Saturday, May 28, 2011

The power of few - Part 1

The newest batch of NYPD recruits

Some criminologists believe a small number of places or people cause disproportionate crime. I wrote on this recently regarding Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto and chronic offenders in Vancouver.

For example, Professor Lawrence Sherman now shows up on YouTube with the title, How Criminology Can Save States from Bankruptcy.

He says preventing crime is not about expanding prisons. It's about targeted incapacitation of the chronic few and reinvesting in crime prevention.

Sherman claims we'll be better off encouraging governments to "cut the prison population, save that money and invest in local policing".

He's right about misspent funds. I'm just not sure policing is where the money should go.

For example, in Toronto collective bargainers raised the police budget to almost $1 Billion dollars for 5,700 sworn cops (compared to the 2010 NYPD budget of $4.3 Billion for 47,000 cops). No doubt police there do many positive things. But it is worth $1 Billion?


Lately, the Toronto badge is a tad tarnished by scandals like the G20 fiasco, slut walks, and race issues.

To be fair, controversy is no stranger to policing anywhere. Yet spending just under $1 Billion for the 2011 police budget begs the question, What's our return on investment?

On one hand, Toronto has a persistent low crime rate compared to large US cities. On the other hand, crime rate drops are ubiquitous. It's unlikely Toronto's police budget is responsible for dropping crime - similar drops are underway everywhere, including cities where police budgets are not growing, like New York.

Consider also worsening Toronto social ills such as vertial poverty that feeds crime, rising gun violence, and persistent street gangs.

Are we really getting bang for our prevention buck?

Toronto Police in the late 1800s

Criminologist Irvin Waller thinks not. He says it is municipal governments themselves who need direct accountability and more competency in crime prevention.

That begins with re-allocating who should direct and administer prevention and justice funds. Unlike Sherman, Waller doesn't seem to think policing is where the money should go.

In Less Law, More Order, Waller claims that

"Americans believe two to one that more money and effort should go into education and job training than deterring crime by paying for more police, prisons and judges...the majority believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

If only our decision-makers would listen.

NEXT: What criminology can offer

5 Replies so far - Add your comment

Anonymous said...

Today's local newspaper editorial claimed that 50% of the Province of Ontario's current tax revenues go to health services, with that figure to rise to 80% by 2030, at the expense of other institutional spending (education etc). This massive shift is thought to be the result of an aging population and consequent higher demand for health services.

Do crime rates fall with an aging population?

Gregory Saville said...

Interesting question KenKat

Canadian demographer David Foote says demographics explains 2/3s of everything!

There is considerable criminological evidence suggesting demographics matter a great deal. In some cases, large numbers of young men between 18 and 28 are known as the "criminogenic cohort". While most young men are not criminals, a larger proportion of their number tend to get into trouble more than other subgroups. If you visit any prison, you'll see it is that group who populate our jails.

As the theory goes, when the criminogenic cohort declines so too does crime. Some think this explains the decade-long drop in crime rates since the 1990s.

Criminologists call this the demographic hypothesis. Check out James Fox's 2003 paper "Deadly Demographics: Population characteristics and forecasting homicide trends."

I suspect there is some truth in all this. My concern is about the last 1/3 that demographics cannot explain. That is what we should be using our resources to make our future safer.

Anonymous said...

I think many police decision makers are listen to researchers and are employing evidence-based policing strategies, which at least in part accounts for the continued frop in crime.

In places like Cincinnati, problem solving has even led to increased property values in targeted areas, which means more revenue for the city.


I’m not suggesting that savings or increased revenue should be funneled back to the police, but I am arguing that in many places, the police are being good stewards of the public’s resources by understanding and taking advantage of the “power of the few.”

There is more to the business of policing than money, however, and you rightly point out some of the problems like those in Toronto. It doesn’t matter how much crime goes down or how much money the police can save if some citizens are treated with respect and some are not. Lawful or not, out actions will begin to lose legitimacy with the public. A book that addresses this issue well is call Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect.


It was written by a couple of cops from Kansas City, MO, and it has some real gems of insight, though you may have to dig a little, as they are kind of hidden in a book that is really better suited as a lengthy article (which is actually how it was originally intended).

In short, I think that we are really starting to understand what works and what doesn’t work in policing. What we still are missing is the importance of understanding ourselves and the impact our words and actions have on those that we work with and the citizens that we serve. EI, anyone?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gregory Saville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.