The Dangerous Notion of a Nationwide Crime Wave

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Posted in: Law Enforcement

In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Heather MacDonald, a conservative analyst with the Manhattan Institute, blamed the so-called “Ferguson effect” for the increase in violent crime experienced in several U.S. cities last year. As MacDonald sees it, criticism of law enforcement in the wake of police shootings has led the police to become timid and over-cautious. They have abandoned the field to the criminal element, she maintains, for which a resurgence of violent crime is the natural result.

MacDonald’s foolishness has been widely ridiculed by an ideologically diverse assortment of journalists and academics, including political reporter Jason Linkins, FOX News columnist John R. Lott, and Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. Even New York police chief Bill Bratton has dismissed the idea of a crime wave. Writers have accused MacDonald of cherry-picking the data; overall, violent crime rates continue to drop in America’s largest cities.

Yet there is a larger lesson to this brouhaha that has escaped attention. Drivel like MacDonald’s is a serious threat to the principles of local self-determination that conservatives like her claim to champion, and the response to her nonsense should be a test of whether conservatives are genuinely committed to criminal justice reform.

The idea of a “nationwide crime wave” implies an effect that is both widespread and indiscriminate. Yet as I have noted before (here and here), in major cities of the United States, the great majority of violent crime is committed by a tiny fraction of the population in highly concentrated pockets of the city, largely against other people who engage in the same high-risk behavior.

In the past, I have not elaborated on this research, but MacDonald’s Op-Ed makes it important to understand just how concentrated this violence has become. Recent studies of violent crime in Boston, for instance, found that from 1980 to 2008, only five percent of street segments and corners experienced 74 percent of gun assault incidents and that half the homicides and nearly 75 percent of the gun assaults were committed by fewer than one percent of the city’s youth (aged 15–24), most of whom were chronic offenders and involved in a gang (access the research here and here).

Studies of crime in other major U.S. cities have consistently shown the same thing. In Cincinnati, for instance, research found that 0.3 percent of the population was “associated with” 75 percent of the homicides during a recent one-year period. Investigations in Seattle, Baltimore, and Chicago, among other places, confirm these results. Violent crime rates tick up or down based on a number of factors involving this group of people, but to an astounding degree, violent crime is confined to a miniscule fraction of the population and a similarly small segment of the city. It is certainly appropriate for the police to focus their attention on these people and places, and they do, but it is irresponsible lunacy to suggest, as MacDonald does, a “crime wave” based on this highly concentrated violence.

But the point is not simply that McDonald is wrong. She is dangerously wrong, in a way that should offend and alarm conservatives. If there is a North Star in American conservative thought, it is that local self-government is always and everywhere preferable to government imposed by distant overseers. Even the benevolent overlord, far removed from local conditions, cannot truly know of what she speaks. She acquires her information remotely and thus does not so much experience the local conditions as imagine them. Worse, democracy is not like riding a bike. It is more like speaking a new language. A community must be allowed to think and speak for itself, and if you deprive it of that opportunity, the skill will either never take hold or will wither from disuse.

And that is the unappreciated threat that looms when the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal believes it has discovered evidence of a “nationwide crime wave.” It is a dog whistle that summons distant politicians to “fix” a misunderstood crime problem of the inner city. But this is precisely how criminal justice policy took shape over the past five decades. Those least affected by crime, who were most apt to experience it only remotely and symbolically, imposed rules that governed the lives of those affected most directly and who experienced it as part of their daily lives. This colonial approach to criminal justice is exactly what reformers are trying to fix.

Yet MacDonald, mired in the past, stubbornly calls for more of the same. Her solution to an imagined “crime wave” is yet more social control imposed from the outside. According to her, we must stop, question, and arrest more people, for only that will restore order. Indeed, she is explicit on this score. She points out that in New York, pedestrian stops are down substantially from their 2011 high, mostly because a judge struck down the NYPD stop and frisk program as racially biased. “It is no surprise,” MacDonald leaps, “that shootings are up in the city.” Likewise, in St. Louis, MacDonald claims arrests are down by a third since the death of Michael Brown. “Not surprisingly,” she writes, homicides in the city and robberies in the county are up dramatically.

I have written before about the heavy-handed policies MacDonald embraces so enthusiastically. Among other problems, they lead to a community being under- and over-policed at the same time by shifting police resources away from the behavior that matters and onto that which does not. At the same time, these practices systematically poison the relations between law enforcement and the communities they are meant to serve.

Perhaps all this could be justified if these strategies were the product of local, self-determined choice. But they are nothing of the sort. The men and women living in the communities ostensibly served by these strategies are the people who object to them most vehemently. Yet for many years, their voices—their right to local self-determination—have gone unheeded. It is therefore important that we condemn proposals like MacDonald’s not simply as bad policy, but as an imperious call for social control, issued by people who are not touched by a problem but would nonetheless impose themselves on those who are.

MacDonald never engages with the reality of violent crime in American urban centers. She does not consider the significance of the fact, established over and over again, that violent crime in urban centers is tightly confined to a small number of people who victimize each other in a few pockets of the city, nor does she ponder what that might imply for conservative theory. She does not confront the substantial evidence that enforcement strategies of the sort she endorses, like the NYPD stop and frisk program, have virtually no effect on the violent crime she decries, even as they deprive communities of their voice. She is apparently oblivious to the targeted deterrence programs like those in Cincinnati and Stockton that focus police and community resources on the dangerous few instead of treating everyone in the community as part of the problem. Instead, she simply repeats the morally and empirically bankrupt call for ever more social control.

Views like MacDonald’s simply cannot be squared with the conservative attachment to local self-determination. If conservatives are going to preach criminal justice reform, they must distance themselves from her apostasy.

Posted in: Law Enforcement

Tags: Legal

  • judgejj

    Academics, like McDonald and Margulies, are best at analyzing statistics and history in retrospect. The media has recently created a national frenzy over local police misconduct incidents, conveying the impression they are increasing in severity and frequency. The police are faced with media scrutiny and the pervasive cell-phone video scrutiny. Individual cops are concerned about keeping their jobs, perhaps at the expense of doing their jobs. Local communities overseeing the local police are concerned about crime control, but are also risk-averse when it comes to law suits. .All this is superimposed on the chronic problem of the “blue wall of silence” which corrupts good cops into protecting bad cops from the consequences of their misdeeds. Five years from now, the evolving data may lend support to the views of either of these academics. Right now, it is supposition.

    • JMellor

      Yes, but I think his larger point is a philosophical one, for which we don’t need to wait on statistics. His main issue seems to be that conservatives on one hand decry any government influence on local self-determination as a transgression, but on the other, seem to forget that when it comes to dictating crime policy, precisely because the crime itself usually doesn’t affect them. Put less diplomatically: “conservatives” don’t really care about civil liberties. They just use them as a cover to make their complaints about America’s changing demographics seem less odious. The author’s point, as I read it, is that it’s time for genuinely conservative people to separate themselves from race baiters and alarmists like MacDonald and concede that perhaps the local authorities are better-equipped to address these problems than reactionary politicians at the top. Although statistics certainly lend credibility to his position, his point that there is a contradiction in prevailing conservative thought is correct irrespective of what the crime numbers bear out.