Do America’s Inner Cities Need a “Surge?”

Monday, March 16th, 2009

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.

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30 Responses to “Do America’s Inner Cities Need a “Surge?””

  1. #1 |  Eric Haskell | 

    Wow.

    Excellent piece, Radley.

  2. #2 |  Zargon | 

    Just what we need. More people treating the war on people who use certain drugs like the war on people who live in certain places.

    “Can we get an airstrike on the (suspected) crack house at 412 Main St? Do try and get the address correct.”

  3. #3 |  ceanf | 

    yes, excellent commentary radley. i too agree with the argument that we need more police on the streets to combat crime. not sitting in their car in a parking lot waiting for their radio to start barking, but on the streets with a visible, community oriented presence. but as you so eloquently pointed out in your article, this whole ‘war’ mentality, statistics based federal funding and drug prohibition are major problems in our police departments. they are slowly turning from organizations meant to protect civilians, to para-military outfits whose sole purpose is to wage war on citizens and keep them in line. it brings to mind an article i read recently (on reason.com maybe?) where the author points out that an officer’s job description used to be to ‘keep the peace’, hence the title ‘peace officers’. Whereas now their sole purpose is to ‘enforce the law’ and ‘fight crime’, and have taken the title ‘law enforcement officer. the change, though subtle, is dramatic.

    i, myself, don’t respect very many police officers, and the ones that i do are childhood friends and family. most cops may be ‘good’ cops, but to me, they are just as guilty of corruption when they watch the ‘bad’ cops do bad things, and proceed to do nothing about it and extend to them what they like to call ‘professional courtesy’. i will start respecting all police officers, when all police officers stop treating me as a potential criminal whenever they confront me (the tone in their voice, the fact that they always approach with their hand on their gun). sadly, i don’t see that happening anytime soon.

  4. #4 |  Michael Yuri | 

    Radley,

    I don’t know if you’re aware, but Stuntz blogs occasionally at http://www.law.upenn.edu/blogs/dskeel/

    You should email this post to him and see if you can get a response.

  5. #5 |  Jerri Lynn Ward | 

    I don’t feel safe with a bunch of cops on the street. I feel the opposite. I think that would like being occupied by a bunch of Redcoats in colonial times or British soldiers in Scottish villages in the time of William Wallace. We don’t need “standing armies” in our cities.

    I want to the ability to strap my gun to my hip and to take care of myself. I want the men of the community to take some responsibility for policing the streets with a knowledge and appreciation of due process. I want real self-governance, not the fake kind where we delegate our security to tax munching, trough-feeding minions of unions to whom we are all dirt and “officer safety” is paramount.

    I’m getting really radical in my old age.

  6. #6 |  Ganja Blue | 

    The LEOs and their sympathizer sound like addicts when they claim the problem is not enough cops on the street. You can’t turn around in my city without seeing a police cruiser. It’s like an addict saying, just a little bit more will be enough. Police say that they have to put civil liberties aside because the drug pushers will exploit their rights for personal gain. Police say they need more firepower because they are out gunned. They say they need new hires because they’re critically understaffed. MORE MORE MORE. How much does will it take before we become a police state? I’ve heard the of the need for an inner city surge on local talk radio. It’s hard to believe US citizens are agitating for martial law and war against their fellow citizens.

  7. #7 |  Brandon Bowers | 

    Wow, Radley. If you edit this post down a little, it would make a good book.

  8. #8 |  Brandon Bowers | 

    Seriously, though, it was an excellent post, and I got so engrossed I read it twice, not realizing that 40 minutes had gone by.

  9. #9 |  Qbryzan | 

    Dugg:

    http://digg.com/political_opinion/Do_America_s_Inner_Cities_Need_a_Surge

  10. #10 |  Rhayader | 

    Fantastic article.

    Anyone who thinks this stuff rings true should watch The Wire. The whole thing, start to finish. Now.

  11. #11 |  Eric | 

    If we push for an Iraq-like police force, what would stop the “bad guys” from pushing back with IEDs just like the insurgency? What effect would a string if IEDs have on our inner cities?

  12. #12 |  MacK | 

    This quote is the most telling to me.

    “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.”

    There should not be an ordinary house search!
    House searches should be rare. The 4th Amendment was designed to keep that castle private, and away from searches without incredible evidence that a search is needed.

  13. #13 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Quick trend analysis:

    1. We “need” more cops.
    2. We “need” higher taxes.
    3. We “need” more government and more regulation.
    4. We “need” government SS, health care, and bailouts.
    5. We “need” a larger military (mission accomplished here!).
    6. We “need” a larger (evidently…judging by Congressional voting) budget debt and deficit.
    7. We “need” a devalued currency (check printing presses).
    8. We “need” more trade protectionism.
    9. We “need” tougher drug war tactics.
    10. We “need” to be the World Police.
    11. We “need” more PUBLIC school funding (think of the chillren).

    And, we still have a class war against anyone who isn’t a tough-as-nails, hard-working, heroic manual laborer.

