Posted 4/29/12


Twenty years after the L.A. Riots, are things really better?

    For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In 1990, when Los Angeles marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Watts Riot, the worst civil disturbance in modern American history, most experts agreed that despite all the studies and reports improvements had been few and little of significance had changed.  Regrettably, their depressing assessment was confirmed only two years later when Angelenos suffered through a second conflagration.

     Now, as weary Southlanders mark the twentieth anniversary of the so-called “Rodney King” riots, named after the black parolee who was beaten senseless during an encounter with police, the rush is on to demonstrate that this time we really did “get” it.  At a recent event sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, civil rights leader Connie Rice and former D.A. Gil Garcetti pointed to the 1992 riots as a transformative event that changed the LAPD from an occupation force to a progressive “majority minority” department far more sensitive and responsive to citizen needs.

     There’s no doubt that the LAPD looks different.  By most accounts, it also seems to act differently.  According to a columnist’s glowing report, the “siege mentality” is gone.  A favored explanation is that the shift to community policing instilled a new culture.  Cops began treating everyone with dignity and respect, defusing decades of hostility and reducing the likelihood that history would repeat itself.

     If nothing else, the 1992 L.A. Riots set off a game of musical chiefs.  Best known for warning officers that differences in physiognomy made it unwise to place blacks in choke holds, nasty old Daryl F. Gates was quickly replaced by an outsider, former Philadelphia police commissioner Willie Williams.  He left at the end of an undistinguished five-year term that was marked, among other embarrassments, by an inability to pass the California POST exam.  As his replacement the city chose Bernard Parks, a brilliant but embittered LAPD insider whose discipline-intensive response to the Rampart corruption scandal would make him wildly unpopular with the troops.

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     Like Williams, Parks was denied a second term.  He was succeeded in 2002 by William Bratton, a savvy New Yorker who cozied up to civic leaders and politicians.  An experienced top cop, Bratton relaxed Parks’ reign of terror while retaining a firm grip on the ranks.  When he left in 2009 to return to consulting work, it was again time to draw from within.  Charlie Beck, a consummate LAPD insider, was appointed chief.  Less wedded to arrest and crime statistics than the numbers-obsessed Bratton, he’s also proven less of a disciplinarian, with a track record of letting officers off the hook that’s upset police commissioners.

     As to one thing there’s no doubt: the streets are indeed far more peaceful.  LAPD’s 77th. Street Division, in the heart of south Los Angeles, recorded 32 killings in 2011, nearly 80 percent fewer than the 143 murders in 1992.  A knowledgeable cop explained that arresting gang members and a decline in the crack trade led to “less bad guys on the block” and a more tranquil atmosphere.

     As we mentioned in “Reform and Blowback,” mass incarceration may well be responsible for a big chunk of the “Great Crime Drop” of  the 1990s.  Between 1990 and 2006 the imprisonment rate climbed from 447 to 503 per 100,000, while time served increased 29 percent for property crimes and 39 percent for violent crimes.  So it’s hardly surprising that crime plunged by about a third.  But the funding to support stiff sentencing has evaporated, and prison budgets are being slashed everywhere.  Police layoffs, once unthinkable, are now commonplace.  There are also ominous signs that the crime curve is flattening.  Despite a shrinking population, homicides increased in Detroit from 308 to 344 last year, while armed robbery is on the upswing in Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia.

     Economic conditions in south L.A. have also worsened.  Median income is lower than in 1992, and the unemployment rate in two districts approaches a catastrophic rate of one in four.  When so many lack jobs, that’s a lot of fuel for the fire.  Meanwhile demographic shifts have turned large chunks of the inner city predominantly Hispanic, freezing out blacks who aren’t part of the personal networks that are key to landing lower-end jobs.

     In tough times one looks to the government.  But the City of Angels has its own problems, in the nature of a $220-million tax shortfall, leading Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to warn of impending layoffs.  With fewer public-sector jobs and less government aid, prospects for the unemployed, undereducated and those with criminal records are bleaker than they’ve been in decades.

