“It Must Be a Peach of a Hand.”

In spite of the confident assertions on the right and the left, violence in America is full of puzzles and contradictions.  First, murder rates have fluctuated.  In 1980, America had a murder rate of 10.2 per 100,000 people.  The rate drifted downward for the next ten years, then began to fall sharply from about 1990.  By 2014 it had fallen to 4.5 murders per 100,000 people.[1]  Then, in 2015, the national murder rate increased to 10.8 percent.  However, the sharp increase can be attributed to selected cities (Baltimore, Houston, and especially Chicago).  There murder rates jumped to highs not seen in half a decade.  For example, by about 22 November 2015, Baltimore’s homicide tally hit 300 deaths.  This is 42 percent higher than the total for 2014 and we still had the holidays to go.  Most of the rise seems to have come since the rioting that followed the arresting-to-death of Freddy Gray.[2]  That’s scary because the last time the US had an increase like this came in 1971, at the dawn of several violent decades.[3]

One question to ask is if these changes reflected government action or some other influences.  A second question to ask is, if it did reflect government action, then did it reflect federal, state, or local action?  A third question to ask is, if it reflected some other influences, what were those influences?

Second, superficially at least, declining murder rates were tracked by declining support for the death penalty.  In 1994, fully 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty for murder, while 16 percent opposed it and 4 percent were unsure.  By March 2015, 56 percent supported it.  By October 2016, 49 percent supported the death penalty.[4]  Similarly, the use of capital punishment continues to decline in the United States.  It fell from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014 to 20 in the first two-thirds of 2015.  Extrapolating from that latter figure, there would be 30 in all of 2015.  Even in Texas, the state most prone to impose the death sentence, no one has been sentenced to death so far in 2015.[5]

Third, just over half (55 percent) of Americans think that gun ownership can be restricted without violating the constitution (and the Second Amendment be Damned!) and slightly more (57 percent) want a ban on assault weapons.  Conversely, 43 percent of Americans believe that gun ownership cannot be restricted without violating the constitution and 25 percent oppose banning even assault weapons.  All the same, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans support universal background checks.[6]

Fourth gun control is bad for gun control.  After the liberal characterization of the San Bernardino terrorist attack as a “mass shooting,” gun sales zoomed upward.  In December 2015, Americans bought 3.3 million guns.  All of these sales have been from licensed gun-dealers because the government background check system has been swamped.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch has asked for the hiring of 430 additional people just to process the background checks of Americans complying with the existing gun laws.[7]

In spite of the obvious violation of individual civil rights, most (80 percent) of Americans favor banning people on terrorist watch-lists from buying guns.  A small minority (17 percent) suspect that the ban would not be very effective.[8]  There are 25,000 to 40,000 Americans on terror watch-lists.  Of these people, 244 of them tried to buy firearms in 2015.[9]  That is, about one tenth of one percent sought to buy weapons.  People on terrorist watch lists buy guns at lower rates than do “ordinary” Americans.

Fifth, what is a “mass shooting?”  Orlando or Newtown, right?  Actually, the EffaBeeEye’s definition is a little more expansive: a single event in which four or more people get shot.[10]  So, criminals probably commit the bulk of the mass-shootings as a by-product of their business or personal lives.  By the EffaBeeEye’s standard, there have been 133 mass shootings in 2016.  Florida has suffered 15 (or 11.2 percent) of them.

Americans are sharply divided over how to interpret Omar Mateen’s massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL.  Most (60 percent) Democrats see it as an example of “domestic gun violence,” while most (79 percent) Republicans see it as an example of “Islamic terrorism.”[11]  The trouble is that the partisan filter on the vision of observers inhibits both understanding and civil discourse.  The further trouble is that both are right.

America is becoming a less violent place in comparison to the past, if not in comparison to Denmark.  Murder rates are generally trending downward; support for the death penalty is trending downward; and support for gun-control seems to be rising.  However, the politics of gun-control may well be hampering further progress.  It is common to blame the National Rifle Association for this problem.  It is common to use “terrorism” and “mass shootings” as labels that justify pushing ahead rapidly with strict gun-controls.  All that this does is to put the backs up on gun-owners.