    Good thing we’ve had such an active libertarian movement the last 30 years.
    /sarcasm

  14. #14 |  Unlikely Convergence « Upturned Earth | 

    […] from a lengthy post by Radley Balko, which as always is well worth reading in its entirety: if we’re going to put more cops on the […]

  15. #15 |  SusanK | 

    I would agree that more police are needed to the extent that law enforcement officers need to be familiar with members of the community, to the point that (before they stomp on someone’s head) they realize that the suspect has a momma and they know her.

  16. #16 |  Lloyd | 

    When I read this story — http://www.mcclatchydc.com/world/story/64001.html — this morning I wondered aloud to my dog, “I wonder how long it will be before Predator drones are firing Hellfire missiles into ‘suspected’ Zeta safehouses in Juarez.” Now I wonder how long before Hellfire(s) start raining down on US cities.

  17. #17 |  chance | 

    Iraq circa the surge & current inner cities – not a valid comparison. US gangs at their most violent aren’t killing several thousand Americans per month per city. There is no effective organized campaign of violence against the police (how many precincts were overrun and held last year in the US?), there is little to no attempt by gangs or organized crime to replace existing government structures with their own. Even the worst case scenarios don’t put the unemployment levels in the US at 50%, as it was in Iraq at the time (maybe in some neighborhoods, but not city or countrywide), and cynical as many are about politics, most of us aren’t cynical enough to actually start assassinating politicians before their chairs even get warm because they aren’t in our ethnic or political group. Then there was the near total loss of infrastructure and basic services from the sanctions and the war itself, which I suspect even our worst slums would not compare to.

    Other than that though, I guess I see the comparison.

    Also, a few posts back I wondered if there might be a point about staffing levels relating to police problems. You’ve rebutted that issue pretty well above.

  18. #18 |  TGGP | 

    Bruce Benson notes in The Enterprise of Law that increases in police manpower result in NO increase in man-hours worked. Extra vacation and time-off cancel out the increase in employees. Few government bureaucracies will argue against their own expansion though.

  19. #19 |  JS | 

    chance-“Iraq circa the surge & current inner cities – not a valid comparison.”

    Well put and pretty much sums it up. The whole thing is built upon a false analogy.

  20. #20 |  HTownGuy | 

    Orlando Russell, said he “used to be an upstanding citizen,” but now “any cop walking in without an invitation better have a body bag.”

    I’ve come to realize through some encounters (traffic stops) with aggressive cops that my life, liberty and property are far more at risk when encountering a cop than any criminal. How crazy is that? I own my own business, employ people, give to charity, etc, and have legitimate concern that my public servants can fuck me up with near impunity, for their safety. So fuck them.

    And if anyone kicks my door in they’ll get a face full of 00 buckshot.

  21. #21 |  parse | 

    I want to the ability to strap my gun to my hip and to take care of myself. I want the men of the community to take some responsibility for policing the streets with a knowledge and appreciation of due process. I want real self-governance, not the fake kind where we delegate our security to tax munching, trough-feeding minions

    “The men” of the community?

    Why just the men?

  22. #22 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Just what we need, more thugs on the ground.

    That’s like the old saying: We’re losing money on each sale, but we’ll make it up in volume. Increasing the number of incompetents assigned to the problem doesn’t increase the likelihood of a solution.

    If they add more cops, they’re just going to expect more arrests. It’s all about numbers.

  23. #23 |  Rhayader | 

    @Dave: Absolutely. In a system where more crime means more arrests means better performance, adding cops only exacerbates the underlying problems.

    The mindless statistics game is a real travesty.

  24. #24 |  pris | 

    I sent this column on to a friend who is concerned about what would happen to her community if drugs are legalized. Her neighborhood is soley supported with drug money and ignored by the local police.

  25. #25 |  Cynical in CA | 

    “They’re American citizens with constitutional rights. Cops and soldiers have decidedly different missions, and it’s dangerous to conflate them.”

    I believe words are important and that definitions matter.

    American citizens (human individuals really) have human rights or natural rights. The Constitution (ostensibly) limits the powers of government officials.

    This is an important distinction because it establishes that human or natural rights start out unlimited, and then are only limited by (ostensible) consent.

    Rather than write that citizens have constitutional rights, I believe it is more accurate to write that government officials (ostensibly) have strict limits on their conduct. That keeps the focus where it belongs, on potentially very dangerous and misguided individuals who have awesome power over the average citizen.

  26. #26 |  John-David | 

    I don’t know if you’ll see this Radley, but what I’d really like to see is updates on successful lawsuits against the departments or cities in these raid situations. It would be fulfilling to know that at least occasionally the system works out in the end.

  27. #27 |  Oatwhore | 

    Since the surge was really just paying off the Sunnis so they would stop fighting, then sure, I’ll take that sort of surge.

  28. #28 |  Surge-like strategy for violent U.S. inner cities? « de re militari | 

    […] The Agitator blog argues that 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. […]

  29. #29 |  Do America’s Inner Cities Need a “Surge?” | Chicago Copwatch | 

    […] By Radley Balko | The Agitator […]

  30. #30 |  links for 2009-03-29 « The United States of Jamerica | 

    […] The Agitator » Blog Archive » Do America’s Inner Cities Need a “Surge?” […]

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