Why can’t Street see the obvious about guns and murder?

A while back we all had a laugh when John Street did his “take a deep breath and put down the gun” TV address. At the time I was pretty convinced that it wasn’t going to solve any of our gun/murder problems. I was right. For a while I thought that the solution was to just add more cops on the street, or push for better education, etc. But I was wrong. I just read the most amazing article in Philly Magazine about the issue and I urge you all to do the same.

The thrust of the article is twofold. First it demostrates how pathetic and sad and detrimental our 911 system is. The thought of all that wasted effort by cops responding to calls hours after they have come in just makes the logical/organized part of me just cringe. The second part of the article talks about an alternate solution. One that has worked all over the country (including NYC) and thats for police to focus on looking for guns that people are actually carrying. The thought is that gun crime occurs in the same areas over and over again and often for stupid reasons (like someone looked at someone wrong) and if we can deter people from carrying guns we can actually cut down on these senseless crimes. The cops (according to this plan) should spend time in these areas focusing on crimes where they can actually frisk people and then take away their illegal guns. This, if done often enough would deter people from carrying them all the time.

“Looking for guns on the street is not a lock-’em-up strategy,” he says. “It’s not a fill-the-prisons strategy. It’s a specific and focused deterrent strategy that is trying to deter one thing — and that’s people carrying guns around. Because if people don’t carry their guns around, and somebody bumps into them and doesn’t say ‘Excuse me,’ or somebody looks at them with a stare that they find offensive, then they may have to go home to get their gun to do something about it. But by the time they come back, the person may not be there, and the impulse may pass.”

That “stare that they find offensive” is the sort of thing over which young Philadelphians have so often been dying _lately — “Stupid arguments over stupid things,” as police commissioner Sylvester Johnson recently put it.

“Sometimes fights are followed several days later by an assassination, so there’s no guarantee that people won’t get shot when those disrespecting incidents occur,” Sherman says. “But what the evidence suggests is that it’s going to happen at a lower rate if they don’t have their guns in their pockets.”

And what about Philadelphia?

“The police in Philadelphia are not looking for guns in the street, and that has a context in this 40-year story that we have to understand,” Sherman says. “But we also have to understand that as far as the evidence is concerned, the National Academy of Sciences says it is the one thing we know works to reduce the homicide rate. And it’s the one thing we’re not doing in Philadelphia.”

The sad thing is that we were on this path with Timmony and the COMPSTAT system (which we have but don’t follow in any useful way). But now we do stuff that does nothing to solve the problem. Think about it. Why is Philadelphia the one city where this problem is getting worse when all across the country it’s getting better?

if you wanted to play it as safe as possible, you’d model your police department on Philadelphia’s. You’d keep officers in their cars. You’d control and monitor their movements by tying them to the _never-_ending queue of 911 calls. You’d initiate a program for which there is virtually no supporting evidence, like Operation Safe Streets, in which officers do little more than stand on corners. (From a recent study in the scholarly journal Justice Quarterly: “Operation Safe Streets failed to have a significant citywide impact on homicides, violent crime or drug crimes.”) You’d have COMPSTAT meetings, but you’d excise their most important element: accountability. In New York, COMPSTAT meetings are renowned for the rough give-and-take between the top brass and precinct commanders. The prospect of being dressed down in front of your peers was one of the ways former commissioner William Bratton ensured that local commanders would take ownership of their precincts’ successes and failures. John Timoney brought COMPSTAT to Philadelphia, but officers tell me the current version is a far cry from New York’s. “Here, we have COMPSTAT lite,” a former Philadelphia officer told me. “We just go through the motions.”

“Every police chief is just one headline away from losing his job,” Commissioner Johnson told this magazine in 2004. He’s correct, but the history of big-city policing in America offers a caveat: A chief may lose his job if there’s a corruption or brutality scandal, he may get fired if he commits a personal indiscretion, but if the homicide rate jumps up, he is actually pretty safe. The recent history of Philadelphia proves that.

Ugh.. we have to do something.. The sad thing is that there is a solution but nobody seems to want to follow it. What’s that all about? I bet if Milton Street could make money off this system it would have been in place long ago..

2 thoughts on “Why can’t Street see the obvious about guns and murder?

  1. I agree, it seems so obvious, but isn’t there a civil liberties issue at play here? You are usually a staunch civil liberties defender, are you willing to concede the civil liberties of the people who live in these neighborhoods, since we know they won’t be frisking you and your neighbors.

    I’m typically not all that concerned with violating civil liberties when done correctly (I know, I know, that sounds stupid, and it probably is, but I don’t feel like elaborating on it right now), so if we’re going to violate them it would seem like setting up some cameras in these neighborhood would be pretty effective, no?


  2. This isn’t an issue of violating civil liberties. These frisks would occur within legal boundaries. The thing is that cops aren’t pulling over people running stop signs or paying attention to other non-violent crimes. If they did and found probable cause, then they could do a frisk. I guess the issue more accurately is that we are letting police determine this subjective probable cause more often than before which will inevitably lead to more issues. But I think that the benefit outweighs the costs.

    If I am speeding and get pulled over and I lean over and the cop sees a gun like object in the belt (no matter where I’m stopped) I have no problem with them asking to search me.


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