     Do ordinary people think that things are getting better or worse?  One week ago your blogger listened in as journalist and radio host  Patt Morrison posed that question to a gathering at USC.  In no particular order, here is what a few audience members had to say (not verbatim, but fairly close):

    Black female, middle-aged, south L.A. resident then and now:  Things have not changed.  In the neighborhood there is still the same status quo.  There is definitely a division [between affluent and others].

    White ex-activist:  LAPD officers are much more involved and have a better relationship with citizens.

    White male:  Racism hasn’t changed much.

    Journalist who covered the 1992 riots:  All that has changed is the LAPD, for the better.

    White male educator:  Public education is worse than twenty years ago.

    Voice in the crowd:  Riots can start again unless there is socioeconomic change.  Have not addressed the major economic difference.

    White male:  Gap between haves and have-nots has increased.

    Older white woman:  Community policing is becoming more effective.  Improvement since Darryl Gates left.

     Rodney King, the guest speaker, showed up late.  Here are a few of his exchanges with Ms. Morrison (not verbatim, but fairly close.)

    Q.  Have the city and the police changed?

    A.  Yes.  It’s a slow process.  The City of L.A. has worked on race relations and [established] commissions.

    Q.  Has LAPD changed?

    A.  Has changed a lot.  Changing chiefs around.

    Q.  Are people getting along better?

    A.  Better.  We have come a little ways, we have a long ways to go.  It has to be in each of our hearts, [it’s] up to each one of us as individuals each day.

     Overall, Rodney King conveyed a far more hopeful message than the mostly bleak prognostications offered by his audience.  Of course, he was there to sell a book.  It’s “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption,” written with Lawrence J. Spagnola.

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     Untangling cause and effect is difficult.  Even so, your blogger guesses that the new, improved LAPD that Rodney King and others spoke of didn’t originate from a chief’s directive but is the byproduct of a kinder and gentler environment.  Using the UCR report building tool revealed that in 1992 Los Angeles had 1,094 murders (pop. adjusted rate 30.3), 39,508 robberies (rate 1,093) and 46,445 aggravated assaults (rate 1,285).  In 2010 there were 293 murders (rate 7.7), 10,924 robberies (rate 288) and 9,344 aggravated assaults (rate 246).

     Case closed?  Maybe not.  Perhaps the LAPD really has become so adept that no matter socioeconomic conditions, crime will keep going down, and that no matter how poorly citizens behave, officers will never again spark off a riot.  Yet, as a couple of tense officer-hooligan confrontations witnessed by an L.A. Times columnist suggest, the goodwill generated by the department’s ostensibly new approach may not have percolated to society’s fringes, where poverty and hopelessness furnish abundant kindling.

     Hopefully, we’re wrong.

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Reform and Blowback

Posted 2/5/12


An “evidence-based” pre-trial release program lands Milwaukee in a pickle

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Ever since NIJ adopted the “evidence-based” mantra it’s been de rigueur for governments at all levels to demand solutions that are founded in science and empirically verifiable.  But in criminal justice, where it’s often hard to say what factors to consider in the first place, let alone how to measure their effects, thoughtlessly crunching data is risky.

     For an example look no further than Milwaukee’s brand-new pretrial release program.  Developed by Justice 2000, a small Milwaukee nonprofit founded in 2001 to promote the “safe release and community integration of criminal offenders,” it applies a set of measures to estimate the likelihood that a defendant might fail to appear or reoffend.  Staff members collect information about the nature of the offense, criminal record, previous failures to appear, drug and alcohol use, mental impairment, community bonds and family ties from official records and personal interviews.  Results are computed and furnished to a court commissioner who makes the final decision about bail and release.

     Justice 2000’s director says that its protocol is based on a study of two years’ worth of release data, and that everything is done impartially.  “We’re neutral, just supplying information and applying the tool.”

     It’s not the first time that Justice 2000 has provided pretrial services.  In 2003 it took over the city’s “Municipal Court Alternatives Program,” which offers persons cited for minor transgressions community service, drug treatment and counseling as alternatives to jail and fines.  In 2004 the main outcome metric, fewer jail days, was 13,288, saving the city $531,520 in housing costs.

