Sorry Lawmakers, But Police and Laws Do Not Control Crime

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Lawmakers like to think they can “control crime.”

Do not take my word for it, just look at the names of some of the laws politicians have created over the years:

  • Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968
  • The Crime Control Act of 1973
  • The Crime Control Act of 1976
  • Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984
  • Crime Control Act of 1990
  • Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

My post is intended to challenge readers to think critically. Words and their meanings matter.

The word “control” has many meanings depending on the dictionary you reference. According to Merriam-Webster, to control means to “exercise restraining or directing influence over.”

I am not claiming that crime cannot be reduced, limited, or prevented. I am merely stating that laws and police officers do not “control” crime. Crime is a phenomenon that cannot be “controlled,” at least not by police and laws.

In fact, Durkheim noted that crime was normal and served the vital social function of reinforcing norms. Simply put, crime and deviance is just an aspect of a well-functioning society. Thus, to Durkheim, society without crime and deviance would be abnormal.

Lawmakers would do well to learn about Durkheim and his views of crime and society. I am not advocating for lawmakers to stop attempting to reduce crime levels, nor am I asking police officers to stop doing their jobs. However, I am going to point out that laws essentially create crime.

Early drug laws and the expansion of the war on drugs are great examples of laws creating crime, rather than controlling it. Deviance, in the form of drug use, abuse, and addiction, was criminalized by early drug laws and the eventual widespread war on drugs. There was a time, when doing certain drugs was not a crime (defined as a violation of law).

Further evidence of law’s inability to “control” crime can be observed by the simple fact that none of the aforementioned laws had any “controlling” influence on crime. In fact, crime increased, despite the passage of some of those laws.

Policing also does not control crime.

While policing strategies and styles vary across departments throughout the United States, the vast majority of policing involves responding to requests for service and maintaining social order. This clearly indicates that policing is traditionally reactive.

Lum, Koper, and Telep (2011) stated that the proactive policing of places is a much more promising practice for preventing crime when compared to reactive policing of individuals. However, Lum and colleagues (2011) also point out the the vast majority of policing activity is reactive and focused on individuals. Therefore, policing, at least as it is now, is not going to effectively control crime.

Donald Trump’s strategy for crime, especially when mentioning Chicago, also seems to be reactive and too broadly focused.

He discusses Chicago’s crime problem, but Lum and colleagues (2011) note that the best place-based strategies will be focused on micro-places and neighborhoods. Focusing attention on an entire city, therefore, would likely be ineffective.

For instance, the Chicago-Tribune recently reported that Trump blames Chicago’s crime problems on gangs (groups of individuals, not micro-places & not neighborhoods). Furthermore, his use of the words “fix” and “fight” are reactive terms for describing how to handle crime problems.

Why can we not “control” crime?

In response to this question, besides the points made in the prior paragraphs (drug laws have obviously not “controlled,” or even reduced, the use and sale of drugs), I have more questions.

Can laws or police “control” homicide?

Will gun laws “control” the use of illegal firearms by Chicago gang members committing murder?

How do police intend to stop expressive crimes of passion?

FoxNews has even interviewed Chicago gang members about Trump’s threat to flood the city with more law enforcement, including federal officials. The response of the interviewed gang members was laughter. Those individuals, whose actions Trump intends to “control,” are laughing at the idea that police can stop their behavior.

To conclude, not all is lost and criminology research plays a vital role in the nation’s attempts to address crime problems.

First, lawmakers and police should seek to “reduce” and “prevent” crime, rather than “control.”

Second, effective evidence-based practices highlighted by criminologists need to be embraced by lawmakers and law enforcement. This also means that “get tough” rhetoric, used to win elections, must cease on both sides of the political aisle.

Third, rehabilitation and reintegration efforts must be expanded. Reducing recidivism rates will go a long way towards reducing overall crime rates. These last two points are, perhaps, where Lawmakers need to shift their focus the most.

Finally, more attention needs to be given to the social conditions that are strongly correlated with crime. This means that we need to improve schools (and education as a whole), create more jobs, and make wages livable, debt avoidable, and reintegration possible.

Daniel Ryan Kavish
Lander University

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online)

Lum, C., Koper, C. S., & Telep, C. W. (2011). The evidence-based policing matrix. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 7(1), 3-26.

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