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Crime, Community and Urban Life

Abstract: This paper examines how public anxieties about crime can not only make it difficult for police departments to perform its primary task, but can inadvertently contribute to the deterioration of urban life as we know it.


Mounting public fears of “crime in the streets” have produced major changes in personal life-styles and behavior that have important implications for American cities. Many neighborhoods that once bustled with activity are now deserted at dusk. Uniformed security and elaborate alarm systems now guard entrances to businesses that formerly beckoned with hospitality. And people who once seemed friendly react to strangers with hostility and suspicion.

Interestingly, while the number of violent crimes committed in the U.S. has declined over the past few years the public’s preoccupation with crime has seemingly heightened. This may be in large part due to the framing of crime by the electronic media. Television’s constant coverage of graphic slayings and indiscriminate killings send the message that such heinous acts are a real and everyday threat to the lives of most citizens. This profuse coverage of violent crime has become so typical of most newscasts that one might get the impression that crime is America’s most salient societal problem. Yet, a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2000 revealed that the majority of Americans believed that education was the most important issue facing the country (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000). The fact is television’s emphasis on violent crime is profit-driven. In other words, news coverage of crimes that involve shootings, stabbings and beatings seem to attract viewers, which in turn drives ratings up. Conversely, crimes such as trespassing and burglary are not considered sexy. Indeed these crimes are viewed as mundane and are of interest to few people outside of law enforcement.

Nevertheless, according to a public safety survey, for example, more than half of the residents in twelve cities reported that they had altered their personal habits in one or more ways as a result of their anxiety about crime (Criminal Victimization and Perceptions of Community Safety 1999). For example, when residents in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. were asked what they had done in the past twelve months to protect themselves and their families from crime, forty-two percent stated that they installed extra locks (Criminal Victimization and Perceptions of Community Safety 1999). Perhaps the most fundamental responses to the fear of crime have been reflectedin public efforts to avoid walking alone at night and to shun contact with strangers. Yet, these reactions may be misdirected. Furthermore, such reactions may be both counterproductive and destructive of urban life. Statistics indicate that most violent crimes occur in private dwellings and are committed by friends, relatives, or acquaintances of the victim (Hahn and Jeffries, in press 2003). Consequently, people may have less to fear from strangers than from their friends and relatives.

Ironically this tendency to seek protection from the threat of crime by remaining indoors rather than by venturing out probably has had an unfavorable effect upon efforts to prevent crime. Specifically, it has limited the ability of residents to offer their neighbors effective protection from the threat of crime and disorder. By remaining in the company of their families and trusted friends, urban dwellers have perhaps unwittingly diminished the likelihood that cities can become viable and self‑policing communities.

For centuries, police work was regarded as an essentially private responsibility to be performed primarily by the male members of a community rather than as a public duty that could be delegated to the employees of a municipal agency (Monkkonen 1981). These night watchmen as they were called considered it necessary to oversee and to supervise the conduct of his neighbor and to impose censure and punishment upon acts that appeared contrary to the interest of the entire community. By permitting occasional excesses such as the vigilante movement in the West and South and by encouraging a restrictive conformity that required a careful observance of prevailing local norms and values, this system produced some undesirable consequences. But the practice also provided an effective means of preventing or discouraging illegal acts, especially in rural and small towns where everyone knew one another.

In fact, the industrial revolution and the rise of urbanization may have been the principal force responsible for the abandonment of private policing and for the creation of modern law enforcement agencies (Monkkonen 1981). As the country grew in size, and communities experienced unprecedented growth in capital and population, it became physically impossible for local residents to know all of their neighbors and to scrutinize their conduct effectively. Hence, at a relatively late point in history, municipalities found it necessary to resort to the establishment of police agencies, which were charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law. Another possible reason for the development of police departments was the unfavorable reaction of prominent residents to the waves of immigrants that came to the U.S. from Europe after the 1840s.

