Last month in the Weekly Standard, Harvard criminologist William Stuntz made the case for a “surge”-like movement of law enforcement personnel into inner-city neighborhoods.
The war in Iraq bears more than a passing resemblance to the battle against violent street gangs in the roughest parts of American cities. The tactics Petraeus used to win that war are eerily similar to the tactics the best police chiefs use to rein in gang violence. But better tactics alone cannot do the job. In Boston as in Baghdad, those tactics work only if the police forces that use them have enough personnel: lots of police boots on the most violent ground.
Today, that condition is not satisfied. Most American cities are underpoliced, many of them seriously so. Instead of following the Bush/Petraeus strategy, the United States has sought to control crime by using small police forces to punish as many criminals as possible. As all those who have even a passing familiarity with contemporary crime statistics know, that approach–call it “efficient punishment”–does not work. Like the Army in pre-surge Iraq, the nation’s criminal justice system is in a state of crisis. America needs another surge, this one on home territory.
I don’t entirely disagree with Stuntz. There is some academic support for the idea that more cops on the streets can lead to a reduction in crime. And I’m certainly with him when he argues that throwing astronomically high numbers of people in prison isn’t a healthy way to deal with crime.
But if we’re going to put more cops on the streets, we need to emphasizing the right kind of policing, where cops become an active part of their communities. The problem with policing today isn’t so much a lack of personnel, it’s that it’s plagued by a structure of perverse incentives and a lack of accountability and transparency, problems driven by 40 years of get-tough-on-crime rhetoric and war imagery from politicians and law-and-order activists. Police departments have become driven by statistics (a mentality exacerbated by competitive federal grants, like Byrne Grants, that hinge on arrest and seizure data). Stuntz doesn’t mention the drug war, which I’d argue is not only a huge contributor to inner city violence, but the driving force behind most of these improper incentives. But let’s put that aside. My intent here isn’t necessarily to debate drug prohibition, though it lurks behind much of the discussion.
The problems accompanying the fact that there are entire communities who no longer trust the police charged with protecting them aren’t going to go away once we put more cops in the neighborhood. That will likely only make things worse. We first need a major overhaul in the way police interact with the communities they serve. Policing has become too reactionary, too aggressive, too us-versus-them. Bad cops are in the minority, but good cops cover for them. And far too many officers subscribe to a soldier’s mentality, and take too literally the idea that theyr’e fighting a “war” on drugs or crime. It’s a toxic state of mind that older officers will tell you (and have told me) is more and more common, even as violent crime and the number of officers killed in the line of duty have plummeted.
Incentives matter. Ideas matter. And all of this war rhetoric and anything-goes policies from elected officials has undoubtedly affected officer psychology, and poisoned the relationships between many police departments and their communities.
This is where Stuntz’s own rhetoric is unhelpful. Chicago isn’t Baghdad. U.S. cities aren’t battlefields, and the cops who patrol city streets aren’t soldiers. Residents of high-crime areas aren’t potential insurgents or enemy combatants. They’re American citizens with constitutional rights. Cops and soldiers have decidedly different missions, and it’s dangerous to conflate them.
The oddest (and, frankly, most revealing) part of Stuntz’s piece is his choice of anecdotes to illustrate his point: Cheye Calvo.
The Washington Post Magazine recently ran a story about the mayor of Berwyn Heights, a small town in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The county police executed a drug raid on the mayor’s house; the raid turned up no evidence but left Mayor Calvo and his wife traumatized; among other things, the police shot and killed the couple’s two dogs. Even the best police forces sometimes act on bad tips. But those mistakes are fewer when officers are numerous enough to know the communities in which they work. And the errors that remain are less costly when the police force is sufficiently well staffed that an ordinary house search does not resemble a military action. Nationwide, the number of local police officers per 100,000 population stands at 245; in New York City at its peak size in 1999, the NYPD employed 561 officers per 100,000. In Prince George’s County, the number is 195. Given a larger police force, Calvo’s dogs might still live. So might his trust in the decency of his community’s law enforcement personnel.
I don’t think Stuntz fully understands what happened to Calvo. The Prince George’s County police department has a long and troubled history when it comes to misconduct, corruption, and improper use of force. Up until earlier this year, the department had been monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice for more than a decade. Officers who break the law in PG County are routinely given third and fourth and fifth chances. PG County police are notorious for being quick on the draw, quick with the use of force, and quick to clear fellow officers of any wrongdoing.
These problems, and the problems with the raid on Calvo’s home, have nothing to do with being short-staffed. If you have the personnel to scope out Calvo’s house for hours, to intercept a package at a shipping warehouse, to send an undercover cop dressed a delivery man to put it on a Calvo’s doorstep, and then to send a SWAT team storming into his home, you have the personnel to do the minimal investigation it would have required to discover that there was a high likelihood that the mayor and his family weren’t dealing drugs. They didn’t even bother to notify the police chief of Berwyn Heights before conducting the raid, as they were required to do by law. That small step alone, which would taken all of five minutes, would have prevented the raid.
Instead, they pounced. Though they were aware of a scheme involving sending packages of drugs to innucous addresses, they still commenced with a full-on, no-knock, door-busting, guns blazing drug raid immediately after Calvo’s mother-in-law accepted the package. The maximum possible use of force was the first option, not the last. Calvo and his mother-in-law were treated with contempt, even after it should have been abundantly clear to police that they had made a mistake. When the PG County cops finally got around to contacting the Berwyn Heights police chief, the head narcotics officer blatantly lied to him, telling the local chief that Clavo himself came to the door, then quickly slammed it shut when he saw the cops were coming. None of that was true.
