What to do about LA’s crime hot spots

A bad problem. Not unmanageable, though.

Matthew Yglesias asks for my thoughts on the following proposition (given below in my words, not his), raised in his mind by an opinion piece in yesterday’s LA Times:

In parts of LA, the crime problem is at the level of a security problem, and no likely set of liberal social prescriptions is going to do much for such neighborhoods.

Well, since it’s Christmas Eve and I haven’t gotten Matt his present yet (having blown right through Chanukkah), I’ll humor him, just this once.

[Note: The LA Times piece itself makes an important point, but it’s a tad on the hysterical side: No, Los Angeles isn’t going to look like Rio, let alone Mogadishu. Still, the author is right that the worst pockets are pretty damned bad.]

So is Matt right to say that the usual liberal answers aren’t responsive to this question?

At some level, of course, he is. You can’t social-serve or economic-develop your way out of a really bad crime problem, because crime interferes with service delivery and makes economic development impossible. That’s the fallacy of the “root causes” theory: one of the most important root causes of future crime is the social displacement created by current crime.

But as one of Matt’s commenters points out, there are always marginal neighborhoods, near the tipping point, where the right sort of social-service stuff might contribute appreciably. I’m not sold on pre-school, but afternoon programs that keep kids off the streets until their folks get home directly contribute to crime control in the short run. In the longer run, nurse home visits for at-risk mothers (poor, unmarried, young) is a proven winner, and not just in crime-control terms, and we ought to spend the money it takes to do it and do it right.

As to the school system, if we knew how to fix urban school systems we’d want to do so for more basic reasons than crime control. But as long as the Los Angeles Unified School District (the outfit Jill Stewart used to call “LA Mummified”) is in charge nothing useful is likely to happen, and in any case the really bombed-out neighborhoods will be the last places whose schools become functional.

So the first step in controlling really out-of-control crime is law enforcement. Liberal politicians have learned that you have to say this, but many of my liberal friends either haven’t learned that it’s also true, or prefer to disbelieve it, or just get so sick when they think about the racial and social-class composition of really serious crime that they’d rather talk about something else.

[Have you ever noticed how reluctant social-program advocates are to claim crime-control benefits for their programs? An important academic in the poverty business once explained to me that saying so reduces middle-class support for programs to help the poor by reminding them that criminals, whom they hate, are mostly poor people. Who says it’s only the right that denies or ignores inconvenient facts?]

Given that the solution starts with law enforcement, what kind of law enforcement do we need?

In Los Angeles, the first answer is: more law enforcement. Matt notes the key point: Los Angeles is absurdly, insanely, unforgivably under-policed, running at something like half the cops-to-residents ratio of New York (and much less than half the cops-to-crime ratio, since our crime rate is higher).

[The politics of the problem is complicated. Bernard Parks, the former police chief who was more or less fired for incompetence, is now the City Councilman from South LA and a candidate for mayor. Having failed himself, Parks is devoted to make sure Bill Bratton won’t succeed, so he led the fight on the Council to deny the Mayor’s request for funds for more cops.]

The second part of the answer is, concentrated law enforcement: concentrated on specific places, concentrated on specific offenses, concentrated on specific individuals. “Zero tolerance” is a dumb slogan, since there aren’t enough cops (anywhere, not just in LA) to arrest everyone who breaks the law. What’s needed is targeted zero tolerance. Put the word out about what sorts of acts will not be tolerated in specific neighborhoods, and put it out directly to the bad guys. And make sure you have enough resources assigned to the problem so that you can afford to make the promise good.

Once sanctions credibility is established, the offense rate for your target offenses in your target area will fall. Then you can think about working a different neighborhood or defining deviancy up by expanding the list of non-tolerated behaviors.

The anti-gang strategy that worked in Boston as “Operation Cease-Fire” was an application of this principle, modified by taking into account the group nature of gang violence. In Boston, a group headed by the Boston Police Department but including lots of other agencies (and advised by a group of academics led by David Kennedy) told whole “sets” of young, criminally active men who liked to offend in groups and sometimes shot members of rival groups that if anyone from Group A shot anyone else, all of Group A would get landed on, hard.

