It’s an odd question: Should police be fighting criminals – or crime? Yet in today’s law enforcement, such a distinction between action and actor is not seen as odd. And this might help explain why New York has achieved one of the lowest crimes rates the city has ever seen.
Last year, New York saw the fewest shootings since it started tracking them. Major felonies were at the lowest level ever recorded. Most important, gang-related killings were down by almost third from the year before.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill accounts for this success by simply saying New York is becoming better at “deeper problem-solving.” The city has indeed tried many criminal-justice reforms in recent decades. And better economic conditions have also helped cut crime. But what is sure is that police are now more engaged with their communities, explaining their work, listening to feedback, and winning allies. Clergy, for example, are enlisted to calm gang behavior. In Brooklyn, anti-violence groups often hold vigils in rough neighborhoods.
This community-focused approach allows police to more easily pinpoint the most habitual lawbreakers and then confront them with a choice: Either be arrested or seek help for their problems, such as job training, counseling, or mentoring.
The key is choice. If police view gang leaders, for example, as capable of a life without crime, then the gang leaders might not see themselves as criminals. Police, in other words, separate the crime from “the criminal.”
The buzzword for this approach is “focused deterrence.” It relies on a view of individuals as potentially open to reform and as separate from their past acts of crime. Police offer dignity and respect to a targeted person, and then hope to see those qualities reflected back.
A recent book by a group of criminologists, “Place Matters: Criminology for the Twenty-First Century,” explains this as a shift of attention “from people to events, from those who commit crimes to the crimes themselves.”
The authors say law enforcement has focused for too long on “what specific types of people commit crime” rather than on prevention of crime itself: “Catching criminals, convicting them, sometimes imprisoning them and sometimes rehabilitating them naturally leads us to the individual as the primary focus of criminal justice interventions.”
For cities still trapped in rising violence, especially Chicago, New York’s success against crime cannot be ignored. The first task, however, is a conceptual shift. And it starts by asking the right question, even if it is an odd one: Are you fighting criminals – or crime?