October 3, 2022

Crime is rising! People always think this. But in fact crime rates hit a peak in the early ’90s (though nowhere near earlier epochs), and then fell inexorably and dramatically. But in the last couple of years have rebounded (though nowhere near early ’90s levels).

Whites, hearing the word “crime,” typically picture a Black criminal and white victim. But in fact crime is concentrated in Black communities; while they’re around 13% of the population, nearly half of all homicide victims are Black.

Why? Some whites think Blacks are by nature more crime prone. That’s nonsense. The answer is that they more likely live in poorer, disadvantaged neighborhoods, with paltry job prospects; perpetuated and aggravated by crappy schools. And where policing is much less effective.

A recent analysis in The Economist, by Daniel Knowles, spotlights this. Noting that, even after the big three-decade drop, America’s violent crime rate was still many times higher than in all other advanced countries. This has a host of diverse harmful effects on society, calculated to be costing us around $10 million per murder, totaling hundreds of billions annually. Against which police spending is a pittance.

Democrats never wanted to “defund the police” — that was just a dumb label for proposing to shift resources from armed officers to other kinds of interventions to curtail violence, like deploying mental health specialists. And anyway, the recent crime spike has put paid to the “defund” trope; President Biden aims for a big rise in police staffing and funding.

Knowles looks carefully at what drives violent crime. The reality bears little resemblance to TV crime dramas. It’s very disproportionately a scourge of the most economically blighted urban areas, where a culture of violence has taken hold among a segment of young Black males. Without other ways to assert manhood and command respect, they feel compelled to act as tough as possible. And with most guys carrying a gun, you’d better have one too. Thus any little argument can easily escalate to bullets. In fact, stupid little quarrels are the number one cause of U.S. homicides.

And they occur almost with impunity. Seemingly aggressive law enforcement actually undermines police effectiveness in these kinds of neighborhoods. What aggressive policing there usually means is stopping a lot of young men, on small pretexts, to search them for guns or drugs. Such police hassling has scant correlation to serious criminality; thus “police are seen as a malign and arbitrary power in people’s lives, not as enforcers of just laws.” Compounded by criminal justice bureaucracies being often dysfunctional, opaque, and callous. All making citizens unwilling to cooperate with authorities when it comes to actual shootings. And so “the vast majority of violent crimes go unpunished, even as trivial offenses are treated harshly.” A big vicious spiral.

The poster city for this has been Baltimore., where the 2015 Freddie Gray death from rough police treatment sparked riots. Knowles observes that even before, Baltimore police pursued a particularly assertive brute force approach. That did suppress violence in the short term, but with a cost of destroying relations between residents and law enforcement. Which in turn led to soaring violent crime.

To explain the recent nationwide crime spike, Knowles suggests the pandemic may have pushed more young men onto the street, as social services shut down, and their lives became more stressed, leading to more arguments. While the number of guns in circulation continues to rise. And the spotlight on police abuses, following the 2020 George Floyd murder, seems to have inhibited some cops.

So what’s the remedy? Knowles does talk about alternatives to conventional policing, like those “defunders” were seeking. Particularly “violence interruption” initiatives, often deploying streetwise reformed miscreants to defuse conflicts and help the next generation calm down and wise up.

He also says “America’s poorest people need more investment in their neighborhoods, better education and greater access to jobs.” And more motherhood and apple pie.

Knowles adds that “hostile police unions also need to be defanged, and the worst cops fired and prosecuted. Only greater accountability can rebuild shattered trust.” While most police officers serve nobly, it’s an ugly reality that that career too often attracts the wrong sort, macho guys who fancy swaggering with weapons and beating on people.

And overly powerful police unions do invariably protect them, battling against accountability. Data shows that in a typical police force, the bulk of abuses are committed, over and over, by the same few officers.

But one thing Knowles does not mention at all is ending the insane drug war. The pointless illegality of drugs lies at the heart of much that’s wrong with policing, and indeed, much of what we call crime. Any benefits from this policy are overwhelmed by its negative societal impacts. Ending this would free cops to really go after truly harmful crimes. It would be, all in all, a stupendous improvement in all our lives.

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