By Luke Kyaw and Nina Hall
NEW YORK – It’s no secret that in 2020 the U.S. saw massive spikes in some crime across the nation. New York alone saw 150 more homicides and 750 more shootings compared to the preceding year.
With this uptake in crime and opponents exploiting it to undermine police reform efforts, is there any hope for successful reform?
John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham University, outlines the dilemmas surrounding this wave of violent crime in a piece in The New Republic titled, “Can Criminal Justice Reform Survive a Wave of Violent Crime?”
The short answer to this question is yes, he said, but before examining how this will be possible, he said society must first look at what is happening with violent crime and why.
The source of the crime spike has become a rather politically charged debate, with some individuals and government officials alike claiming that the recent reform policies, such as New York’s bail reforms that were implemented on Jan. 1 of this year, are causing a drastic increase in crime.
Demot Shea, the NYPD commissioner, also complained that civilian leaders are “literally cowards who won’t stand up for what is right.” Later, he insisted that the state’s recent bail reforms were driving up shootings and homicides – despite clear evidence to the contrary.
For example, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1,477 people were released under emergency from Rikers Island. Among those released, “one person was re-arrested for murder…, seven people were re-arrested for gun related charges…four whose warrants were lifted, and two who had district attorney consent.”
All added up, those who were released due to the COVID-19 pandemic were rearrested at a mere rate of 13 percent, which isn’t nearly enough to account for the spike in crime.
Additionally, Pfaff states that “according to the NYPD data obtained … just one person released under bail reforms … was re-arrested for a shooting out of 528 incidents this year.”
While it isn’t exactly clear what has caused this national crime spike yet, it is dubious that it is attributed to reform efforts. However, there are a few factors that Pfaff suggests may be the cause.
First there is the issue of mass unemployment and school shutdowns. Both of the hypotheses surrounding these two issues as the cause relates to what criminologists call social control theory.
At its roots, the social control theory of crime states that individuals who are tightly bound to and involved in social groups (such as jobs, church, school, extracurricular activities, etc.) are less likely to commit crime.
Pfaff states that there are several ways the pandemic and its fallout could drive shootings and homicides.
“High unemployment alongside school closures meant a greater number of young men out in the streets” – all of which, Pfaff goes on to say, contribute to higher levels of crime.
Additionally, the pandemic has caused mass economic disadvantage that could contribute to the spike in crime, specifically in robbery rates.
Pfaff also points out that the time of year, summer, would cause crime rates to spike anyway, which has been confirmed by criminological theories.
He even adds the crime rise, in part, could be attributed to “…people’s views about the legitimacy – or illegitimacy – of law enforcement,” and how it may “influence their willingness to carry and thus use guns even more than concerns about being stopped by the police or victimized themselves.”
So, if the crime surge isn’t due to reform efforts and instead is largely attributed to other factors, where does that leave the promise of reform and arguments against it?
As previously mentioned, some groups are claiming that progressive reforms are dismantling the sound structure of the police system, leading them to instead fervently advocate to maintain the status quo.
However, the status quo may not necessarily be the best option to fall back on contrary to their proposal.
Whether it be in states that adopted reforms to some extent or those that outright rejected them, the homicide surge last year was more or less equal. One may even argue that with how few states changed their approach to crime, this drastic homicide increase largely happened under the status quo.
Moreover, criminologists have consistently concluded in most studies that “the certainty of a sentence, not its severity, is what deters [crime],” bringing into question the status quo that carries a central focus on punishment.
With the status quo not being a much viable option, what are some alternatives to police and how will they help lower crime and violence?
A New York Times study found that across three departments, only “four percent of [the police’s] time [is spent] responding to calls about violence.” Of course, there are other deterrent methods that police use which are successful in lowering crime such as patrolling the streets.
But this study highlights the small share of police work that targets violence directly and opens a new perspective on how other alternatives can help fill up their role.
For example, CAHOOTS is an unarmed emergency response team based in Eugene, Oregon, where two-person teams – a trained medic and an experienced crisis worker in the mental health field – resolve situations ranging from welfare checks to suicide threats.
Rather than relying on weapons, CAHOOTS staff handle issues through “trauma-informed de-escalation and harm reduction techniques.”
The Denver STAR program is another alternative where mental health workers respond to 911 class rather than the police. Just in the first six months of the program, STAR resolved “748 incidents [with] no force, arrests, or jail.”
These alternative programs take on some portion of the police’s responsibilities and successfully respond to and resolve issues with less force and better results. Their staff are arguably more well-suited and better-trained than police to react in most emergent situations like suicidal alerts and substance abuse.
If these programs like CAHOOTS and STAR are better suited to act as responders, then why hasn’t the status quo been changed yet?
Given the homicidal spike last year and other minute increases in crime, opponents are focusing on these specific events and spinning them in order to refute reform efforts that will chip away at their special interests in growing the police industry.
With the coinciding timing of the crime surge and the mainstream rise in reform calls, reformers are currently fighting a tough uphill battle, according to experts, who note it is important to note that there is little to no evidence linking reform efforts to the 2020 homicidal surge contrary to how opponents are painting it.
Nina Hall is a sophomore from Colorado at Santa Clara University studying English and sociology.
Luke Kyaw is an incoming third-year at UCLA majoring in Public Affairs. He is from San Gabriel, California and aspires to attend law school after graduation.
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