Interesting analysis from Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon on the recent spate of murders in Oakland and the corresponding media coverage. Specifically, Simon targets a column by Chip Johnson in today’s San Francisco Chronicle that blames Mayor Jean Quan for not attacking the wave of assaults and homicides. Johnson wrote:
Quan believes in providing young people, including those hell-bent on shooting other people, with positive alternatives.
Nothing wrong with that, but that alone is not going to deter crime on the mean streets of Oakland. She needs a clearer, more comprehensive approach that includes spelling out for residents the Oakland Police Department’s role.
Volunteerism and goodwill are the fruit, not the seed, of public safety efforts. Even law-abiding citizens with good intentions aren’t going to risk life and limb in areas of the city where the police don’t feel safe. It’s a lot safer – and easier – to place a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on your car than to venture into the most lawless sections of East Oakland and free a local resident.
Simon says that Johnson, “a veteran and often perceptive observer of Oakland’s social scene,” gets it wrong this time:
It is predictable that Oakland will continue to suffer from periodic spasms of violent gun crime. We have a large population of extremely alienated young males (older teens and young adults) who have accepted a path to honor paved in guns, blood, imprisonment, and early death… Of course Chip is right. Better social policies cannot stop bullets fired in the present any more than stopping smoking can stop a malignant tumor from growing in your lung — but the truth is, nothing we have is going to stop that tumor now. No amount of aggressive patrolling and indiscriminate arrests is going to alter the basic incentives that lead those bullets to fly. Where Johnson falls victim to his own “common sense” is in believing there is a way to deter those bullets today (or the hands firing them). But everything we know from empirical research and the experience of our own failed war on crime is that young men do not put enough stock in the future to be deterred by crackdowns and long prison terms (they already accept those consequences).
Programs aimed at keeping youth in school, creating places to go other than the streets at night, and shaping a policing strategy less likely to drive impressionable younger men into the arms of the gangs are all worth doing because they may, at the margins, diminish the number of bullets flying five years from now.
So that’s the future. What to do about gun violence that’s happening now? Simon writes, there’s not a lot that can be done. Which is a scary prospect to accept, but it raises a key question for policy makers in Oakland such as the mayor, who as Johnson writes, are heavily judged by crime levels during their terms. Crack down now and hope that suppressive tactics will combine with new technologies to solve problems that have previously evaded law enforcement tactics? Or try something new that academics and reformers are pushing–a theory that may not yield real results and can’t be evaluated for another five years?