In a thoughtful essay for The American Mind, my colleague Nicole Gelinas argues that policing should be understood as the last resort that steps in when civil society can no longer manage problems. As she puts it, “Ask yourself: how often do you need the police visibly to maintain order in your own neighborhood? If the answer is often, something has already failed.” In this, Gelinas recapitulates George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s long-misunderstood theory of Broken Windows policing. Wilson and Kelling argued that communities have a natural, informal capacity to police themselves—the old lady who yells at the kids to mind their manners, the storekeeper who shoos away the drunk, and so on. Disorder—a broken window, say—signals a decline in this capacity. “It’s only when these social dynamics break down,” Gelinas writes, “that the police must serve as the primary arbiters of order.”
In Wilson and Kelling’s account (which I will discuss at greater length in a forthcoming City Journal essay on Wilson’s criminological thought), formal tools for keeping the peace (the law and its enforcers) supplement informal ones (the neighborhood). This view has been embraced on the right, but many on the left adopt it, too, with a twist: if we want less policing, they argue, we can step up community activism. The radical, abolitionist left promotes this idea, as one might expect, but more moderate voices have expressed a version of it as well—as with Eric Adams’s unintentionally deadly exhortation for families to handle disorder issues themselves, rather than call the police.
This left-wing adaptation contains a basic error. Policing is not just what society does when its informal mechanisms break down. Successful informal mechanisms rely on policing as a backstop to their effectiveness—meaning that scaling back the second reduces the power of the first.
Police can combat crime through two channels: by catching criminals after the fact (reactive policing), and by preventing crimes before they occur (proactive policing). Proactive policing appears to be far more effective; even as crime plummeted through the 1990s, clearance rates—a measure of how many offenses result in arrest—remained roughly constant. Research finds that crime rates are related to levels of police presence in a given area, and that when police leave the beat they’re patrolling to investigate an offense, crime rises in the area they left. The threat of policing is often more important than its actual exercise.
The more credible a threat, the less likely it is to be carried out. In the criminal-justice world, the effectiveness of deterrence is thought to be partly a function of certainty: the more likely you are to be caught, the less likely you are to do the crime. Counterintuitively, that also means that more cops walking the beat can lead to fewer arrests, because criminals wind up proactively deterred. As the late scholar Mark Kleiman argued, deterrence lets us have both less crime and less punishment.
This same logic, however, is apparent in the relationship between formal and informal methods of public-order maintenance. Communities not only police themselves through networks of informal social relation but also rely on the formal system of law and order as a credible threat that undergirds the informal system. An old lady’s demand that teens stop roughhousing outside her door works only if she has some recourse if they refuse her request; the last recourse is always calling the cops.
This brings us back to the mistaken notion that strong communities can simply replace police. Informal social control depends upon the threat of formal sanction. Paradoxically, by trying to disempower and delegitimate the police, critics of policing are simultaneously disempowering informal social control by making the threat on which it relies less credible. With fewer cops on the beat, neighbors will be asked to shoulder a heavier and heavier burden for maintaining order.
Replacing cops with “communities” is a utopian dream and would almost surely cause a public-safety nightmare.
Photo: Joel Carillet/iStock