Police departments did not become a formal part of local governments until the mid‑nineteenth century. New York City organized the first police force. New York began with a force of 800 officers. They wore star-shaped badges made of copper, which quickly gave rise to the nickname “copper” or “cop.” Other cities soon followed: Chicago in 1851, Cincinnati and New Orleans in 1852, Philadelphia and Boston in 1854 and Baltimore in 1857. As law enforcement agencies expanded and as police leaders continued to proclaim their dedication to the war on crime, a growing number of urban residents assumed that it was no longer necessary to participate in efforts to protect their neighbors from the threat of crime. Since police departments were regarded as adequate sources of security, the responsibility to control crime became an almost exclusive prerogative of law enforcement agencies rather than a duty that required the direct involvement of private citizens. Thus, many persons sought to avoid involvement in criminal matters by stating simply that “it’s a police matter” or “I don’t want to get involved.”

Crime and Community

Again more important than the direct consequences that the increasing public fear of crime have for police departments are the eventual implications that it has on the quality of urban life. By demonstrating that they are hesitant to walk alone at night, are inclined to buy additional locks for their doors, and are reluctant to talk to strangers, urban dwellers are allowing their fear of crime to insulate them from social contacts. In fact, the primary non-verbal reaction of persons who are approached by a stranger in cities no longer appears to reflect a concern with the question, “How are you?” Instead, some people wear a facial expression that indicates they are wondering “If they are going to get ripped off?” Indeed it could be argued that this disposition has apparently become so typical that it is part of some people’s everyday demeanor. Needless to say prevailing public worries about the threat of crime are contributing to a pattern of social withdrawal rather than of increased participation in communal life.

The social withdrawal that has been prompted by this anxiety about crime may be related to a broader trend toward increased privacy that has influenced many aspects of American society. In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam (2000) notes that growing numbers of people in metropolitan areas are engaging in behavior that is designed not only to enhance their own privacy but also to diminish the likelihood of encounters with other residents. Home buyers, for example, often display a preference for single‑family rather than multiple‑family dwellings; and a growing audience is indicating a desire for social, recreational and entertainment activities that one can enjoy alone or with their relatives rather than in the company of friends or strangers (i.e. movie rentals, video games, the internet, etc.). The typical day for some urban residents consists of leaving their well‑fenced and protected single family homes in a dormitory suburb, traveling to work in an hermetically sealed glass and metal cocoon, performing their work in an isolated cubicle, and returning to an evening in which they are surrounded only by members of their immediate family. This mundane lifestyle, of course, deprives many of the benefits that can be acquired from, interaction with others.

Although this movement toward “social isolationism” can be traced to numerous causes, again a growing paranoia about crime seems to be the motivating factor for many urban residents. The commuter who drives through the inner city with his doors locked and his windows rolled up is not only expressing a desire for an increased sense of privacy; but he/she is also displaying a fear produced by his or her presence in a perceived alien and hostile environment. In some cases, anxiety about the threat of crime may be confused with a fear of social deviants or what Jerome Skolnick has called, “symbolic assailants1” (Skolnick 1975). A city where the residents are afraid to talk to each other, to appear in public, and to interact with strangers hardly can be an area that can maintain its life or its vitality for an extended period of time. The networks of social communication that permeate an urban area operate both as an important means of protecting its inhabitants from crime and as a crucial vehicle for the integration of the community. By encouraging city dwellers to act as anonymous, autonomous, and self‑contained entities, the fear of crime could contribute significantly to the deterioration of those elements that make urban life rich and unique.

In addition, this trend may have undesirable consequences for efforts to reduce or to control crime. A perceived increase in the crime rate has provoked a two‑fold response that initially seems favorable to police departments, but that ultimately may pose serious problems for them. Perhaps the principal short‑term public reaction has been reflected in attempts to retreat from the perils of the urban2 environment and to support proposals that would augment and expand the resources of law enforcement agencies in their fight against crime. The police have been the temporary beneficiaries of a wave of public anxiety that has found expression in slogans such as “support your local police” and “take a bite out of crime.”

Underlying such developments, however, are several long‑range trends which indicate that law enforcement agencies could be in serious political trouble. According to a national survey, more than half of the white respondents and almost two‑thirds of black Americans have lost confidence in the ability of the police to provide adequate protection for their lives and property; and they believe that they must resort to self‑defense measures to provide their own protection (Criminal Victimization and Perceptions of Community Safety 1998). The implications of those findings may not only denote a serious decline in public respect and trust for the authority of law enforcement agencies, but they also suggest a possible revival of private responsibility for police work. America might be exposed to the danger of a militant vigilantism, which would divest law enforcement agencies of the primary obligation to control crime. A citizenry motivated by a misguided hysteria about crime and implementing their own biases as self‑appointed administrators of criminal justice could present an even greater threat to the security of the state than the so‑called criminal elements that the police seek to control.

