Crime, Pessimism, Baltimore and Past Lessons

Those of us connected to the crime problem in Baltimore, Chicago, and other American cities have simply grown weary.

I use Baltimore as an example because of my personal (I was born and raised there) and professional connections.

The lawlessness and grime of Baltimore seem intractable. The city seems hopelessly mired after the riots regarding a man who died while in police custody (Freddie Gray). Crime skyrocketed and police morale plummeted.

All of this impacts those of us who care about our cities, and our observations of the justice system.

The justice community is attacked early and often by the media (sometimes justifiably), and by some of the people we are sworn to serve.

A new national site staffed by renowned journalists declares, I founded (name of national website) because I thought our criminal justice system was a national disgrace…

You Were Once Hopeful

“You were once hopeful about the justice system,” wrote a long time professional friend. Your writings now seem to be mired in pessimism.

He thought that I spent too much time in Baltimore, and that it’s influenced my views of the criminological world.

A Warning?

It’s a warning regarding those of us in the system; events during recent years can negatively influence our perceptions and judgment.

Police shootings, criticism of law enforcement, riots, rising crime, people playing fast and loose with the facts, negative media, critical advocates and more can influence you to the point where everything seems morose.

Many newspapers throughout the country document the difficulty of keeping police officers; recruiting new candidates is proving almost impossible. The same is happening in corrections and parole and probation. Why be part of a sinking ship?

The Lessons of the Past-New York

When I was a criminology student (after leaving law enforcement), my professors cautioned us not to be overly influenced by crime in New York City.

At the time (early 1980’s) New York City was a basket case due to unrelenting crime. Graffiti, litter, grime, prostitution and public drug use were considered uncontrollable.

Then the New York City police department was encouraged to be aggressive as to pedestrian and traffic stops to look for guns and major drugs.

Police drove down crime dramatically. The city took sweeping steps to improve the appearance of target communities and to give the impression that New York was clean and orderly. At the time, it was considered a criminological and economic miracle.

The Lessons of Today-Baltimore    

Baltimore, Chicago and dozens of cities throughout the country now seem to mimic New York in the 1980’s.

Washington Post: Since the Freddie Gray situation, even if you call the police and give a description, they can’t touch the criminals, the business owner said. They know they’re untouchable. That’s the key.

This is a killing field.

Don’t give up on Baltimore, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh told officers gathered for a roll call in the Southern District police station last week. Washington Post

Baltimore Sun: The manufacturer of the $2.36 million Baltimore Bike Share system said his company has never experienced the level of theft that caused officials to announce a temporary shutdown of the program to allow additional locking devices to be installed to the bike docking stations, reports the Baltimore Sun.

Crime in AmericaThe multitude of police shootings and enforcement actions echoed throughout the country and both police officers and the American public wrestled with the aftermath. For many, it began with Ferguson but for others, the real impact on American policing started with the indictment of six police officers in Baltimore.

The thoughts of many American police officers focused on the indictments and their perception that the six officers were arrested for something that cops do every day.

 Regardless of your view of the facts of the case, it wasn’t a cop pulling a trigger under questionable circumstances. It wasn’t officers beating the suspect before throwing him into a police van. The arrest mimicked the actions of cops throughout the country.

 As a result of the harsh criticisms regarding Ferguson, and the indictment of police officers in Baltimore for murder, officers throughout the country backed off, became far less aggressive, and crime in America increased.

Negativity Has An Impact

72% say officers in their department are now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons.

Overall, more than eight-in-ten (86%) say police work is harder today as a result of high profile, negative incidents, Crime in America-Policing

So All This Leads Where?

Crime in New York was successfully addressed. In cities like Washington, D.C., and others, crime has lessened.

Maybe those of us in the justice system need to be a bit more hopeful. Yes, we are going through tough times.

But we’ve been through this before, so it’s not as hopeless as it seems.

We need to look beyond the Baltimore’s and Chicago’s. We need to understand that rising crime and despair will recede.

We need to appreciate the fact that citizen perceptions of law enforcement have increased to record levels per Gallup. Cops are now seen as one of the most respected professions in America. Americans see the need to support their justice professionals.

We need to see crime in the long run. We’re here to win the war, not every seemingly impossible battle that pops up.

So for those who serve in the justice system (or for those who write about crime issues), we need to have a bit more confidence as to our abilities and citizen support.

Things will get better. It will take time. We need to understand that. While I recognize the pessimism, citizens need us to lead.

Success won’t come from the media or advocates or the criminological community; it will come from the women and men of the justice system.

We are the ones who have citizen confidence. We are the ones who will guide the discussions. They will come to us for answers. Be ready to listen, and lead.

It will happen.

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.