I’ve written in the past about a scenario I find important and intriguing: cities where police departments are led by relatively progressive, reform-friendly chiefs who find themselves caught between protesters and their own departments’ history and rank-and-file officers. That was the case when I wrote about New York City and Minneapolis. And it’s the case in my latest story, about Charlotte, North Carolina.
I wrote for The American Prospect’s website (a new client)about the state of police reform in Charlotte in the wake of the fatal shooting last week of Keith Lamont Scott. In particular, I address the various approaches to improving police training and community relations, and why police reform will continue to be such a difficult chore even in places where the department ostensibly wants to improve.
Some people like the clarity of positions at either pole. I’m inclined to think the truth can always be found in the gray areas between.
Accompanying the relentless news of gun violence is an equally relentless set of debates about how we should respond. More gun control. Tougher policing and sentencing. Less policing. Better policing. Better families. More drug treatment and job training. End poverty and racism. Often, feeding those opinions and conclusions are the latest experiments that prove the point we want to make or provide a straw to grasp for: a city that has momentarily solved its violence problem with a particular tactic; a study of one place and one approach that seems to work; a place where a hated tactic seems to backfire.
What’s lacking from this anecdote-driven conversation is solid evidence of what actually works, not just in this place or that, but overall. In my latest story for The Trace (published also by The Crime Report), I look at the results of decades’ worth of accumulated evidence on what works in policing strategies to reduce gun violence. The result is a sort of scorecard on types of strategies that have amassed the strongest records of results.
The conclusions contradict many common assumptions about what should be done. More broadly, they run counter to a persistent pessimism that has dominated this field of study for about 40 years. Now, instead of a “nothing works” mentality, we have clear guidance on certain approaches that clearly do work — not because they worked once or twice, or recently, but because they have been subjected to scores of rigorous tests, and the research I cite has found patterns of effectiveness by combining studies’ results. So, problem solved? Obviously not. There’s a long history of policymakers and the public ignoring such findings. Even if they paid close attention, there’s little certainty even in these scientifically sound conclusions. After all, we’re talking about enormously complex social problems and circumstances that vary greatly and change constantly.
But the report card that I developed for The Trace — with an accompanying Q&A I did with one of the leading researchers, David Weisburd — goes a long way toward providing clarity about which policing approaches prove most promising to reduce gun violence.
Whenever people confront a complex social problem, gut reactions might feel good and right, but they rarely provide true or long-lasting solutions. Few problems are as complex as crime. And so, when we think about crime victims, especially about victims of violence, our first reactions get it wrong so consistently that it’s remarkable we ever get anything about it right.
In the stories that I’ve told at Slate after a year’s work under a Soros Justice Media Fellowhip, I have tried to show that victims are not simply defined by their wound, nor can that wound be healed by lashing out blindly at those who harmed them — or encouraging them to find their only solace in such anger and simple retribution. These are natural emotions. Most of us have them, and no one should ever judge victims for grasping at punishment of their offender as their medicine. But we owe it to victims to understand them and their experience much more deeply than we do when we shed a tear, rage at the “senseless” crime that befell them, and then move on, secure in the belief that punishment is the primary response needed. And we must offer victims more options than just indulging their first reactions.
Though I have admitted doubts that my stories might change hearts and minds about the range of victims’ true experiences, I hope they did. I plan to continue reporting on these topics. Please keep watching this blog and my social media feeds for updates on my work. Thanks for reading. And thanks to the hundreds of victims and experts whose time and writings informed my work; to Slate and my talented editor John Swansburg for helping me sharpen the telling of these stories and for giving them great exposure; and to my friends, colleagues, and benefactors at the Open Society Foundations for supporting criminal-justice journalism through the Soros Justice Fellowships.
When an editor from TakePart asked me to write about policing reform using Minneapolis as the example, I quickly determined that the chosen location made perfect sense as a window into a topic I’ve written about before. The more I learned through my reporting, including a week I spent there, Minneapolis and its small neighbor, Columbia Heights, Minnesota, struck me as ideal showcases of the issues that make policing such a fraught topic these days — even though the region hadn’t joined the list of cities known nationally for their problems.
And then that changed. Just as my editor and I were finishing the story, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, touching off tense protests that drew national attention when white supremacists shot and wounded five Black Lives Matter protesters outside a Minneapolis police station.
The end result, published today, puts the reaction to Clark’s death in the context of years of clashes between police and citizens. Despite a reform-minded administration and some positive changes of late, Minneapolis remains a divided city, a division that often defies logic to outsiders who never experience the kind of policing that inner-city people of color typically do. To them, the controversies over killings by police boil down to bad behavior and anti-cop lawlessness. That’s the kind of perspective you gain when you live in comfort and safety and get only the good kind of policing.
Alongside the story of Minneapolis, I tell the story of Columbia Heights, where a forward-thinking chief has led his department through a radical transformation that has cut crime while improving relations at the same time. They do it by looking for people to help instead of looking for people to arrest — the essence of the community-oriented policing ethos that my story examines. And the essence of what police reformers, inside and outside the policing profession, mean when they talk about the hard work that’s needed to restore and maintain a community’s trust in its police. I hope this story contributes to people’s understanding of what that debate is about.
Over on my Facebook page this week, I’ve been posting a series of updates on my latest project, a feature story on policing controversies and solutions. I spent the week in and around Minneapolis, watching one police department as it engaged with its community in constructive ways — and another as it tries to do the same, but remains dogged by its long history of heavy-handed, brutal tactics.
At the heart of this story, which will be published in December, is the tension between effective crime control and the trust police must earn among the law-abiding majority in high-crime neighborhood. It’s the loss of that trust that made itself heard loud and clear the past couple of years, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore and beyond. Throughout these controversies are longstanding racial tensions and the long history of discriminatory law enforcement throughout this country. In Minneapolis, there’s an added layer of complexity with the region’s recent influx of Muslims, many from Somalia.
The problems have solutions, which is what I will focus my story on. To show glimpses of this work in progress, I posted a number of times as I reported the story, on Monday, Tuesday, twice on Wednesday (here and here), and at the conclusion of the trip. The posts don’t go into great detail about the story or my thinking — I’m still developing the facts and my conclusions as I report through next week — but I share these snippets as a way of showing the nature of this kind of reporting work and the issues I’m interested in.