Mounting public paranoia about the threat of crime may produce not only a significant decline in trust in police departments, but it might also inspire a damning criticism of those agencies for their failure to provide adequate protection against crime. For many years, police officials have appeared before city councils and other legislative bodies to request increased resources in order to wage an expanded war against crime. At the same time, their own statistics have shown a steady and accelerating increase in crime (Hahn and Jeffries 2003). Police departments, therefore, may increasingly encounter the problem that faces any political agency which does not fulfill the objectives it has defined for itself. A simple–if somewhat simplistic–political logic suggests that the increased expenditure of public funds to combat crime should result in a significant reduction in crime. This school of thought was best articulated by Carl Stokes (the former mayor of Cleveland) who contended in the early 1970s that approval of a salary increase for policemen ought to be made contingent upon a reduction in the crime rate (Zannes 1972).

Efforts to dampen the prevailing hysteria about crime, therefore, may be beneficial not only to the public and to politicians; but they also might serve the long‑range interests of the police. Existing attempts to solve “the crime problem” could have an undesirable impact both upon the development of a sense of community and upon efforts to control illegal activities. By isolating themselves from social contact and by investing in police programs that can offer no assurance of success, the public and political leaders may be embarking upon a course of action that is highly disadvantageous to law enforcement operations.

The development of a serious rather than a “run of the mill” and superficial approach to the reduction of crime would seem to require not only a critical investigation of present orientations to the problem, but also a reexamination of the concepts and values encompassed by this issue. Before attempting to propose a solution, it is necessary to engage in a careful analysis of the nature of criminal law.

The Definition of Crime

What is crime? Crimes can be simply defined as those acts that are specifically declared illegal by laws which prescribe punishment for their transgression. Less frequently recognized, however, is the important role that politics plays in the formulation of the criminal code. Even though the apparent majesty of the law often seems to give criminal statutes a universal or a transcendent quality, the definition of crime is fundamentally a political act formulated by political actors. Hence, criminal laws reflect the distribution of political influence in different areas. Since the enactment of such laws is primarily a state responsibility, the criminal code might be considered a reflection of political arrangements in each of the fifty states. Moreover, changes in the structure or allocation of political power within a jurisdiction often produce corresponding alterations in criminal statutes.

The political process, therefore, has important implications for the content of the criminal law. In almost all jurisdictions, there are some groups, which boast extensive political power, and other groups that lack political influence. As a result, power-holding groups enjoy a major advantage in the determination of criminal codes. In general, the behaviors defined as criminal are more likely than not the behaviors of the poor and politically less skillful members of the polity. Since the authority to delineate legal and illegal forms of behavior comprises a critical means of distributing or preserving resources and status within society, the provisions of the criminal law provide an important index of political power in various localities. Although few attempts have been made by social scientists to employ the criminal statutes in this manner, a preliminary analysis seems to indicate that the political power available to persons who engage in aggressively anti-social conduct and who are liable to commit so-called “blue-collar” crimes is exceeded by the influence of those who engage in “white collar” crimes and subtle forms of illegal behavior. From this perspective, the political impact of persons engaged in commercial misrepresentation—and the despoliation of the environment, or warfare, for example—might be adjudged to exceed the political strength of thieves, arsonists, or murderers. The definition of crimes is both a crucial political decision and an important indicator of the power exercised by different segments of the community.

Furthermore, the distinctions embodied in the criminal law are perpetuated through the punishment that it imposes. Conviction of a major crime not only involves exclusion from the population at large, but it also entails a loss of significant political rights like the right to vote, and to hold public office. Individuals who suffer the burden of a criminal record are deprived of critical opportunities for employment, and they are prohibited from using basic political tools, which are normally available to any group striving to improve its social and economic position. Persons who are disenfranchised and denied access to the decision-making process hardly can emerge as a serious political threat to established public leaders. The provisions of the criminal law seem to be structured to ensure that felons and ex-convicts will remains the least politically influential groups in society.