Instead of shaming campaigns (satisfying though they are to many liberals), perhaps the best answer to a violent America is education campaigns.  Between 1964 and 2004, the number of Americans who smoked fell every year.  But in 2004, the decline bottomed out at 20.8 percent.  It stayed there through the end of 2007.[12]

Still, in these regards, America is a better, safer place to live than when I was a child.  Unless, of course, you are living in one of the broken cities where the War on Drugs spawns the “war for corners”; and where the “war for corners” spawns a confrontational style among young men with no better future.

This doesn’t end up exactly where I wanted to go when I began writing.  It just ends up where some random facts led me.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 29 July 2016, p. 16.

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 16.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 7 October 2016, p. 16.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 October 2016, p. 17.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 16.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 5 August 2016, p. 17.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 5 February 2016, p.8.

[8] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p.7

[9] “Noted,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p. 16.

[10] “Noted,” The Week, 24 June 2016, p. 20.  By this standard, the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” was a mass-shooting.  Especially if you were one of the Earp brothers.  If you were a Clanton or a McLaury, then it was a mass getting-shot.

[11] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p.7.

[12] “Noted,” The Week, 23 November 2007, p. 16.  Why did the decline stop?  What has it done since then?  Who are the remaining smokers?    I don’t know.  Perhaps they constitute a libertarian revolt against the intrusive nanny-state of liberal fascism.  Perhaps the people who rush to buy guns and ammo (as opposed to buying Guns and Ammo) are operating under the same star.

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Both Black and Blue Lives Matter.

This is ill-timed, so it is probably ill-considered.  Probably mealy-mouthed as well.

Generally, crime rates in America are down markedly from two decades ago.  (This is not true if you live in Chicago.)  The drop has not entirely been explained.  One explanation, advanced by the police is that aggressive street policing (e.g. “stop-and-frisk”) has taken criminals off the street, deterred many others, and stopped a downward spiral of civic demoralization.[1]

Effective or not, the policy had unhappy consequences that were not, but could have been, anticipated.   First, African-Americans are victims of crime at much higher rates than are whites.  Since we live in a still-segregated society, this means that most crime is intra-racial, rather than inter-racial.  African-Americans are disproportionately both victims and victimizers.  Concentrating policing on high-crime areas inevitably assumed a character that could easily be construed as “racist.”

Second, the vast majority of people living in high-crime areas are not criminals.  As a result, “stop-and-frisk” involves stopping and frisking lots of innocent people in order to catch a few guilty ones.  All those innocent people have every right to feel that they are being harassed merely because they fit some demographic profile.  Not much effort seems to have been committed to trying to ease this feeling, if it even would be possible.

Third, policing appears to be a “coarse art,” instead of a “fine art.”  Ordinary fallible and flawed human beings have to figure out how to carry out the strategies defined by their superiors.  Often they have to carry out these policies while in contact with difficult, non-compliant people.  Moreover, America is awash in firearms.  Far too often, these interactions end in violent death.   Often, but not always, the circumstances are gray rather than black and white.  Afterwards, prosecutors, judges, and juries are more inclined than not to reject condemning the police.  Politicians pile-on, affirming that the laws are applied in a discriminatory way, or voicing platitudes, or asserting an unquestioning integral defense of police conduct.

If you stay at this policy long enough, you’re going to anger an awful lot of people.  It’s like building up the “fuel” for a forest fire.  All that is required for a conflagration is a lightning strike or a series of them.

Trayvon Martin.  Michael Brown.  Eric Garner.  Laquan McDonald.  Walter Scott.  Freddy Gray.  All were lightning strikes that set off a conflagration.  On the one hand, the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement sprang up.  On the other hand, American views on the state of race relations shifted from optimistic to pessimistic.  Recently, Baltimore prosecutors have suffered a series of stinging defeats in the effort to prosecute police officers in the arresting-to-death of Freddy Gray.  Then, police in Minnesota and Louisiana shot to death two black men in what should have been minor incidents.  More lightning strikes.

Protests erupted in many cities.  In Dallas, a black sniper used the occasion of one such peaceful protest to kill five police officers.

It has been difficult to hold an intelligent conversation about these matters.  For one thing, the subject is both complex and painful.  For another, it coincides with other complex and painful controversies.  The white populist revolts in both major parties.  The mass shootings and terrorist attacks.  Are these issues inter-related, with a common solution, or is it just our bad luck that they arose at the same time?

