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Feeding a cycle of virtue

Smart, sensitive policing is crucial in fighting crime and building healthy communities. And healthy communities build healthier ones.

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    LOOSENING UP AT A CHICAGO PLAYGROUND COURT, SUMMER 2014
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Amid the post-Ferguson debate over crime and policing in the United States, you’ve undoubtedly seen the FBI statistics that show the dramatic overall decrease in crime over the past 20 years. But here’s what’s even more remarkable: Crime is falling almost everywhere in the world, not just in the US. 

Crime is falling in countries that traditionally had high crime rates (the US, for example) and those that never did (Canada), in countries that enacted tough laws to combat criminality and those that didn’t, those that ban private handguns and those that have made them more available.

On TV, at the movies, in video games, crime runs wild. In the real world, not so much.

But why? Could it be better policing? Certainly that plays a part. As Patrik Jonsson shows in a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), police departments like the one that George Turner runs in Atlanta have developed an intelligent and sensitive approach to fighting crime. Using information technology, they zero in on hot spots. Using smart human relations, they work within communities, listening to people’s problems and picking up intelligence as it crops up instead of just scrambling the squad cars and SWAT teams when someone dials 911.

We can all agree that intelligence and humanity usually improve situations. But still there’s that comparison with other countries, the ones where policing didn’t mirror the transformation it underwent in the US over the past two decades. A team of academics tackled that question a few years ago and published the findings in a 2012 collection titled “The International Crime Drop.” Their conclusion was that “increased investments in policing, greater use of imprisonment, economic growth, and the changing age profiles of populations are seen as weak explanations of the crime drops.” 

New security measures – better alarms, locks, and surveillance cameras – are a more persuasive explanation, they say. But the most important factor may be that crimes are interconnected and “reductions in some crime types will induce reduction in others.” 

On one level, that could be the “broken windows” theory at work. If you combat small crimes, bigger crimes are deterred. But here’s another way to think about it: Virtue is at work.

When crime is rampant, as it was in the US in the 1970s and ’80s, an individual might look around and determine that criminality was the norm. So why not take part? When crime is dropping – whether because of smart policing or changing demographics, advances in security or perhaps a general moral uplift – a virtuous cycle occurs. Why be a thug when thuggery is a small-time, dead-end pursuit?

Moral probity, acceptance of community standards, pursuit of education, respect for others, individual integrity, and, yes, sensitive policing – these are virtues that contribute to a healthy society. And more and more, these are the norm. Criminality still exists and still must be held in check. But the futility of it is becoming more widely understood.

A video-game shoot-’em-up might be fun, but it is fantasy. Reality is better, and getting better still.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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