In many respects, the criminal law may be a more accurate reflection of inequities in the distribution of political power than of universal moral values. In fact, perhaps the primary explanation for the definition of legal and illegal conduct can be traced to the habits of different segments of society. Actions and behaviors that are common to power-holding groups of the population tend to escape criminal restrictions; but activities and lifestyles that prevail among groups which lack political power may fall within the purview of criminal penalties. Hence, the criminal law may become a vehicle for enabling power-holding groups to preserve their way of life and to protect themselves against the competition of those who use other methods of securing valued objectives.

The standards that differentiate moral and immoral–or legal and illegal—behavior may be clearer than is commonly assumed. Much of the conduct that forms an integral part of everyday behavior and especially of earning a livelihood could be labeled as unethical, if not blatantly illegal. In fact a large amount of social activity probably could be characterized as efforts to deprive people of their property in a legal rather than an illegal manner. By fulfilling the credentialing requirements that society has established such as gaining a college degree and acquiring a skill, for example, many people are attempting to secure a guarantee that they will be able to earn a livelihood legally without resorting to behavior that would expose them to criminal sanctions. In a fundamental sense, however, their subsequent work may not be substantially different from those who find it necessary to support themselves by robbing a liquor store or snatching a purse.

The definition of crime can fulfill several important objectives for groups that are influential in the formulation of the law. Initially, criminal statutes may become a vehicle that enables power-holding groups to escape legal penalties and they might be used to impose punishment upon politically powerless groups. The law also may be utilized as a method of endorsing or sanctifying the behaviors of power elites. Perhaps most importantly, however, it can be employed as a means of exemplifying their moral superiority. The criminal law not only serves the important function of protecting elites from the threat of legal punishment, but it fulfills an even more important purpose of providing them with a feeling of psychological comfort and a sense of personal worth. Since the law is primarily directed at the behavior of politically impotent groups, it allows persons who hold political power to regard themselves as more virtuous or “better” than other segments of society.

Criminal statutes constitute an important means of encouraging persons who lack political power to engage in the forms of behavior that are regarded as acceptable by power-holding groups. Since many people–and especially those who possess extensive political influence—may find deviant lifestyles offensive or intolerable, the criminal law provides critical leverage for bringing such behavior into conformity with the values that have been adopted by power-holding groups. Criminal laws are a persuasive force in shaping human conduct; and their positive value as a means of promoting compliance with socially accepted forms of behavior might outweigh their negative importance as a source of punishment.

Perhaps the principle purpose of the criminal law is simply to indicate the types of behavior in which people can and cannot engage. As many observers have noted, the purpose of the law is not to punish; its primary goals is to promote actions that contribute to a harmonious existence. Nor is the criminal law a reflection of universal moral values that permeate all segments of society. In a fundamental sense, the law exists primarily to demonstrate the limits or the parameters of acceptable conduct. Just as subtle words and gestures are used to enforce concepts of social etiquette, the threat of fine or imprisonment is utilized by the state to delineate the outer boundaries of tolerable social behavior. As a result, criminal law may be viewed as an official announcement by political decision-makers of the types of conduct that are regarded as destructive to the social order. By providing a clear definition of unacceptable conduct, the law encourages people to confine their activities within the arena of permissible behavior. Without this guidance, individuals would be forced to live in a constant state of uncertainty about the acceptability of their actions to political authorities. The formulation of the criminal law as a means of demonstrating the limits or the boundaries of human behavior, therefore, serves an indispensable social function.

“The Law-Abiding” and “Law-Breakers”

The existence of the criminal law as a map depicting the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior contains several important implications for approaches to the problem of crime. Initially, it has promoted the growth of a dualistic perspective which tends to divide the population into so‑called law‑abiding and law‑breaking segments of society. In general, people who seek or claim to restrict their activities within the confines of socially acceptable behavior regard themselves as members in good standing of law‑abiding portions of the community, and they tend to perceive others whose actions frequently overstep the boundaries of appropriate behavior as law‑breaking elements. Persons who have either acquired or who are striving to achieve social and political leverage also comprise a high proportion of those who identify with the law‑abiding, while the politically powerless and persons who have abandoned any hope of gaining influence typically are consigned to the ranks of law‑breakers. Perhaps most importantly, the dichotomy often is utilized by the supposedly law‑abiding to separate themselves from persons whom they do not know or like. Allegedly law‑abiding segments of the population tend to define the group as consisting of people who are much like themselves and their friends and relatives, but law‑breakers are classified as deviant.