[1] See Barry Friedman, “Thin Blue Lines,” NYT Book Review, 3 July 2016.  Friedman reviews Heather Mac Donald, The War on Cops:, and Malcolm Sparrow, Handcuffed.

The 1400.

Chicago has a population of about 2.7 million people.  In the first quarter of 2016, it had more than 1,000 people shot—of whom 141 died.  That makes the “City of Big Shoulders” the murder capital—sorry, tired phrase—of the United States.[1]  Most of the violence appears to spring from wars between drug gangs.

“Da Cops” think that 1,400 young, black men did most of the shooting.[2]  It appears that most of those young men belong to a group of “social networks.”[3]  In an interesting experiment that smacks of Philip K. Dick,[4] the police have been analyzing 10 variables[5] to assign a likely-to-be-involved-in-violence score to people on its “Strategic Subject List” (SSL).[6]  It may not be perfect, but it’s not inaccurate: 70 percent of those who were shot so far in 2016 were in the list.

One question is how to respond.  A “public health” response takes the form of visits to the homes of people on the SSL by teams of police officers, social workers, and community organizers.  The purpose is to warn them that they have come to the attention of the authorities, and to offer them what meager support a bankrupt city can afford if they want to go down another road.[7]  Any life redeemed is a win.  One official says that 21 percent of the SSL figures “they had succeeded in talking to”[8] had accepted the offer of help and only 9 percent had been shot since a visit.[9]

Another question is about civil liberties.  People who care about civil liberties (practically an endangered species in America, they’re going to end up being released into the wild in Yellowstone or something like that) might be concerned about the fact that 80 percent of those arrested for involvement in shootings, and 117 of the 140 people arrested in a spate of drug and gang raids also were on the SSL.  Do the police have any evidence or do they just “round up the usual suspects” based on the SSL?  That approach is more cost-effective and emotionally satisfying in a country in love with “getting tough” with everyone except ourselves.

What do the variables themselves tell us?  Take “having been shot.”  If somebody shot me, then I would certainly want to shoot that person.  Fair’s fair.  However, I’d settle for the police arresting that person and the courts trying that person, and the judge assigning some inadequate sentence.  Walk away grinding my teeth.  None of that is true for the shooters and the shot in Chicago.  They don’t accept the court system.  They don’t delegate “justice.”  They don’t walk away.  Probably, that would undermine what little personal dignity they possess.

[1] “Chicago in crisis,” The Week, 13 May 2016, p. 11.

[2] They’re mostly terrible shots.  If you take 14.1 percent lethality as a measurement, the ROI is low.  Still, what if the thrill of the experience is what people are after, rather than actually killing somebody?  Also, it’s not like there are lots of places to practice one’s aim and receive expert instruction.  I suppose the cops could subpoena the records of gun ranges.  Find out who is buying time on the range, renting muffs and safety glasses, buying 9-mm ammo.

[3] See Andrew Papachristos, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/11/18/can-predictive-policing-be-ethical-and-effective/use-of-data-can-stop-crime-by-helping-potential-victms

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minority_Report_%28film%29

[5] The variables include things like “trend lines” of previous arrests, arrest for possession or use of a weapon, and having been shot.  They exclude race, gender, age, and geography.  Why include things that can be taken as a given, but which will end up in a lawsuit over profiling?

[6] Monica Davey, “Chicago Police Try to Predict Who May Shoot or Be Shot,” NYT, 24 May 2016.

[7] That aid includes drug treatment, housing assistance, and job-training.  To put the worst possible spin on it, become a minimum-wage food-service worker, so you can go to bed early and can get up before dawn to take public transit, and be a complete pussy in the eyes of everyone except your grandmother.

[8] That is, most weren’t at home because they were “at work” or laying up with a girl or just told them to go away.

[9] They visited 1,300 people.  So, 9 percent would be 117 people.  Out of 470 killed and perhaps 3,300 shot.  Murky.

Incarceration and decarceration.

In the 1970s crime sharply increased in the United States. In the 1980s there came an epidemic of “crack” cocaine use. Americans legislatures and courts responded by “getting tough on crime.” Sentences for all sorts of crimes were increased and about half the states adopted “three strikes and you’re out” laws that could put people in prison for a very long time for a series of comparatively minor crimes.[1]

In 1980, there were 320,000 people in local, county, state, and federal lock-ups. Today there are about 2.4 million in prisons. (About 40 percent of them are African-American.) As a result, while Americans represent only five percent of the world’s population, Americans represent twenty-five percent of the world’s imprisoned population. (See: “The Senator from San Quentin,” October 2014.)

