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An Elusive Synthesis

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eye on the news

An Elusive Synthesis

Two social scientists try to reconcile their past work to the anti-police movement. July 29, 2021
Public safety
The Social Order

A few years ago, before homicide and violent crime began increasing nationwide, two leading social scientists, Patrick Sharkey and David Kennedy, sought to document the costs of homicide and violent crime, to explain why they had declined so precipitously, and to uplift suffering majority-black neighborhoods. But since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, some of their important policy insights have become politically inconvenient. They’ve responded by pursuing an elusive synthesis between these elements of their work and the positions of the anti-police Left.

While Sharkey is a political liberal, some of his work has touched on themes no longer welcome in progressive circles. In 2018’s Uneasy Peace, Sharkey documented the disastrous effects of violent crime on the behavior and learning capacity of young children. He also offered ideas to improve struggling majority-black neighborhoods. One of his favored policies was planned gentrification; in Uneasy Peace, he embraced the Purpose Built housing initiatives funded by Warren Buffett and patterned after Atlanta’s East Lake development. Uneasy Peace gives credit to policing and incarceration, though reluctantly, for their role in ending the crime wave. Yet even amid an unprecedented gun-violence spike, a focus on the overlooked costs of crime and violence would distract from the anti-police message of the Black Lives Matter movement, and anything that highlights the positive benefits of gentrification would be anathema.

Sharkey wrote Uneasy Peace “at a time when there is no crisis of crime in most of the country”—but times have changed. Seeking to reframe the post-Floyd crime spike, Sharkey told Time: “All the sources of data tell us that, right from the start of 2020, it’s been a year with very high violence. There has been a real increase since May, but there was change going on before that.” He draws on Harvard professor Robert Sampson’s theory of legal cynicism in minority neighborhoods to explain the crime wave, telling Vox: “People obey the law when they believe it’s legitimate; when the belief in the legitimacy of this institution is undermined, that can result in a rise of violence.”

Legal cynicism has become a standard explanation for the post-Floyd homicide spike, but it’s an unsatisfying one. Police struggle to solve real crimes often because the community doesn’t want to snitch; as David Kennedy has recounted, when Chicago police responded in 2008 to a 17-year-old shooting victim and asked if he knew who did it, he replied just before dying: “Yes, but I ain’t telling you shit.” Yet legal cynicism overlooks the role that criminal-justice reforms have had in removing deterrents to crime and the fact that many violent crimes are the result of “street justice” meted out in response to personal conflicts—not being invited to a social event, romantic trouble, a drug deal gone bad. Any explanation that overlooks family disintegration, the persistent and often-violent demonstrations of last summer causing a law-enforcement pullback, and the prevalence of antisocial behavior is insufficient.

Sharkey has tried to reach a truce with the anti-police movement. In a June 2020 Washington Post op-ed, Sharkey conceded that “police are effective in reducing violence” and that “efforts to weaken them through budget cuts . . . are likely to have unanticipated consequences and to destabilize communities” before reaffirming his dubious belief in community-based organizations, not police, to reduce violent crime. “There are neighborhoods all over the country where residents gave up on the police a long time ago,” he wrote.

Sharkey has long focused on community programs that, in his view, are capable of curbing violence absent a significant police presence. But as Rafael A. Mangual has written, Sharkey’s “story of how community groups . . . helped cut crime . . . is less data-driven and more anecdotal than his analysis of policing and incarceration.” If Sharkey wants to consider strategies with stronger track records, a better approach can be found, for example, in some cities’ focused-deterrence policies.* Pittsburgh police gather a database of high-risk individuals, then visit their residences and offer substantial support to help them turn their lives around—but they tell these individuals that if they continue to offend, the judicial system will deal with them harshly. This strategy is one of many options that can work: in 2020, cities including Newark, St. Petersburg (Florida), and St. Paul that pursued active coordination between neighborhood organizations and police saw much smaller homicide increases than their neighbors; Newark actually saw a decline. In all three cities, strong community-police relations were an important reason for their successes. To refuse to seek working relationships between neighborhood anti-violence efforts and police departments does a disservice to black communities.