Hence, the somewhat mythical distinction between the law‑abiding and law‑breaking provides some individuals with a means of preserving their status and prestige. People who are convinced of their basic righteous, and exemplary conduct find it difficult to place themselves in the same category as the “common criminal” or the defendant who appears in municipal court. By maintaining a belief in the distinctions between the two groups, many persons are providing themselves with a justification for maintaining their distance from so‑called law‑breaking elements.

The difficulty is that the dichotomy is fallacious. Existing information suggests that people are most apt to be victimized by friends and relatives whom they regard as fellow members of the law‑abiding club, and it implies that the example of the law has not been highly effective in eliminating socially unacceptable conduct. Evidence also suggests that the commission of illegal‑acts is a widespread phenomena, which encompasses many persons who consider themselves law‑abiding citizens (Parenti 1995). Although there are obvious problems entailed in attempts to obtain data on self-confessed crimes, some research has indicated that approximately nine out of every ten adults may have, at some point during their lifetimes, committed a serious crime that could have landed them in prison (Special Report to the Congress 1991). In effect, many people are law‑breakers rather than upholders of the law. As long as people fail to attain a state of infallibility, it is likely that their experience will include legal as well as moral transgressions. And, as a result, the scope of crime may be much greater than many have previously imagined.

The extent of crime, therefore, raises some serious questions about the administration of criminal law. If the commission of a crime encompasses supposedly law‑abiding as well as law‑breaking elements in the population, how can there be a truly equal enforcement of the law? What standards should be applied to the operation of the criminal justice system? How can existing inequities in the system be eliminated?

Perhaps the only equitable benchmark for law enforcement would entail a system based upon random principles. Everyone who violates the law should be exposed to an equal probability of detection and conviction. Such an approach recognizes, that law enforcement officers will not be successful in prosecuting everyone who commits a crime; some will manage to avoid punishment simply because they did not get caught or because of insufficient evidence to convict. But a system founded upon random principles would be designed to ensure that a defendant’s ability to escape punitive measures be based simply on chance rather than upon his appearance, demeanor, social status or influence. By exposing everyone to an equal risk that they might be punished for exceeding the boundaries of permissible behavior, this system might act as an effective deterrent to crime.

At the present time, however, noteveryone is confronted with an equal probability of receiving punishment for an infraction of the law. Ateach stage of the criminal justice process, from arrest to conviction, some people become increasingly vulnerable to the threat of criminal penalties, while others enjoya growing chance of escaping punishment. The explanation for these inequities probably cannot be found in the personnel or the process of criminal justice; it seems to be rooted in the social structure itself.

Perhaps the simplest–and the most critical–explanation for the non‑random nature of the criminal justice system can be found in the consequences of the equitable enforcement of the law. Stated boldly, if everyone were exposed to an equal chance of being apprehended or punished for violations of a law, the result might be social chaos. Since statistics indicate that a large proportion of people in all social strata and in every segment of society may possibly commit a serious crime at some time during their lives, any form of law enforcement based upon random principles could result in the capture and punishment of powerful segments of the population that to some degree have traditionally regarded themselves as relatively immune from criminal penalties. Included among the violators of the law might be many members of power-holding groups, who could wield extensive political influence in their efforts not only to avoid but also to change the law to avert the possibility of further prosecution. This does not suggest, of course, that all power‑holding groups are successful in escaping detection or arrest for illegal acts; in fact, as the experience of high government officials indicates, they may occasionally be subjected at least to mild forms of punishment. But the members of power‑wielding groups are clearly prosecuted less frequently than members of groups that lack political power (Walker, et al. 2000). If violators of the law were arrested and prosecuted at random, this policycould stimulate a concerted effort to apply political pressure that would disrupt both the process of criminal justice and the equilibrium of society as a whole.

One method of avoiding the dysfunctional effects of a law enforcement policy based upon random principles is achieved by confining criminal penalties to a limited number of people. A relatively small proportion of the population accounts for a substantial share of all arrests and convictions. This pattern is not accidental. When major crimes occur, persons who have committed similar offenses in the past frequently become the initial objects of police investigations. Moreover, individuals with prior police records suffer harsher punishment than those with no previous convictions. A fair amount of law enforcement work entails arresting and re-arresting persons who are suspected of similar offenses. Repeat offenders constitute a major proportion of the individuals who are brought before the bar of criminal justice.

