Despite ‘Murky Legacy,’ 1994 Crime Law Boosted Policing

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Signing a major federal anticrime law in 1994, President Bill Clinton declared that, “Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets,” a sentiment shared by large numbers of Americans who, for a decade, had identified crime as the nation’s most important problem.

The most sweeping criminal justice law in U.S. history included funding for the hiring of a 100,000 local police officers. Clinton called for a law enforcement shift toward greater crime prevention and community engagement. (The measure was largely written by then-Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee).

After a quarter century, evaluating the law’s effects on crime rates and the effectiveness of law enforcement remains a challenge, writes criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis for the Council on Criminal Justice.

While spending authorized by the law can be credited for an increase in crime prevention initiatives, it is not clear if those efforts reduced crime, Rosenfeld says.

Police agencies experienced expansions in their forces because of the law, but studies differ on how much those extra officers helped drive down crime rates.

“Nor is it known whether any crime reductions resulted from changes in the quantity or the quality of policing,” Rosenfeld concludes.

Also unknown is whether multi-jurisdictional task forces, which got the second-largest amount of federal law enforcement funding after the community policing (COPS), have influenced narcotics trafficking, the level of drug use in communities, or other outcomes.

Rosenfeld says that a failure to perform rigorous evaluations has left those questions unanswered. Despite this “murky legacy,” the law expanded the relationship, started with the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in the 1970s, between the federal government and state and local jurisdictions on law enforcement.

It laid the foundation for today’s emphasis on evidence-based criminal justice policy, especially policing. The 1994 law, along with William Bratton’s leadership of the New York Police Department and then-emerging research on targeted “hot spot” policing, “fundamentally altered the then-prevailing view that the police had little influence over crime,” Rosenfeld writes.

Strategies differed. Bratton focused on policing minor crimes and disorder, while hot-spot researchers called for enhanced patrols where serious crimes are concentrated. Both argued that police could make a demonstrable difference in crime rates that should be verified by empirical evidence on outcomes, a perspective that remain a legacy of the crime law.

Rosenfeld says that emphasis should encompass all federal criminal justice expenditures, which he contends should be rigorously evaluated to determine whether they meet their intended objectives, whether they have unforeseen effects on criminal justice and public safety, and how they affect racial, social, and economic equity.

The 1994 law sent billions of dollars in federal support to law enforcement agencies across the country.

By telling localities about best practices elsewhere, directing federal funds to specific purposes and activities, and requiring evaluation of their outcomes, the federal partnership strengthens state and local law enforcement, Rosenfeld writes.

He says that in 2020 and beyond, the federal government “must join with local and state policymakers to remedy the injustices in law enforcement that have been allowed to persist for far too long. George Floyd’s killing, and the largest and most diverse protests against police violence our nation has ever seen, make the need for reform all the more urgent.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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