‘Old-Fashioned’ Policing Still Needed to Stop Gun Violence, say Two Scholars

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New York City police officers. Photo by David Merrett via Flickr

Gun violence won’t be reduced by treating it as a public health problem alone, say two prominent criminologists.

Finding ways to improve “old-fashioned” policing that emphasizes getting shooters off the street to face punishment and imprisonment is critical—but it’s in danger of being overlooked in the attention to newer strategies like community policing and early conflict mediation, Phillip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig wrote in a paper for the Social Science Research Council.

Many scholars have seized on the notion that the escalating levels of gun violence in many neighborhoods around the U.S. should be seen as an “epidemic” that can be addressed by public health disease prevention strategies.

But “when it comes to prevention of criminal misuse of guns, public health scholars tend to ignore or minimize…the most targeted prevention capacity: the criminal justice system’s ability to arrest, punish, and incapacitate shooters,” they wrote in the paper.

The authors cited the Aug. 4 weekend in Chicago, when 74 persons were shot but just one shooter was arrested, as an example of the “de facto impunity” provided gunmen when police fail to provide sufficient deterrence.

“One arrest out of 74 is even worse than normal—on average about five percent of shooters are arrested in non-fatal cases and 17 percent if the victim dies,” they wrote, adding that “even when there is an arrest, a conviction is far from guaranteed.”

The authors suggested that the lack of sufficient investigative resources, including more detectives, and the inability of police to provide protection to eyewitnesses who might identify the shooters, explains the startlingly high levels of gun violence in Chicago.

Friends and families of victims are more likely to seek violent retaliation if there’s no confidence that police will act forcefully to hunt down the shooters and take them off the streets, they wrote.

They wondered whether the contemporary emphasis on “preventive policing” and stricter gun regulation had diverted key resources from the traditional police role of deterrence and “incapacitation” of violent offenders.

“Police chiefs have learned to espouse proactive measures such as intensive patrol of crime hot spots, problem-oriented policing, (and) community policing has also acquired considerable cachet,” the papers said. “In this new prevention-oriented ethos, crime investigation seems old-fashioned.

“But in our view, reactive policing is a vital component of preventing gun violence and is ignored at our peril.”

They singled out as potentially effective some newly developed police and community strategies, such as “focused deterrence,” where police concentrate on identifying known shooters and violent individuals in a neighborhood and warn them they will suffer consequences if they are caught misusing guns.

But they pointed that such strategies can only work in the long run if police and courts “make good on the threat.”

The authors called on other scholars to devote more research into the consequences of shifting more police resources from investigation to prevention, noting for example that the percentage of detectives in the Chicago police force is now half as high as it is in large cities that have lower homicide rates, such as Los Angeles and New York.

“The criminal justice system is intended to preempt private vigilante action, but that purpose is undercut by poor performance,” they wrote. “Arresting less than 10 percent of shooters (as is currently the case in Chicago) may not assuage the instinct of survivors, their families and their gangs to avenge their victimization.”

The authors said while the public health approach was a useful addition to gun violence prevention strategies, criminologists and public health scholars need to focus as well on improving the performance of police in traditional areas, such as increasing “clearance” rates, which measure solved crimes.

Police authorities, for example, should focus on removing the bureaucratic “bottlenecks” that tie up police investigations and result in low clearance rates.

Equally important, they wrote, is investigating how police can improve witness cooperation and help “keep witnesses safe in dangerous neighborhoods that are often essentially run by street gangs.”

Cook is the ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy and a professor of economics and sociology at Duke University. He served as vice chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Law and Justice.

Jens Ludwig is director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab and McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Science Administration, law and Public Policy at the university.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

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