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Turning Away From Success

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Turning Away From Success

A new book acknowledges the role that policing and incarceration played in the great crime decline—then argues that we should abandon that approach. April 11, 2019
Public safety

Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, by Patrick Sharkey (W.W. Norton & Co., 244 pp., $16.95)

American policymakers have often responded to big problems with declarations of war—on poverty, on drugs, and on terror, to mention three well-known examples. The outcomes of those efforts have been mixed, but one policy war that has met with far greater success over the last generation is the war on crime. Yet that victory, says sociologist Patrick Sharkey in his new book, is “tainted,” and the peace that so many now enjoy “uneasy.” It’s a puzzling thesis, especially since, in his thorough and well-written account, Sharkey chronicles how far urban crime has declined, what brought the decline about, and the many ways in which America’s most vulnerable urban residents benefited. Though he acknowledges the contributions of policing and incarceration to what he calls “one of the most important social trends to hit cities over the past several decades,” Sharkey nevertheless argues that we should now “turn the streets over to advocates” and abandon the practices that helped so many cities find peace and prosperity.

Sharkey begins by illustrating that “the level of violence in the United States has fallen dramatically from its latest peak in the early 1990s.” While this decline is real, aggregated crime data can create the false impression that these improvements have been felt equally across the country. Though violent-crime numbers have no doubt improved, many urban neighborhoods continue to experience elevated levels of violence, which in some cases rival those seen in the early 1990s. Explaining the crime decline, he rightly dismisses exogenous factors—such as shifts in age distribution, economic growth, and less alcohol use. Instead, he rightly attributes the decline to “response[s] to the crisis of violence itself.” Chief among them: the reclaiming, and subsequent transformation, of public spaces, which Sharkey calls “[t]he most fundamental change that took place in U.S. cities.” He divides credit for overall crime decline three ways—between policing, incarceration, and local community organizations “established to provide social services and safe spaces for young people, to create stronger neighborhoods, and to confront violence.”

Sharkey explains the importance of order maintenance in public spaces through an idea introduced by criminologists Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson. Crime is likeliest, they suggest, when three conditions are met: “a motivated offender, a vulnerable victim, and the absence of a capable guardian.” In analyzing the role of police—the most obvious “capable guardians”—in bringing about the crime decline, Sharkey cites studies showing how, for example, “if police patrols are increased by half, one should expect crime to drop by roughly 15 percent.” He also cites economist Steven Levitt, who documented how “changes in the size of the local police force . . . bring about a reduction in violent crime.” He concludes that “when more police are on the streets, fewer crimes occur.”

Further, he notes the benefits of incarceration in reducing violent crime through the removal of motivated offenders. “[E]ven the staunchest critics of mass incarceration,” he writes, “acknowledge that the expansion of the imprisoned population contributed to the decline in violence.” On this point, he concedes, “there is no longer much debate.”

Though Sharkey gives policing and incarceration their due, this acknowledgment is reluctant. He describes police as “a wave of urban warriors clad in dark blue uniforms” that used “brute-force tactics to take over city streets.” And he refers to the growth of the incarcerated population as “neither efficient, just, nor humane.” But he never explains why it was inefficient, unjust, or inhumane to imprison more violent felons, many of whom had troubling criminal histories.

Sharkey’s story of how community groups, such as Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, helped cut crime—the book’s most original hypothesis—is less data-driven and more anecdotal than his analysis of policing and incarceration. His discussion does not make clear how much impact such groups had on crime, or whether that impact would have been the same without the policing and incarceration practices that trouble him. Perhaps his discomfort explains his description of these community groups as “another set of guardians” that offered “a more positive, hopeful addendum to the story of how urban spaces have transformed.” Indeed, Sharkey’s mission seems to be to reveal the hidden powers of community organizers to control crime—thereby persuading readers that policy responses like Broken Windows policing and increased incarceration are unnecessary.

The centerpiece of his prescribed approach is the “community quarterback,” which would be “a single organization” that is “responsible for overseeing every low-income community across the country.” This means creating “a new entity to ‘protect and serve’ residents.” He cites the case of Perth, Australia, where “Aboriginal patrols operate on the basis of cultural authority which they derive from their embedded position within the Aboriginal domain.” Rather than have police maintaining public order, which sometimes take the form of an arrest (and subsequent prosecution), neighborhoods need “advocates,” who will “serve as a buffer between residents and the police.” But he is conspicuously light on data establishing that the experience of Perth is scalable, or that it could inoculate American cities against the levels of crime they suffered in the 1990s.

In telling the history of the bad old days, Sharkey plants the seeds of what could strike some readers as the same sort of “root causes” argument that has been cut down both by crime researchers—such as George L. Kelling, James Q. Wilson, and Barry Latzer—and by the realities of neighborhoods like East Harlem, which has seen significant declines in violent crime despite high levels of concentrated poverty. Between 1990 and 2018, the NYPD’s 25th precinct, located in that neighborhood, has seen a 91.4 percent decline in murders and an 81.7 percent decline in robberies. Over the same period, East Harlem’s 32nd precinct saw declines of 92.4 percent and 80.9 percent in those categories, respectively. East Harlem remains a relatively poor area of Manhattan: as of 2016, according to the New York State Comptroller, one-third of the neighborhood’s rental apartments were public-housing units, nearly 50 percent of its children live in households below the federal poverty line, and the median household income is just $34,400, substantially below the citywide median. Work remains to be done to make East Harlem safer, but the neighborhood is a leading exhibit against the argument that crime is driven by socioeconomic factors. Indeed, Uneasy Peace illustrates how positive economic change is often the byproduct of crime declines, rather than a necessary condition for them. Yet Sharkey obscures this reality when he writes that “the war on violence . . . starts with investment.”

The problem for Sharkey is that the best case against his policy prescriptions can be made by using the data presented in his own book. Perhaps the most compelling data arguing against turning the streets “over to advocates” are those that illustrate how “the most disadvantaged groups of Americans” have benefited from the crime decline. The most obvious benefit: the number of black lives saved. Sharkey paints a vivid picture: “[T]he impact of the decline in homicide on the life expectancy of black men is roughly equivalent to the impact of eliminating obesity altogether.” He explains how “For every 100,000 black men, over 1,000 more years of time with friends and family have been preserved because of the drop in the murder rate.” But the effect of violence goes beyond the death toll. It also reaches into the classroom, impairing children’s learning and development; conversely, its reduction can foster upward mobility, which, he shows, “is much less likely in cities with high levels of violence.”

Yet despite all of this, Sharkey counsels against the approaches to policing and incarceration that have saved lives and improved educational and economic outcomes for so many. Reducing crime is not enough, apparently. We must “also confront the larger problem of urban inequality.” And that, he writes, will require “a new approach.”

Sharkey’s book hit shelves just as Baltimore, one of America’s most violent cities, endured another crime spike that the New York Times and USA Today have convincingly tied to less rigorous policing. Uneasy Peace powerfully illustrates how important the crime decline has been for cities—so powerfully, in fact, that Sharkey’s own data weigh against his prescriptions.

Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

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