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     Justice 2000’s new program is different.  Just how different was apparent a few days ago when authorities announced that Derrick Byrd was returned to custody after a commissioner acting on Justice 2000’s recommendation released him on his own recognizance.  What was the original charge?  Robbery-murder.

     Yes, that’s right: Milwaukee O.R.’d an accused murderer.  Stunned prosecutors (they had asked for a $150,000 cash bond) rushed to a judge, who looked things over and set bail at $50,000.  By then Byrd was gone, but he surrendered after checking in with Justice 2000 staff.  His bail is now $30,000, which he still can’t pay.  Incidentally, there’s no doubt that he was involved in the crime, the murder last October of the owner of a recycling business.  According to a sketchy account, Byrd admitted that he participated in planning the heist but says that someone else pulled the trigger.  Byrd reportedly has no prior criminal record and his lawyer says that he is willing to cooperate and point the finger at the real shooter.

     Justice 2000’s program has been in effect only since mid-January.  Amazingly, Byrd isn’t the only accused killer whom its staff has recommended for kid-gloves treatment.  On January 24 police arrested Chasity Lewis, 18, for reckless homicide.  An admitted marijuana dealer, she told police that three boys tried to take drugs without paying and that one punched her.  Doing what comes natural, she pulled a .22 pistol that she carried for protection and shot her assailant, a 16-year old boy, point-blank in the chest.  Based on her lack of a prior record, school attendance and “steady home life,” Justice 2000 recommended O.R.  But for blowback from the Byrd case, she would have gotten it.  (Instead, a commissioner set bail at $20,000.  Lewis remains in custody.)

     All pre-trial release schemes are subject to two types of error.  “Type 1” errors of overestimation (also referred to as false positives) lead to the detention of persons who would not have fled or committed another crime.  “Type 2” errors of failure to include (also referred to as false negatives) cause the release of those who will likely flee or recidivate.  According to Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke, Justice 2000’s protocol seems purposely biased in favor of the accused.  “There’s a use for pretrial screening, but obviously this tool needs to be recalibrated,” said Clarke, who suggested that “evidence-based decision making” and promises of saving money are sweeteners offered by those with a secret liberal agenda.

     Politics aside, it may be that when it comes to murder, trying to strike the usual cost-benefit, Type 1/Type 2 balance doesn’t work.  When Justice 2000 played in the sandbox of municipal court the consequences of being wrong (i.e., Type 2 errors) were minimal.  In general criminal court, though, releases carry far weightier implications.  Predicting recidivism is a frustratingly inexact science.  As we pointed out in “Reform and Blowback,” when a dangerous someone is let go and maims or kills, there’s no trying to explain why they were released.

     Bottom line: releasing shooters on their own recognizance is a huge step into the unknown.  It’s a new, quantum world, with hazy parameters and unpredictable consequences.

     Well, maybe not all that unpredictable.  In “Risky Business” we discussed the dangers of chasing after defendants who go on the lam.  Warrant service is an extremely dangerous business that all-too frequently leads to shootouts and dead cops.  Of course, officers serving warrants are at least forewarned.  Imagine what can happen when patrol officers inadvertently come across a dangerous wanted person.  “Catch and Release” featured two such examples:

  • In December 2011 Lamont Pride, a robber wanted for a shooting in North Carolina, shot and killed NYPD officer Peter J. Figoski.  Pride had been arrested by NYPD twice in recent months, most recently on a drug charge for which he failed to appear.  He was released on low bail both times because the North Carolina warrant didn’t authorize extradition.
  • In June 2010 Dontae Morris, a felon with arrests for murder and weapons violations, shot and killed Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab during a traffic stop.  Morris, who had been recently released from a prison term for sale of cocaine, had an active warrant for bad checks.

     Just how Milwaukee came to endorse release practices that could lead to O.R.’s for murder suspects will be fodder for discussion for years to come.  Partnering with what clearly seems to be an advocacy group (in 2010 Justice 2000 merged with Community Advocates) may have been imprudent.  Budget-conscious county officials might have been seduced with promises of cost savings and freeing up bed space.  Perhaps the appeal of an “evidence-based” based strategy was too hard to resist.