In theory, the “War on Drugs” isn’t responsible for most of the prisoners. Only 17 percent of the prisoners are there for purely drug crimes.[2] However, the “War on Drugs” led to a “War for the Corners” in many American cities. The “War for the Corners” then had other violent effects. One came in the up-arming of many neighborhoods where the drug trade is carried out. A second came in multiplying personal feuds and quarrels. If you put those latter two together, violence and danger increased. If you step-to a man today, you’re likely to get more than a broken nose. Try explaining to a hospital that you walked into a door in the dark when they’re digging 9-mm rounds out of you.

At the same time, all sorts of violence increased to alarming levels from the 1970s to the 1990s. Drug-related violence hardly accounted for all of this. I don’t yet have an explanation for this spike in violence. However, half of the prison population is made up of burglars, armed robbers, rapists, and other violent or career criminals. Moreover, the majority (60 percent) of people released from prison are back inside within three years for parole violation or new crimes. This suggests that there are a lot of habitually violent people among the rest of us in America. (See: “Legacies of the Violent Decades,” January 2015.)

Prisoners cost a lot of money. The monthly average in California prisons is $2,600 per prisoner. The total cost for American taxpayers is $80 billion a year. Inevitably, the public has begun to demand a cut in the cost of government in this area as in other areas. States and the Federal government are beginning to respond.

People—me, for example–like to heap ridicule on Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and a one-time clown in the Republican presidential primary. However, Perry also got the state legislature to devote $241 million to paying for drug treatment alternatives to prison and expanded probation programs. The Texas prison population has decreased by three percent since 2010, while the crime rate has dropped by 18 percent. This suggests that it matters who you release or spare from prison. This is but one of a number of experiments in trying to reduce the size of the prison population. A bipartisan Smart Sentencing Act is making its way through Congress to cut the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by federal courts.

If someone wants to look for the dark cloud around this silver lining, they could consider a previous reform movement. Once upon a time, lots of mentally ill people were warehoused in awful state mental hospitals. Liberals pushed for out-patient care. Conservatives saw a way to cut spending. We got de-institutionalization and street-people living over heating grates.

[1] “Opening the prison door,” The Week, 24 April 2015, p. 11.

[2] Thus, a recent decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to release non-violent drug offenders in federal custody will reduce the prison population by 46,000 people or about 2 percent.

Legacies of the Violent Decades.

The 1970s and 1980s were violent decades.[1] The rate for all violent crime rose from about 500/100,000 people to almost 800 between 1975 and 1991. The robbery rate rose from about 200/100,000 people in 1975 to about 270 in 1991. The rate for aggravated assaults rose from about 230/100/000 people to about 450 in 1992. From 1975 through 1991 the murder rate bounced around between 8 and 10/100,000 people. In 1990 there were 2,245 homicides in New York City (five a day), and 474 homicides in Washington, DC (more than one a day).

State and federal governments lashed out against this spike in crime with the weapons at hand. The federal government directed billions of dollars to the states to increase the number of police and to build prisons to house the people the police caught. Sentences were lengthened for some crimes and mandatory minimums were imposed to limit the freedom of judges. Between the early 1970s and 2009 the number of people in state or federal prisons quadrupled to about 1.5 million people.

Then the rates of violent crime began to drop. The rate for all violent crime fell by 51 percent, to a level 25 percent below the 1975 rate. The rate for aggravated assault fell from its 1992 peak by 48 percent, roughly back to where it had been in 1975. The rate for robbery fell by from its 1991 peak by 60 percent, to a level 51 percent below the 1975 rate. The murder rate fell from its 1992 peak by 41 percent, to a level slightly below its 1975 rate. In 2014 there were 328 homicides in New York City (less than 1/day) and 104 homicides in Washington, DC (two/ week).