Perhaps most importantly, this segment of the population includes a disproportionate number of people who are poor, black and lack political influence (Parenti 1995). By focusing their attention on these groups, power‑holding elements are saved from the embarrassment of becoming ensnared in the criminal justice system; and law enforcement agencies are protected from the pressures and disruption that might result from confrontations with persons who possess extensive political influence. Hence, there is a social utility to recidivism. By constantly circulating some individuals through the criminal justice process, power‑holding groups are protected from unpleasant encounters with law enforcement agencies and the objectives of the criminal law seem to be fulfilled. The punishment of repeat offenders serves to demonstrate both the limits of human conduct and the penalties that could result from violating those boundaries. And influentials can rest comfortably in the knowledge that the purposes of the criminal law are being satisfied without their involvement in the punitive mechanisms of the criminal justice system.

Solutions to “The Crime Problem”

To provide a strong incentive for the observance of the law, it may be necessary to recast and to restructure social institutions. Perhaps the simplest solution to the “crime problem” is the elimination of crime. By repealing the criminal law, society would suddenly find itself without a crime problem. Although this proposal might seem absurd or outrageous to many, it should be noted that several important social values are fulfilled by crime. Perhaps the most important of these values is the redistribution of income. Commodities that are stolen from commercial establishments or from private residences, for example, may pass through several hands before they are finally resold on the street. In this process, many persons share economic benefits of crime. The cumulative impact of these transactions probably has a leveling effect. As a result, crime can be an important avenue of upward mobility for some that participate in the theft and resale of commercial products. To the extent that society decides that the redistribution of income is a more important social goal than the prevention of “illegal rip-offs,” there may be important reasons for legalizing and legitimizing certain types of crimes.

The difficulty with this proposal, of course, is that illegal activities do not constitute the most effective or efficient method of redistributing the wealth. Crime can be–and frequently has been–employed as a means of reducing the influence of power elites; vengeance or retribution may be prominent motives in many types of crimes committed by less well-off groups against those who are relatively better‑off. But extensive evidence indicates that the residents of low‑income neighborhoods are more likely to be the victims of crime than affluent segments of the population. A variety of barriers and measures3 have been put in place by social planners and police agencies to prevent a wave of “Robin Hood crimes.” Crime constitutes one method of equalizing the resources of money and status that does not require the approval or enactment of power‑holding groups, but there are more effective methods available to redistribute status and wealth. Techniques such as a sharply progressive form of taxation or even direct subsidies could achieve these objectives more efficiently than crime.

Criticisms of plans to repeal the criminal law, however, seem to imply another more feasible solution to the crime problem. Perhaps the most persistent finding that has emerged from the study of criminal justice is the high correlation between crime and poverty. Not only is there abundant evidence to indicate that crimes tend to occur primarily in low‑income areas of the city, but economic motivations also seem to play a significant role in the commission of many crimes. As a result, one important means of reducing crime involves eliminating poverty. By providing all persons with the economic resources necessary to achieve subsistence or to maintain a satisfactory standard of living, the incentives for crime might be significantly diminished.

The plan to reduce crime by eliminating poverty is essentially similar to the preceding proposal, but it has the important advantage of enabling society to preserve criminal laws and to maintain a clear definition of the boundaries of acceptable social conduct. Instead of legalizing crime to permit increased upward mobility, this proposal could simply provide direct payments to compensate individuals for the difference between their existing incomes and a specified standard of living. Income supplements would be provided by government programs rather than by criminal activities. The gap between affluence and poverty has become so great and unfortunately widely accepted by many sectors of society that it is no longer considered by some to be a pressing social problem. For some this development is accepted as a condition of living in a capitalist society. Nevertheless some method of equalizing income may be necessary to eradicate poverty.

Persons at the top of the socio‑economic ladder may be prepared to aid those at lower rungs as long as the effort does not entail a significant reduction of their own resources or interrupt the continuity of their daily lives. But to expect political decision‑makers and other power‑holding groups to relinquish their resources and power voluntarily is probably futile. Although losses incurred as a result of crime may exceed the costs of this proposition, it is doubtful that the eradication of poverty can be implemented within the context of the unimaginative existing social structure.

