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It Feels Like We’re Losing The Streets-The Impossible World Of Corrections Research
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 08/05/2019

Cityscape There is an article in Just Security (below) that summarizes the state of the art in police research. The premise? There is no recognized and universally accepted collection of data as to what cops should do.

To be honest, the same applies to corrections and the judiciary.

There was a time in the late 1960s when The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement And The Administration of Justice promised a golden era of criminal justice research where we would be provided with evidence-based practices that would lead to greater efficacy along with considerable reductions in crime. Quite simply, that never materialized.

The bottom line? Police, correctional commissioners and chief judges are flying by the seat of their pants, making the best possible judgments with limited or no data.


Per Vox, we have, “A promising solution to gun violence in American cities. Most of it happens in small areas. A targeted policing approach to those neighborhoods, focusing on both perpetrators and victims, is the realistic solution…,” VOX.

Concurrently, we have a new report from the federal government’s Crime Solutions.Gov (bottom) describing a similar program where there were no positive results. It was a well thought out effort to target specific places and people with community assistance, exactly what the current state of the art calls for, yet it failed.

Predictive policing based on algorithms are proving controversial, Daily Beast.

There are inevitable charges of bias regardless as to what law enforcement leadership does.

What We Don’t Know–Just Security (direct quotes rearranged for brevity)

There are two huge problems with American policing today: We don’t know nearly enough about what works in a sound way, and what doesn’t — especially if one considers social costs, which usually get left out of the equation. And even when we do have a good fix on what works and its costs, there’s no real mechanism for identifying best practices and getting the word out.

Both of these problems were on display in Cincinnati recently, when 300 to 400 people attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing(ASEBP). Never heard of it? That’s too bad: it was a terrific gathering of hardy souls, all deeply committed to the novel concept that policing practices actually should be based on sound science.

The meeting in Cincinnati served to underscore the low profile of evidence-based policing in the United States. Although 300 to 400 people may sound like a fair number, here’s some perspective: There are over 700,000 cops in the United States today; the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s most recent annual conference in the U.S. attracted about 18,000 officers and associated leadership, vendors, etc. Add to that the fact that ASEBP members teed up some basic questions about research and how to utilize it that have no adequate answers at present, and you start to see the issue.

There’s nothing magical about the tenets of evidence-based policing, a movement launched just over two decades ago by noted criminologist and policing educator Lawrence Sherman. It’s pretty much what you’d hope and expect. As Sherman describes it, “police practices should be based on scientific evidence about what works best.” Cynthia Lum, herself a noted criminologist, former cop, and director of George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, explains how inescapably logical the movement is: “Why wouldn’t police tactics be based on what we know are effective strategies that reduce or prevent crime?”

The bad news is, for all its simple logic, evidence-based policing has not really caught on. Lum concludes her thought by saying, “There is little indication that most American police leaders and their agencies systematically or regularly use tactics that are evidence-based.” The absence of more robust attendance at the Cincinnati meeting reflects this, Just Security.

Without A Proven Gameplan, Violence Grows In Many Cities

Follow the criminal justice literature and media reports and you see dozens of references to “losing the streets” (Chicago) or “criminals have no fear” (Baltimore). Every city and metropolitan area with high violence, and there are dozens of them, all offer quotes from mayors or community leadership that violent crime is out of control or that offenders are not held accountable.

Yes, we have over twenty years of significant national declines in crime rates and totals but the data since 2015 has been mixed with the number of persons who had been victims of violent crime is up 17 percent from 2015 per the National Crime Survey, Crime in the US.

Regardless as to the debate of whether violent crime is increasing or decreasing nationally, the public turns to law enforcement for answers. The problem is that answers based on good evidence is almost impossible to find. A chief of police may state without equivocation that he or she knows what to do, but it’s a guess, nothing more, nothing less.

Chicago Mayor Fears ‘We’re Losing the Streets’

The Crime Report (direct quotes): Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it “feels like we’re losing the streets” after another violent summer weekend that saw 32 people shot and nine people killed, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Lightfoot missed this week’s version of “Accountability Monday,” when she summons Police Superintendent

Eddie Johnson and his leadership team to City Hall to hold their feet to the fire. If fatalities and shootings are Lightfoot’s measuring stick, nine dead and 32 shot is not the kind of report card likely to keep Johnson in his job on a long-term basis. “I do continue to have faith in Superintendent Johnson. But it’s not secret that I’m pushing him and his leadership team to do better,” the mayor said.

