Law enforcement in the 2020s is the ultimate “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” endeavor. When crime is down, folks enjoy their comfort and government officials spend their very finite resources on fun things like parks, programs or pretty much anything else. In most communities, making police a budgetary priority is only necessitated by some spike in crime or (at the very least) an anecdotal incident that violates the community’s sense of safety. A police department can beg for additional resources for years. They might cry out warnings in the wilderness like the prophets of old, only to be ignored. The greatest irony, though, is when their predictions come true and they’re ultimately blamed for whatever crisis they predicted all along. Yes, it’s hard to get a win in this day and age.
The most fallacious part of this way of thinking, though, is the gross exaggeration of the influence that police can actually have on the crime in a community.
Opioid epidemics and enlightening examples
Take, for example, the heroin epidemic. All across the nation, towns have been racked by drug overdoses. Some communities have been absolutely decimated. The public cried out for the law enforcement profession to address the epidemic, and the police answered. Departments across the nation stepped up enforcement efforts, although they were already putting record numbers of drug dealers in jail. Many communities equipped their first responders with Narcan, giving overdose victims a second chance … or three or four.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation stepped up to the plate when their communities started feeling the pain from the epidemic, but the power to completely fix that problem was never within their grasp. They could put the drug dealers in jail, but they couldn’t determine how long they stayed there. They could bring a victim back to life with a shot of naloxone, but they couldn’t keep them from leaving the hospital and heading straight for their next hit. Even when they could confiscate some of the drug supply, they couldn’t control the underlying demand for it. They had no power to affect the hundreds of factors over dozens of years that combined in a person’s life to produce a drug addict.
The best law enforcement agencies are proactive, but even proactivity has its limits. An agency can predict crime and even proactively deter crime. What they can’t do is address the root causes of crime. The environs that breed crime are far reaching and impossible to completely understand. They have to do with morality, upbringing, psychology, sociology and myriad other factors. To immediately blame the police any time crime goes up is simply intellectually dishonest.
One important role of many
None of this is to say that the role law enforcement plays isn’t an important one. One need only look at the skyrocketing crime rates in jurisdictions where governments have foolishly decided to tie the hands of their police officers. The effects of de-policing (and defunding) are devastating. When all else has failed and a person has crossed societal boundaries, no one is better equipped to save lives and stop bad guys than the cops.
But the criminal justice system is sort of like the safety valve system in a nuclear plant. If a reactor starts to overheat, the safety system injects a coolant that stops the reaction. This gives the technicians a chance to fix whatever underlying problem caused the thing to overheat in the first place. It’s a time-tested way of doing business that’s largely helped us avoid rendering wide swaths of the country uninhabitable. It’s good to have a safety system.
By the time someone commits a crime, a lot has gone wrong. They have slipped through some cracks in society. Yet all too often, we don’t reflect on what’s wrong with society when we lament crime. We don’t try to figure out what the underlying issues might be. Instead, we jump straight to expecting the cops to fix whatever our latest collective ailment might be. It’s as if the reactor keeps overheating, but we just keep dumping more safety coolant into it. At some point, it might be a good idea to figure out what’s causing the overheating in the first place.
Cause and effect
The “blame the police” response assumes that police are the main reason that a community is or isn’t safe. That’s also logically inconsistent.
A beautiful example of this obvious fact can be found in Mayberry. The Andy Griffith Show told the story of a small-town sheriff and his inept deputy. Much of the show’s plotlines revolved around Deputy Barney Fife’s frustration at the lack of crime in town. Fife’s poor skills as a lawman were the fodder for much of the show’s punchlines. If the knee-jerk “blame the police” line of reasoning held true, Mayberry should have been a hellhole of vice and iniquity. Quite the contrary, Fife could get away with his blunders because the town simply didn’t have any crime to speak of.
It’s safe to say that the policing prowess exhibited by lawmen in modern-day New York City or Los Angeles is far superior to that possessed by ol’ Fife, yet their cities suffer far worse crime than idyllic Mayberry. Obviously, the performance of the police isn’t the only factor determining the crime-
related woes of a community.
Crime problems are community problems
No, there’s a lot more to a crime rate than the efforts of the local constabulary. Education, moral training, the family unit and countless other things play a role in determining whether a boy or girl will grow up to take advantage
of their fellow man. So what are the implications of this truth?
When people, shaken by the specter of crime in their community, ask what the police are going to do about it, the appropriate response is: “What are we going to do about it?”
Crime is a community problem, and therefore requires a community solution. A community determines how much crime it will produce, not the police. The police can only address crime, they can’t address the vast majority of issues that breed crime in the first place. By the time the police get involved, the damage is usually done.
To truly address crime requires a community effort. A community has to be willing to make public safety a priority and properly support their officers. But it doesn’t just take brave police officers stepping in when everything has gone off the rails. It takes social organizations, civic groups and nonprofits each doing whatever they happen to do best. It means parents raising their kids right, neighbors watching out for each other and churches filling the gaps where they appear. In short, it means people caring enough to address the underlying problems that ultimately lead to unsafe communities. Crime problems, after all, are community problems.