Much of this community-partnership work has been inspired by David Kennedy, who has worked to reform police departments for almost 30 years. In his 2011 book, Don’t Shoot, Kennedy wrote:

Fixing the strained, often poisoned relationship between law enforcement and America’s most troubled communities—fixing the crisis of legitimacy—is the key to making those neighborhoods safe and undoing the damage we’re doing now. . . . We need to put together a core partnership of law enforcement, service providers, and community voices.

Kennedy had once expressed skepticism of claims that a focus on structural factors is crucial to stemming crime. When he gave a talk at Harvard, after discussing the success of Operation Ceasefire—a program to convince gangs to stop resorting to gun violence to settle disputes—one of the graduate students “was outraged.” “You’re going to stop the killing without doing something about community conditions?” she said. “That’s immoral.” Kennedy responded: “The false divide between prevention and law enforcement is not only mistaken but catastrophically misguided. It doesn’t work to say any longer: ‘Those people are victims, they are not responsible, they need programs, support.’”

Kennedy emphasized the widespread fear of gun violence among parents in poor black neighborhoods and the worry that their sons will join gangs. Law-abiding black residents are also hostile to police, according to Kennedy, because they believe that “the government brings the drugs in so they can put our kids in jail so the cops will have work and the cracker prison guards upstate can make union wages.” These beliefs, he suggests, along with the belief that police harass black youth, lead law-abiding residents to be silent about the heartless deeds of neighborhood criminals and to refuse to cooperate with police. “When the cops, the agents of the law saying, Don’t shoot, don’t deal, are offensive, the community won’t say those things with them,” Kennedy wrote in 2011.

But in light of Black Lives Matter demands, Kennedy has attempted to reconcile his belief in the crucial role of strong police-community relations with support for the movement. In July 2020, Kennedy summarized his efforts thus:

I’ve been part of developing a violence prevention strategy that has a central role for police in partnership with the community and service providers. It can cut homicides—mostly of young black men—in half or more. It was the source of the so-called “Boston Miracle” over 20 years ago that reduced young people’s murders by almost two-thirds. It’s the same body of work that has made Oakland, California, a shining star in violence prevention, with homicide and gun violence down by half over the last eight years. . . . I have worked arm in arm with police officers who are courageous, creative, and committed to their communities. In short, I know how much good the right kind of policing can do.

Yet in that same essay, Kennedy expressed agreement with Sharkey that community organizations have a more important role to play. He now suggests that it is not the gun culture that parents fear but police violence: “Being black in America has meant knowing that one’s family and loved ones are never safe and secure because your country can hurt you and them at any moment. It has meant being subject to state violence and to the state’s protection of private violence, in a nation forged out of, structured by, and soaked in racism.”

Kennedy wants to have it both ways. In the same essay in which he stands by his previous work and “the right kind of policing,” he writes that “all of” the things that happened last summer—not only the protests but also the Minneapolis city council’s commitment to eliminate its police department and the rise of the movement to “defund” police—were “for good.” But endorsing an all-encompassing view of systemic racism and extending an olive branch to those who would abolish police departments undermines Kennedy’s stated goals and obliterates the nuance that he appears to want to preserve.

Sharkey and Kennedy are doing their best to appease an anti-police movement that minimizes the destructive effect of gun violence in black communities and the crucial role of police in combating it. The problem for both scholars is that they have spent their professional careers arguing for efforts to stem violent crime and improve poor black neighborhoods. Though both are downplaying important aspects of their past scholarship in the current climate, their work remains fundamentally at odds with the anti-police movement.

* As Sharkey noted in a Tweet responding to this piece, he has published studies on the impacts of community organizations and focused deterrence programs on crime, finding that the latter had no effect on arrests. 

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

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