She added, “We’ve now had a couple of weekends since I became mayor where it feels like we’re losing the streets.” Lightfoot has committed to keeping Johnson through the summer, but has made no promises beyond that. She wants to see how the summer goes.

After “flooding the zone” over Memorial Day weekend with 1,200 more police officers and 100 events and youth programs as alternative activities, Lightfoot came away with results tragically similar to previous years. That prompted her to lower the bar, tying Chicago’s never-ending cycle of gang violence to what she called “systemic disinvestment” in South and West Side neighborhoods. “You’re gonna continue to see me linking the issues, not just with law enforcement response, but a more comprehensive response because, until we change the desperate circumstances in communities,” Lightfoot said.

Selling Cigarettes-Eric Garner

Throughout my career, I attended community meetings where residents of all colors demanded intense police action to deal with crime problems. There were endless references to cops not caring unless they started enforcing a wide array of minor crimes like disturbing the peace, public drinking or drug use or other issues that bothered residents and business owners. I literally heard that cops need to get troublemakers off the corner, and that residents didn’t care how they did it.

The pressure to do all this did not come from street cops; it came from communities, politicians, newspapers and additional media sources. Back in the day, cops responded to calls and did routine patrols. They mostly let the “little stuff” slide because the premise was to be available for major incidents and crimes in progress.

Critics point to the “broken windows” theory whereby if you address the little things through aggressive, proactive policing, the big things take care of themselves. It resulted in dramatic reductions in crime in New York City and was tried in dozens of cities with mixed results. But to anyone in the criminal justice system, the pressure to address “small stuff” came from communities, politicians and the media, not individual officers.

Thus we get Eric Garner, a man who had been arrested by the New York City Police Department more than thirty times since 1980 on charges such as assault, resisting arrest, and grand larceny who was alleged to be selling untaxed cigarettes, Wikipedia.

The officers were combatting graffiti and quality of life issues in a neighborhood near the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and to watch for loose cigarette sales when he saw Garner completing such a transaction, Associated Press.

Why would cops arrest someone for selling cigarettes or untaxed cigarettes?

City Journal (direct quotes): An NYPD lieutenant directed Pantaleo and his partner to arrest Garner, so charges that the officer singled him out because of his race are nonsense.

The arrest order was issued because this part of Staten Island—near the ferry docks—was the subject of repeated complaints about illegal street vendors diverting customers from shops and even selling drugs. The spot at which the Garner arrest took place had been the site of at least 98 arrests, 100 criminal court summonses, 646 calls to 911, and nine complaints to 311 in 2014 alone. Garner had had at least three previous encounters with police that year; he had been arrested twice and given a warning. At the time of the fatal incident, he was free on bail for offenses including selling untaxed cigarettes, driving without a license, marijuana possession, and impersonation, City Journal.

So once again, it was complaints from the community and business that prompted officers to be assigned to the area and to arrest Garner.

It’s not my purpose to rehash details of his death; only the fact that cops were there because the community-directed them to be there. And I have found that community pressure to be a constant source in many arrests gone wrong.

So What Do We Do To Gain The Data We Need?

We live up to the tenants of The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement And The Administration of Justice. We create a massive research program to establish what works in law enforcement, corrections, and the judiciary.

We admit that we just don’t have the facts necessary to implement an evidence-based process.

Communities and society need to understand that they play the primary role as to crime control. Communities need to decide for themselves as to what crimes they want enforced and how they should be enforced. Why is it the sole prerogative of law enforcement to make these decisions, especially when the evidence is thin?

Communities need to do the heavy lifting and then go to police leadership and discuss what they want.

Putting these decisions solely in the hands of law enforcement is simply wrong. We don’t have the answers. We’ve never had the answers.

Just understand that if communities, politicians and the media decide that enforcement of marijuana possession isn’t a priority, don’t complain to the police when people are out smoking pot on the corner at 1:00 a.m. The same applies to every other “minor” crime. Be careful as to what you ask for.