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     But don’t just trust Police Issues.  It’s been a year since Malcolm K. Sparrow’s superb research article cautioned against assuming that “evidence-based” approaches can yield practicable solutions to the real-life dilemmas encountered by police.  Those that prove useful, he said, tend to be rebranded variants of what cops have already done.  Dr. Sparrow counseled academics to heed the advice of practitioners, as they’re the real experts at the game.  Last May judges in St. Louis, Missouri took that notion to heart.  Sick and tired of gun violence, they started setting $30,000 bail, full amount cash only, on everyone caught illegally packing guns.  No surprise, most remained locked up.  Homicides promptly began to drop, and the year ended with 114, 20 percent less than in 2010 and the fewest since 2004.  Researchers now studying the program think that it holds special promise.

     Milwaukee, meet St. Louis.

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Bail and Sentence Reform special topic

Cops Aren’t Free Agents     A Stitch in Time     Reform and Blowback     Catch and Release


Governing Science (a critique of evidence-based approaches)

Posted 1/08/12


Searching for violence-reduction strategies other than hard-nosed policing

    For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  “The Interrupters,” one of the season’s most acclaimed documentaries, follows three Chicago Ceasefire street workers as they seek to disrupt the cycle of violence and retaliation that infuse the everyday lives of poor youth with fear and uncertainty.

     Launched in 1999 by the University of Illinois School of Public Health, Chicago Ceasefire deployed former gang members in inner city areas to identify and counsel high-risk youth, mediate disputes and defuse potentially violent situations.  This approach distinguishes Chicago from Boston Ceasefire (aka Boston Gun Project,) a 1996 initiative that tackled the problem of youth homicide by staging meetings (“call-ins”) with parolees and probationers to scare them straight and offer options.  (Click here and here for full descriptions and evaluations of both projects.)

     Chicago and Boston have been modeled by other initiatives.  In 2003, a 49 percent one-year increase in Pittsburgh’s homicide rate led a coalition of community organizations to develop “One Vision One Life,” a violence-reduction program whose protocol follows Chicago Ceasefire’s street-worker approach.

     One Vision staff selected three areas for intervention.  Two, “Northside” and “Hill District” were best by exceptionally high homicide rates, 31 and 44 per 100,000 respectively.  A third, “Southside,” had a relatively low rate of 4/100,000 but was considered problematic for other reasons.  It was intended that outcomes would be compared with non-targeted areas within Pittsburgh.

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     One Vision hired forty street workers who lived in the target districts and had street credibility.  They identified and interacted with at-risk individuals, referring them to a variety of programs and furnishing employment, housing and social assistance.  Workers (aka “interrupters”) conveyed a “no shooting” message, interceding in disputes and applying mediation techniques to help settle things nonviolently.  They also responded to homicides and shootings and tried to prevent retaliation.  Although street workers occasionally exchanged information with police, there was no regular interaction, which seems understandable given their unique role.

     One Vision was in effect during 2004-05.  Evaluators concede that assessing its effectiveness was complicated by the fact that like the Chicago and Boston programs, One Vision’s protocol was only “quasi” experimental.  Treatment areas had been purposively selected by One Vision staff,  making it impossible to rule out the possibility that factors extrinsic to the intervention could be responsible for any post-intervention differences between experimental and control groups.  In the end, after considering eleven variables, including violent crime rates, educational level and transiency, evaluators decided it was appropriate to compare Northside, Hill and Southside to the aggregate of non-target areas.  One Vision staff also identified seventeen areas that they thought similar to the three treatment sites for use as a secondary control.  In addition, efforts were made to measure spillover effects for Hill and Southside (Northside is isolated by rivers, making spillover unlikely.)

     What were the results?  In a word, unexpected.  Before-after comparisons revealed that aggravated and gun assaults increased substantially more in the intervention than control areas.  The one exception was Northside, where gun assaults increased less than in the secondary control area.  It was One Vision’s sole “success” story.