Given that the people involved were engaged in (mostly non-deadly) crime roughly 24/7, landing on a group meant nothing more than applying to them real “zero tolerance”: that is, making it a point to catch them for whatever they happened to be doing. Result: zero youth gun homicides in Boston for the two years after the program started, compared with an average of two a month for the previous decade.

Since work and school compete with criminal activity for the time, attention, and social loyalty of poor young men, a gang crackdown of this sort works much better if it has a social-service component, and the cooperation of the key neighborhood groups, including churches. Make it clear to the gang-bangers that you’re willing to help them switch tracks if they want to, just as you’re willing to land on them if they don’t. Since the numbers are small, the cost of the services won’t break the bank.

In addition, Gary Slutkin of the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle has shown that the sort of public-health-marketing program that can change norms around other health-risk behaviors can also change norms around violence, even if the police aren’t doing much, and he’s got the numbers to prove it. That’s social service rather than law enforcement in terms of who does it, but it’s certainly not part of the conventional jobs/housing/schools/health care mix.

The gang unit of the LAPD, with a long investment in career-enhancing failure, doesn’t want to hear any of this, and in fact the Boston strategy would be hard to carry out given LA’s shortage of bodies in blue uniforms. But that’s what Bratton should do with the first new bodies he gets.

On the drug front, I have three ideas to offer:

— Do focused zero tolerance to shut down especially troublesome drug market areas. Identify the dealers and the buyers, then call them in and tell them the party’s over, naming a date on and after which the cops will make any dealing activity in that area a priority target. The threat alone will be enough to cut down on the activity for a while, and those who won’t listen will then stick out like a sore thumb. After a while, the social convention that made a particular street corner or park the place for buyers and sellers to meet will be broken, and those conventions don’t regenerate instantly. Make it clear to all the dealers in town that places where people get shot are places likely to face the next crackdown. Ignore discreet dealing (e.g., home delivery via cell phone), because discreet dealing doesn’t contribute to the public order and violence problem.

— Tighten supervision for probationers, parolees, and bailees so that they face zero tolerance for the use of the drugs most linked to crime crack, heroin, or methamphetamine. Frequent tests and immediate and predictable sanctions are the key: if that can be done, the sanctions don’t have to be drastic. A couple of days in jail is plenty, as long as they actually happen and happen right away. The problem isn’t getting the offenders to comply, it’s getting the public officials involve to actually do the program, which is organizationally much tougher than it sounds.)

— Focus drug enforcement, and especially long sentences for drug offenses, on the dealers who use violence. It’s not hard to figure out who they are; just ask the ordinary dealers you arrest, “Who are you most afraid of”? That’s your target list.

I’d supply the officer-hours needed to do the police part of the drug program sketched above by mostly getting rid of routine buy-busts and possession arrests, except in areas specifically targeted to have their markets shut down. Drug law enforcement can’t do much about the drug problem in a place like L.A. — other than forcing some of the most messed-up users to quit for a while after they’ve been arrested — but it can do a lot about the crime problem, especially in the bombed-out areas.

Matt is shocked — shocked! — to discover that Skid Row in Los Angeles isn’t a natural growth, but the result of a decison to concentrate services for the homeless in a single area. That’s not an unusual strategy: in Boston, it was the South End that drew the short straw.

I wouldn’t take the social services out of Skid Row. In fact, I’d add some low-threshold shelters, where people can get a hot meal and a warm bed without being prayed over, and where they’re welcome even if they come in drunk or otherwise loaded.

But I’d also make Skid Row the first target of a pre-announced drug crackdown. That will take care of much of the crime-and-disorder problem, and clearing away the street encampments (which you can do once there’s enough low-threshold shelter available) will take care of most of the rest.

No, if you were starting from scratch you wouldn’t concentrate the homeless services near downtown, but it’s not obvious that there’s a good option, starting from where we are, to either decentralize Skid Row or move it. So I’d settle for making it a reasonably safe and orderly place.

(You’ll be hearing more on this from Bob Hertzberg’s mayoral campaign. Jonathan Zasloff of UCLA Law School is advising Hertzberg on the issue. How much of the above Hertzberg and Zasloff agree with I don’t know, but I know they’re inclined to take crime seriously.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com