilian workforce, where it supposedly eliminated a whopping 426,000 positions. (That turns out to be a bit of an exaggeration, as the government had been steadily shrinking since at least 1990.  Still, Congressional Budget Office statistics reveal there were 225,900 fewer non-Postal civilian employees in 2000 than 1995, a not-inconsequential decrease of eleven percent.)

     Perhaps more significantly, the worker bees who remained on the job got hammered with a New-Ageish ideology that redefined the relationship between industry and government as a “partnership”, with the former becoming the latter’s “customer”.  Traditional Government performance measures such as the number of times that regulators slapped an industry’s hands were eschewed in favor of a kinder and gentler approach:

    The use of regulatory partnerships has become the preferred approach for getting results. NPR worked with five key regulatory agencies (EPA, FDA, FSIS, OSHA and FAA) to pilot new approaches, to deploy information technology, and to do a better job measuring what matters— namely their impact on their mission (e.g. clean air) as opposed to historical process measures (e.g. the number of tickets written for regulatory violations). As a result, food-borne illness, toxic emissions, and worker injury rates are dropping. And the regulated community has better information and tools to help with compliance.

     Naturally, boosters of government reinvention declared the effort a resounding success.  Meanwhile no one seemed to notice that regulatory agencies had turned into mere shadows of their former selves.  “The regulators are the ones embedded in the banks,” a former FBI agent pointed out.  “They would be able to see [financial fraud] if they were looking. They were the first line of defense in detecting it.”  Unfortunately, the canaries in the coal mine had lost their voice.  Demoralized by reductions in staffing and political interference, the S.E.C. and its sister agencies demonstrated little interest in pursuing the examples of “pervasive financial corruption” that kept popping up.  Lacking victims or demonstrable evidence of serious harm, it’s no surprise that the FBI chose to allocate its resources in a different direction.

     Yes, we trusted.  We trusted the system to police itself.  We trusted brokers, dealmakers and investment bankers to watch out for the public interest.  Yet thanks to “reinvention” no one was looking over their shoulders.  There was nothing to deter profit mongers from tying up their consciences alongside their yachts.  And it’s not over.  Only the other day our new Prez chastized Wall Street bankers for shamelessly awarding themselves bonuses even as the government was rushing to prop up their institutions with Federal funds.

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     Like they say, “what’s new”?

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You Think You’re Upset?     Fighting the Wall Street Mob     Who’s Guarding the Henhouse?

Posted 1/11/09


Specialized teams can help, but their officers must come from somewhere

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  “We have shown time and again that if you invest in law enforcement and hold police accountable . . . you will absolutely have a very definitive effect on crime.”  According to LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, that’s why the citizens of Los Angeles are enjoying a continued drop in homicide, with six percent fewer killings in 2008 than 2007, a reduction of twenty-seven percent over five years.  Paysinger was taking his cue from Chief “Hollywood” Bill Bratton, whose well-known refrain -- “I take credit when crime goes down, I take blame when crime goes up” -- sticks in the craw of criminologists who insist that economics and social forces have a far greater effect on crime trends than the police.

     As regular readers of the Los Angeles Times know, the paper enjoys a long-running love affair with the Chief.  Citing no authority other than Paysinger, the same article flatly reports that “the drop in violence is due, in part, to the LAPD's success in reducing gang-related crimes.”  Never mind that near the end of the piece the luckless commander of the crime-besotted Central Division calls a startling one-year jump of 21 percent in robberies nothing to worry about:  “These things happen. Some years numbers go up a little; some years they're down.  The important thing is we are not seeing any patterns [that suggest larger problems].”  Incidentally, Bratton’s goal of an overall five-percent crime drop wasn’t met (it was half that).  And with the city’s finances in the toilet, his crime-reduction goals for 2009 are yet to be set.

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     Can the police really impact crime?  If there is an effect, can it be measured?  These are distinct questions, but to answer the first requires that we say “yes” to the second.  That’s where the problem comes in.  In a recent op-ed in the L.A. Times, James Q. Wilson credited “sharp” declines in crime in New York and Los Angeles to strategies such as Compstat and stop-and-frisk.  He also had particularly kind words to say about Bratton: “What he has accomplished without a big increase in the size of his force has been remarkable.”  Then, in his very next breath, America’s top expert on the police made a stunning turnaround:

    To try to sort out the combined and complex relations between crime and the economy, the age of the population, imprisonment, police work, neighborhood culture and gang activity, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Law and Justice (which I chair) has begun an effort to explain something that no one has yet explained: Why do crime rates change?  If you have any good ideas, let me know.

     Well, that’s helpful!

     Some cities are experiencing far higher crime drops than L.A.  In 2008 homicide in Milwaukee declined a startling 32 percent, while in Cleveland it fell 24 percent.  Police credited the improvements to targeted enforcement strategies, including flooding affected areas with cops and using stop-and-frisk to arrest potential shooters and get guns off the street.

     Criminologists speak of two kinds of deterrence: general and specific.  “General deterrence” works by creating fear of punishment.  Citizens are made aware that there is a criminal justice system, that police are on patrol and that evildoers go to jail.  Cranking it up by, say, flooding a problem neighborhood with cops can tamp things down even more.  Unfortunately, improvements usually prove fleeting; when cops move on as eventually they must, crime returns.

     One way to enhance the gains is by bringing in the second kind of deterrence.  In “specific deterrence” we prevent future crimes by arresting offenders.  While the preventive effects are lagged, meaning they might not be immediately felt, they will persist as long as perpetrators remain incarcerated, thus unable to commit more crimes.

      “Hot spot policing” that combines aspects of general and specific deterrence, such as in Milwaukee and Cleveland, may offer the best solution.  However, as the economy sours and officer/population ratios deteriorate, increasing coverage in one area might require drawing officers away from another, in effect robbing Peter to pay Paul.  When some of L.A.’s better-off citizens learned that their already skimpily patrolled neighborhoods would have even fewer cops, their  reaction was predictable.

     Is it possible to “do” specific deterrence without redistributing officers?  Detroit thinks so.  It partnered with the U.S. Marshal’s Service in a campaign to round up fugitives; at year’s end homicide was down fourteen percent.  No, the results weren’t equal to Milwaukee’s, but the impact on patrol coverage was minimal.  And if those caught up in the dragnets were active criminals, taking them off the street -- and keeping them off -- absolutely prevented crime.

     Keeping them off.  There’s more to it than just making arrests.  Now that they constitute as many as half or more of all murders, stranger homicides present a particularly vexing problem.  Many are gang killings, where willing witnesses are rare, and despite the promises of CSI there may be little physical evidence left behind other than a bullet.  Cutbacks that thin the detective ranks, perhaps to bolster patrol, may leave little opportunity to do the intensive, quality legwork that’s necessary to identify and convict killers, and none to investigate other serious offenses that, had they been solved, might have also led to the incapacitation of dangerous men.

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     Crime rates fluctuate.  Even when the swings are as pronounced as Milwaukee’s we disparage them as “random” not because they really are but because we lack the tools to accurately measure and apportion the change.  What part is attributable to social forces?  The economy?  Policing?  That uncertainty, though, shouldn’t discourage police from putting their best friend in the crime-fighting business to work.  Specific deterrence works: as long as we keep arresting and imprisoning active offenders we’ll prevent crime.  And that’s something you can count on.

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