     Researchers also evaluated the differences in the before-after change between experimental and non-experimental (control) areas.  For homicide the difference is not statistically significant.  But with one exception (the Hill District, when compared to the secondary control area) aggravated and gun assaults increased significantly more in treatment areas.    Spillover effects (not pictured) generally followed the same trends, the one exception being that spillover from Hill was inexplicably linked to a significant decrease in aggravated assaults.

     In summary, One Vision proved a near-fiasco.  Not only did it fail to reduce homicide, it seemed to worsen the problem of assaults.  Evaluators rejected the only theoretical explanation at hand – that street workers may have inadvertently increased gang cohesion – as there was little interaction between street workers and gangs.  They attributed One Vision’s poor showing to insufficient dosage and inaccurate targeting.  According to evaluators, the program emphasized “persons in need” over hardcore criminals, such as those served by Chicago Ceasefire.  Neither did One Vision partner with law enforcement, a key component of reportedly successful “Pulling Levers” approaches including Boston Ceasefire, SACSI and Project Safe Neighborhoods.

     But holding other efforts up as models of what One Vision could have been is unsatisfying.  For example, while advocates of Chicago Ceasefire cite its supposedly resounding success, evaluators were skeptical.  While Ceasefire was in effect Chicago also played host to Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), a major gun-violence reduction initiative that features harsh Federal prosecution.  Like One Vision, Ceasefire was a quasi-experiment, with a design that may have been insufficiently robust to assure that it, rather than PSN, was the driving force behind any benefits that may have accrued.  (Incidentally, it’s the same issue that beset the evaluation of Boston Ceasefire.)

     Back to One Vision.  How can we account for its wrong-way effects on crime?  The simplest explanation is that at a time when crime and violence were on the upswing throughout Pittsburgh, local experts – One Vision staff members – accurately targeted areas where the problem was most acute.  One Vision probably had little or no effect, leaving violence to rise at a faster rate on its own.

     Really, once we brush rhetoric and false hopes aside, there’s preciously little proof that “soft” interventions such as Ceasefire and One Vision can be effective without the coercive presence of the police.  Unlike Chicago and Boston, Pittsburgh lacked a hardcore law enforcement program on which to piggyback.  It had to do it all by itself.  And predictably, it failed.

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     In 2003-2004 another quasi-experiment, Project Greenlight, applied a “cognitive-behavioral” approach to help put inmates on the right track before release.  It too seemingly made things worse.  We concluded that it didn’t, and that the only reason it looked that way was because, as Greenlight’s own data revealed, those assigned to the program had more severe criminal propensities to begin with than controls.

     That’s not to say that street workers and the like can’t be useful.  To make a convincing case for such approaches, though, would call for a research design that uses random selection and assignment to control for extraneous factors.  Indeed, one is available.  It’s called a real experiment.

UPDATES (scroll)

8/4/23  A focused deterrence/“pulling levers” program in Springfield, Illinois sought to tamp down gunplay in a gang-ridden area with saturation patrols, interacting with residents, warning troublesome gang members, and providing them with informational, educational and job placement services. An academic comparison study found significant reductions in confirmed shots fired, frequency of hearing gunshots, and citizen observations of gang activity. But calls for service for shots fired were unaffected.

9/19/22  Proactive policing and harsh sentencing are two components of the “hard-nosed” anti-crime approach known as “Project Safe Neighborhoods.” According to a recent NIJ evaluation of its implementation in Tampa, “the program led to a statistically significant reduction in violent crime.” Gun crime, though, was unaffected.

6/19/20  The Department of Justice announced it would continue to support and emphasize Project Safe Neighborhoods, which was “revitalized” in 2017. Coordinated by US Attorney offices throughout the U.S. and funded in part by DOJ, PSN initiatives target crime-impacted areas and armed offenders and are reportedly highly successful in reducing violent crime.

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Location, Location, Location     Faster, Cheaper, Worse     Slapping Lipstick on the Pig:  Part I   Part II