This remarkable change has begun to spark debate, just as did the remarkable spike in violence in America before 1990. One question is what has happened since 1990 to bring down the rate of violent crime? Experts are not entirely sure how to answer this question. They do agree on some things. First, targeted policing is a big part of the answer. New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton introduced the use of computer data and crime mapping (“CompStat”) to identify targets for police efforts.   Police began to concentrate their efforts on these identifiable trouble spots. Drugs used to be sold right out on the street. Aggressive policing pushed the sales in-doors. That didn’t do much to cut down on drug use, but it did make drive-by shootings a lot less lethal. The “broken windows” strategy came to be widely adopted. Second, tougher sentencing and mass incarceration played a lesser role than advocates expected.[2]

A second question is about what to do going forward? On the one hand, what is to be done with the large numbers of people still locked up from the previous decades? If they are released, will they just return to their old ways? Can people convicted of non-violent crimes be safely released and better served with drug-treatment programs? Going forward, should the length of sentences be reduced?

On the other hand, should the aggressive policing that accompanied the reduction in crime be scaled back? When crime rates are high and people are afraid, they are willing to tolerate aggressive forms of policy that they will not tolerate when crime rates are low and people feel secure. “Stop and frisk” has come under heavy fire. It has been argued that this kind of policing—which may have created the situation in which Eric Garner died—has begun to alienate law-abiding people in the communities on which the police focus. Can the police operate in an environment in which they are widely viewed as the enemy?

See: “The Senator from San Quentin”; “Military Police”; Death Wish.”

[1] Erik Eckholm, “With Crime Down, U.S. Faces Legacy of a Violent Age,” NYT, 14 January 2015.

[2] Which is not the same as saying that they played no role.

The Senator from San Quentin.

During the 1980s violent crime rose to new peaks. The murder rate in 1991 reached 9.8/100,000, about four times the rate in, say, France. A criminologist named George Kelling argued that the toleration of all sorts of little crimes or acts of indecency—even broken windows or vandalism or those homeless goofs at intersections trying to extort pocket change for cleaning your windows—created an atmosphere of disrespect for the law. From little things, people went on to feel less restrained about bigger things. Kelling sold this idea to New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. New York cops started pushing the homeless into shelters, clearing the intersections of squeegee men, and stopping kids from hanging out on street corners.

However, Bratton also embraced the idea that a lot of crime is committed by a few people, and a little crime is committed by a lot of people. You want a big drop in crime? Concentrate on the few career criminals and put them away for a long time. Bratton concentrated on a statistical analysis of crime in each police precinct, then drove his precinct captains to find and arrest habitual criminals. This seemed to work, so lots of police departments adopted the New York approach. Bratton’s approach coincided with a get-tough policy adopted by legislatures in the Nineties. Mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing kept criminals in prison for longer. The war on drugs, especially the crack cocaine epidemic, sent a lot more people to prison. Guys who are locked up can’t commit crimes, at least not against ordinary citizens. (Fellow prisoners or guards? That’s another story.)

Inevitably, there is a down-side. First, the United States has one-twentieth of the world’s population, but one-fourth of the prison population. That includes both Russia and China. There are more people currently in prison in the United States (2.3 million) than there are in any one of fifteen states, and more than in the four least-populated states put together. The rate of imprisonment in the United States is the highest in the world.

Second, black communities have been particularly hard hit by both crime and punishment. One in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is in jail. (The overall ratio of imprisoned to paroled/probationed is about 1:3, so that would suggest that another three in nine black men is under some other form of judicial supervision.) Since felons lose the right to vote, large numbers of blacks have been dis-franchised in what one law professor has labeled “the new Jim Crow.” Since most prisons are located in rural areas, this leads to the over-representation of areas unsympathetic to city problems.

Third, keeping huge numbers of prisoners locked up is really expensive. Americans don’t like to pay taxes, so prison budgets have been held down for decades. The result is massive over-crowding. Courts have repeatedly held this over-crowding to amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Fourth, imprisonment doesn’t seem to do anything to change behavior. Says one criminologist, “two-thirds of those who leave prison will be back within three years.”

What have changed are the crime rates. Between 1991 and 2009, the number of murders fell by 45 percent. From its peak of 9.8/100,000 in 1991, the murder rate fell to 5.0/100,000 in 2009. The same decline has been found in most other categories of crime over the same period. At least for now.

Prisoners are so numerous that, if grouped together and represented in the Congress, they would be a formidable voting bloc.

“The prison nation,” The Week, 13 February 2009, p. 13; “The mystery of falling crime rates,” The Week, 16 July 2010, p. 13.