During a brief lull during a clinic recently, I picked up a copy of a journal called Theoretical Criminology that the publishers had sent me in the hope of enticing me to subscribe. One article almost caused me to suffer apoplexy: “Theorizing policing: The drama and myth of crime control in the NYPD,” written by Peter K. Manning, a professor of Policing and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Massachusetts.

Professor Manning’s attitude to criminal justice was as simple as Calvin Coolidge’s to sin: he was against it. And as far as Manning was concerned, fear of crime was a mere middle-class neurosis, used to justify the oppression of minorities, the poor, and social misfits. Indeed, crime doesn’t really exist: for, as Manning put it, “Crime is a context-based idea, not a thing; it is a representation, a word, a symbol, standing for many things, including vague fears, symbolic villains, threats and assailants, the unknown, generalized anxieties and hopes.”

For Manning, changes in crime rates have nothing to do with the policing or criminal justice system, to the study (or is it to the abolition?) of which he has presumably devoted his life: hence his contemptuous denial that a change in policing could have been even partially responsible for the drastic decline of crime in New York during Rudolph Giuliani’s mayoralty. Crime, he says, is far too complex a social phenomenon for the likes of mere mayors and policemen to understand: presumably it requires further research by professors to elucidate the delicate causative web that extends back to the Garden of Eden, if not beyond. In the meantime, we must patiently submit to be being burgled, mugged, or assaulted, because the criminologists will eventually come to our rescue: though, as in St. Augustine’s prayer that he might be good, not just yet.

The logical conclusion of Manning’s argument is that, if neither the police nor the courts existed, we should be none the less safe, or any the more unsafe. Even for a tenured professor, this conclusion must be hard to swallow. Manning is by no means a lone voice crying in the criminological wilderness: on the contrary, he is more like a member of a powerful chorus singing in unison. One of the most prominent recent books on the subject, Bernard Harcourt’s The Illusion of Order, also claims that the decline in crime in New York during the 1990s had little or nothing to do with policing, and that “disorder” is a social construction. That is to say, the smell of urine is in the nose of the olfactor.

I grew increasingly angry as I read Manning’s paper—indeed, I came near to flinging the journal that contained it against the wall—because my last patient before I started to read had been a man whose brother had died of a brain hemorrhage after being thrown down a flight of stairs in a quarrel in a boardinghouse. The man who did it—and who left his victim at the bottom of the stairs for a few days to die—was a well-known thug who successfully intimidated the witnesses into not testifying against him. (London’s Metropolitan Police recently reported that half of all witnesses in criminal trials now refuse to testify because of intimidation.) The killer therefore went free for lack of evidence.

Manning uses the word “punitive” as derogation. Does he think, then, that impunity has nothing to do with the climate of intimidation that makes it impossible to convict a killer?


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