You’re a police commissioner in a small to mid-sized American city. Like many cities, yours has a problem with violence, particularly gang violence. How do you try to solve this?
Round up the gangs and arrest the bastards.
Arrest them for what? You can only arrest people after they’ve committed crimes. Come on, commissioner, you know that. If you can find murderers, great, but many cities see only 50% of homicides cleared (that is, a suspect is arrested) within a given year. Murder witnesses can be harder to find than jack-o-lanterns in July. Often the only cases that can be solved feature low-level members doing small crimes like drug dealing. Arrest them, charge them, go through court with them, and they’ll be back on the street in a year or two. Former prisoners don’t make good job applicants, after all. In the mean time, someone else has taken their place on the corner, because they were a low-level member. All you’ve done is changed the faces and spent time that could have been spent elsewhere.
Increase police presence throughout the city. They won’t kill each other with an officer around.
Sorry, the city’s made budget cuts. You simply can’t afford to pay that many officers. It was you or the schools, and the mayor’s campaign focused on education. Have you seen the graduation rate in this city? The city doesn’t have as much money as it used to because the state had to make cuts. The state doesn’t have as much…you know, I think you get the picture, let’s move on.
What if we just focused on the high-crime areas?
What, and neglect the nice neighborhoods? You ever think about why nice neighborhoods are nice neighborhoods? Because the police make sure that no dealers show up on their corners. Those people pay taxes, commissioner. We’ve gotta keep the ones who haven’t already moved to the suburbs.
Keep kids in school so they won’t become gang members. It’ll take time, but the results will be lasting.
Let’s not get into the difficulty of that task, and just say that schools aren’t really your jurisdiction. Plus, the mayor wants to see results now. Get that homicide rate down by the end of the year, or you won’t be commissioner much longer.
Uh, write them strongly worded letters?
If you’re the police commissioner of my hometown of Rochester, New York, that’s exactly what you do. You craft a letter on, say, a 6th grade reading level (seriously, have you seen those test scores?) explaining your case to a few gang members whose names and addresses you know. You tell them that you know they’ll make money off of drugs one way or another, but the bodies cannot be ignored. If they or someone they know pulls the trigger on a gun, their “group” might be receiving increased attention from the police. Suddenly their business might become less profitable. You appeal to their self-interest.
So you write letters to gang members. Because police brutality solved nothing. Because harsher sentencing laws just crowded the jails. Because maybe, just maybe, if you talk to them as human beings and fellow citizens who are capable of making rational choices, a couple of them will listen.
I saw the headline about these letters, and only after I clicked on the story did I realize that it was my city. Oh God, this won’t look good. The idea of politely requesting that gang members stand down is easy to mock on its surface, sure. There’s this idea that criminals are somehow born with no respect for the law, and that nothing can be done to change them or dissuade them out of their ways. With very few exceptions, I don’t believe that’s accurate.
These letters will not single-handedly end violence in Rochester; nothing could. But they represent a new approach to things that I think is a step in the right direction.