Many cops will be more than happy to return to the days of being officer friendly, responding to calls and doing routine patrol. Arrests are never simple, never without danger. Instances in the past where cops let people slide for a wide array of issues was, at one time, thought to be in everyone’s best interest.

But now we arrest for any case of driving under the influence. Now we arrest both parties for any hint of domestic violence. Now we arrest because the community is sick of being bothered.

It’s time to admit that we don’t know what we are doing from an evidence-based perspective. It’s time to admit that communities don’t always make the right decisions. It’s time to admit that politicians and the media will suck up to community preferences without caring about the consequences.

It’s time for discussion and compromise.

It’s time to admit that individual cops didn’t ask for arrest happy policies. It’s time for a collective responsibility as to crime control.

Crime Solutions.Gov: Police-Led Community Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence (St. Louis, Missouri) (direct quotes slightly altered)

This police-led program was designed to reduce gun crime and serious violence in the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. The program is rated No Effects. The intervention did not have a statistically significant effect on gun violence or total violence trends in the target neighborhood compared with the average trends of seven matched comparison neighborhoods across the city.

Program Goals/Target Sites

This police-led initiative was an intervention designed to reduce gun crime and serious violence in St. Louis, Missouri. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) collaborated with numerous justice, government, and community organizations to develop the intervention for the Wells Goodfellow (WGF) neighborhood. The program strategy was based on a preintervention assessment of violence patterns in WGF as well as the problems cited by WGF residents and stakeholders.

The City of St. Louis has a population of about 318,000. Slightly more than 25 percent of city residents live below the poverty line. In 2007, the city experienced 7,654 Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) Part I violent crimes, a rate about two-and-a-half times that of other U.S. cities of similar size. In 2004 and 2006, between 82 and 89 percent of the city’s homicides were committed with a firearm. Approximately 8,000 people reside in the WGF neighborhood, 98 percent of whom are African American. The neighborhood is characterized by high levels of family disruption and vacant housing units, as well as a high violent crime rate.

Program Components

The program included enhanced enforcement, prosecution, and offender supervision in WGF. Many of these key components were not entirely new or unique to WGF; however, they were intensified during the project period.

Patrol officers, detectives, and officers from multiple SLMPD specialty units coordinated proactive enforcement activities, such as directed patrols, surveillance, warrant application and execution, drug enforcement and investigation, intensified responses to shootings, and in-depth follow-up investigations. Activities were focused on hot spot crime locations, known offenders in the neighborhood, and the deterrence of nonresidents who sold or bought drugs in the WGF neighborhood.

Federal authorities assisted SLMPD with the activities, including a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) team that conducted drug operations in WGF. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) provided funding to supplement police overtime. ATF also conducted joint patrols with SLMPD during parts of the project and traced recovered firearms. Overall, these activities were designed to deter illegal gun carrying and use, target known offenders, suppress drug activity believed to be associated with much of the violence in the WGF neighborhood, and better respond to incidents of serious violence.

In addition, the City of St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office increased its focus on the prosecution of offenses in WFG, particularly for cases involving violence, guns, or drugs. Prosecutors worked with SLMPD to strengthen cases and requested judicial orders to restrict outside drug offenders from entering the neighborhood. The United States Attorney’s Office also committed to prosecuting eligible gun cases from WGF.

Finally, SLMPD also coordinated with probation and parole officers to improve supervision for high-risk probationers in WGF. This involved strengthening a joint police-probation intensive supervision program for high-risk probationers in WGF (including first-time gun offenders).

The program also included efforts to improve police–community relations, and to mobilize and stimulate the community through community meetings, job fairs, and other special events. For example, an interagency team had been addressing issues related to nuisance and vacant properties in WGF, and this effort intensified during the intervention.

Study 1

Total Violence

Koper and colleagues (2016) did not find statistically significant differences in total violence between the Wells GoodFellow (WGF) neighborhood and the seven matched comparison neighborhoods.

Gun Violence

There were no statistically significant differences in gun violence between the WGF neighborhood and the seven matched comparison neighborhoods.

Total Violence Ratio

There were no statistically significant differences in the total violence ratio between the WGF neighborhood and the seven matched comparison neighborhoods.

Gun Violence Ratio

There were no statistically significant differences in the gun violence ratio between the WGF neighborhood and the seven matched comparison neighborhoods.


Reprinted with permission from https://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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