In the past few years, numerous theories about crime and criminal justice have been advanced in the United States that lack any basis in evidence or common sense. The Metropolitan Police Service in London—known as “the Met” and numbering more than 30,000 officers—has proposed a simple means for protecting that historic city from such unsound practices: it has appointed Lawrence Sherman as its chief scientific officer. Police departments and district attorneys’ offices in America might consider a similar approach.
Sherman is an internationally known and respected academic. He has led quantitative criminology programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Maryland, and, most recently, the University of Cambridge. But he’s no Ivory Tower academic: he started his career riding around with New York City patrol officers during the bad old days, when chaos and disorder were even more prevalent than they are now. His groundbreaking research has identified the “power few” criminals—the 5 percent of lawbreakers who cause more than half of crimes in any given city. He helped establish robust tools for predicting homicides and other types of violence among prior offenders. He argues for targeting, testing, and tracking every type of criminal-justice measure to see if it is actually deterring crime and criminals. He is also a strong proponent of procedural justice, making sure that every individual in the system is treated with dignity.
Under the leadership of Met commissioner Mark Rowley, who appointed Sherman to this new and unique position, the Met is pursuing effective strategies to combat crime. It is compiling lists of the most dangerous offenders in London, performing integrity checks on its own officers and procedures, and tracking the performance of its strategies—including “precision stop and search”—both in terms of apprehending criminals and reducing crime. In short, the Met is using well-proven techniques to fight crime and testing the results with rigorous measures.
Meantime, on this side of the pond, deterrence-based policing and prosecution have all but disappeared in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Oakland, and Portland. Baltimore is a good example of a city trying to pull itself out of almost a decade of unsound criminal-justice policies. De-prosecuting prosecutors and misguided politicians have ignored evidence-based practices. The poorest and most vulnerable people in our cities are paying the price.
It’s time for American prosecutors and police to follow the evidence about what works to deter crime, instead of putting their faith in theories, hopes, and dreams. Choosing clear-eyed realists like Larry Sherman to serve as chief scientific officers for major police departments and prosecutors’ offices in the United States would be a good step toward restoring order to our cities.
Founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, the Met served as the template for police departments in the United States and around the world. Like any large organization, the Met has had its successes and its setbacks. But with some American cities becoming overrun with lawlessness and looting, good ideas are needed. This is one.
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