Contrast this to Calvo’s own cops in Berwyn Heights, who take a community policing approach to law enforcement. Calvo makes his officers attend neighborhood meetings and little league games. They know the community they serve. One of his officers showed up on the scene and immediately recognized that the mayor’s house had been raided, and that something was terribly wrong. He tried to inform the PG County cops that they’d made a mistake. They brushed him off.
In the ensuing weeks, officials in Prince George’s County absurdly praised the “restraint” and “compassion” in how Calvo was treated. They defended their tactics, from the lack of any significant investigation before raiding, to the quick use of maximum force, to their failure to notify local authorities, to the quick dispatch of Calvo’s pets. To this day, they haven’t apologized for the senseless slaughter of Calvo’s dogs. In fact, they said if they had to do it all again, they’d do it the same way. County Executive Jack Johnson perversely said that everyone inovlved in the raid deserves “a pat on the back.” At the same time, they have stonewalled Calvo’s attempts to access information about his case.
These problems don’t originate from being short-staffed. They’re fundamentally flawed notions of a police department’s proper relationship with the community it serves. They’re borne of a policing mentality that looks at potential drug offenders as combatants with no rights, not citizens who are innocent until proven guilty. Killing Calvo’s dogs wasn’t a safety precaution. The position of the dogs’ bodies and the location of their wounds puts the lie to the cops’ contention that the dogs engaged them. In any case, these cops were dressed in tactical gear. Killing Calvo’s pets was part terror tactic and part callous disregard for the humanity of suspected drug offenders.
Cheye Calvo’s case doesn’t illlustrate Stuntz’ argument for more cops. It does, however, pretty clearly illustrate the end result of this continuing problem of using war imagery and tactics in domestic law enforcement.
Finally, this point from Stuntz is worth addressing:
Even the best police forces sometimes act on bad tips. But those mistakes are fewer when officers are numerous enough to know the communities in which they work. And the errors that remain are less costly when the police force is sufficiently well staffed that an ordinary house search does not resemble a military action. Nationwide, the number of local police officers per 100,000 population stands at 245; in New York City at its peak size in 1999, the NYPD employed 561 officers per 100,000.
That’s simply not true. When police departments are better staffed, they merely conduct more raids. They don’t serve warrants with less aggressive tactics, nor is there much evidence that they’re less likely to make mistakes. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, while NYPD was at what Stuntz calls its “peak size,” there was a flury of stories in the city’s newspapers about mistaken drug raids. Here’s a typical article, from May 1998 in the New York Times:
As Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration has stepped up its anti-drug initiatives, forcing many low-level dealers off the sidewalks and into apartments, the Police Department has doubled the number of narcotics search warrants it executes each year, to 2,977 last year from 1,447 in 1994.
Most of these are no-knock warrants, which authorize the police to break down doors without warning. The police say that a vast majority of raids yield drugs. But in a number of recent cases, the police have broken down doors and searched homes only to find terrified, confused families.
In at least a half-dozen cases in the last year alone, people who say that the police wrongly raided their homes have filed or announced plans to file multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the city. In each case, the search warrants were based largely, if not solely, on the word of confidential informers, who are criminals seeking to trade what they know for reduced charges, shorter sentences or cash.
The Times piece barely scratched the surface. Five years later, we’d learn of many more botched raids over this period in the aftermath of the mistaken raid that killed 57-year-old Alberta Spruill.
From a 2003 Village Voice piece after Spruill’s death:
Until Spruill’s death, the NYPD had done nothing to stem the number of incidents, despite receiving a memo from the Citizen’s Complaint Review Board (CCRB) in January noting the high number of raid complaints. Last March, the NAACP also approached NYPD commissioner Raymond W. Kelly about the raids…
Just 24 hours after the City Council meeting . . . [d]ozens of black and Latino victims—nurses, secretaries, and former officers—packed her chambers airing tales, one more horrifying than the next. Most were unable to hold back tears as they described police ransacking their homes, handcuffing children and grandparents, putting guns to their heads, and being verbally (and often physically) abusive. In many cases, victims had received no follow-up from the NYPD, even to fix busted doors or other physical damage.
All of this was happening over a period in which NYPD had a historically high ratio of cops to residents. So again, the problem isn’t staffing, it’s the drug war mentality, and the fact that the complete disregard for the humanity of drug suspects is turning cops against their communities, and communities against their cops. From the same Voice piece:
“What guarantees that even if new procedures are followed, there is going to be a sense of humanity and sensitivity in how you respond to innocent victims?” she asked. In an alarming percentage of stories, victims complained of police laughing at them while they were face down with guns to their heads—and some described nasty debasements, including one officer allegedly urinating in a pitcher of iced tea in a victim’s refrigerator…
In the meantime, victims are becoming increasingly agitated. One raid victim, Orlando Russell, said he “used to be an upstanding citizen,” but now “any cop walking in without an invitation better have a body bag.”
By the way, shortly after Spruill’s death, activists in New York City pushed for a drug raid sunshine law somewhwat similar to the one Cheye Calvo is now pushing for in Maryland. The city initially agreed, then renegged a couple of years later. The botched raids continued.