Law Enforcement and Community Services

Perhaps the most feasible approach to the solution of the crime problem, as well as the most important method of assisting law enforcement agencies, can be derived from a careful examination of existing day-to-day police activities. Contrary to popular belief, policemen do not spend most of their time fighting crime or enforcing the law. Much of active duty time within police departments is spent carrying out such mundane tasks as handing out traffic tickets, filing out automobile accident reports or performing what might be termed community service activities (Vila and Morris 1999). In fact, the four requests that are received most frequently by police departments from the public involve emergency medical assistance, intervention in domestic or marital disputes, assistance in handling the problems of children or young people and doling out tickets (Hahn and Jeffries, in press 2003).

This development seems to have important implications not only for the criminal justice system but also for the role of government in contemporary society. In particular, it seems to undermine the common distinction between public and private spheres of responsibility. It has been frequently asserted that people would resist government intrusion in such private or personal matters as health care, the marital relationship, and the rearing of children; but the information contained in public requests to police departments seem to belie those allegations. Although there are supposedly many areas of life in which government interference is not welcome, the calls received by police departments suggest that many people would prefer to turn to government rather than private agencies for assistance in coping with some of life’s most mundane problems. To meet these demands, it may be necessary to expand both the scope and the role of government in society.

Moreover, the activities of police departments may provide an important model for this expansion of government services. Perhaps the principal reason why people contact law enforcement agencies for these services is that police departments are the only government agency that circulate throughout the community on a 24-hour-a-day basis. The police can be dispatched immediately, to the location where their assistance is required. Hence police officers may be one of few government representatives in a position to meet the demand for public services.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to this public demand, therefore, is the creation of community service agencies. Because of their unique advantages of mobility and availability, policemen might appropriately continue to perform the duties of such agencies. As a result, police departments, or community service agencies, would be organized according to their actual activities rather than their supposed functions. Instead of fighting crime or enforcing the law, which comprise only a small fraction of police time and energy, the performance of services would be elevated to a co‑equal status within these agencies. This plan would require reorganization of administrative structure. As a result an emergency medical aid division, a domestic disturbances division, and a department focusing on youth problems for example might replace or at the very least compliment existing units such as the burglary division, the vice squad, and homicide detail. Moreover, policemen, or community services agents, would receive rewards and promotions within the organization not only on the basis of their law enforcement abilities or their capacity to make a “good bust,” but also according to their effectiveness in performing community services. Although this plan might entail dismantling or reorganizing police departments as they are presently structured, it would reflect the reality of existing police activities and a recognition of the importance of community services.


While the greatest value of this plan might be the provision of increased and improved community services it also might contribute significantly to the reduction of crime. Law enforcement would of course remain as one of the functions of community service agencies, but it would be assigned a priority and a role commensurate with the amount of time and effort that is actually devoted to these activities. Activities such as transporting an injured person to the hospital or resolving family problems may have as high a priority as apprehending criminals. By transforming its image from an essentially punitive organization that is responsible for controlling illegal behavior to a progressive institution that is mandated to provide services, members of a community might be encouraged to provide police departments or community service agencies, with the cooperation that is essential to the fulfillment of their objectives. The creation of community service agencies might involve the expenditure of extensive economic resources; but it does not involve a direct subsidy to individuals, which seems to be abhorrent to power‑holding groups. By providing extensive and expensive services to low‑status segments of the population, it may also be possible to reduce the economic motivations of crime in a matter that is palatable to power‑holding groups.

Perhaps most importantly, the existence of such agencies could promote an extended sense of personal responsibility among private citizens as well as police personnel. Instead of over reacting to crime with fear and apprehension, residents might be taught that the control of crime and the fulfillment of human needs require a genuine sense of community and commitment to one’s neighbor. As a result, this development could contribute not only to the reduction of crime but also to the improvement of the quality of everyday urban life.


1 A symbolic assailant is someone who is perceived to be a dangerous criminal. This perception is often based on the individual’s dress, demeanor, race and the like. Of course this perception is often stereotypical.

2 There is a common perception by many that blacks commit most crimes. And because blacks make up a sizable portion of America’s inner cities some whites believe that moving to the suburbs is the best way to guard against being the victim of crime. In fact a recent study found that on average twenty-five percent of respondents in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. were planning to relocate to the suburbs because of crime. For more detail see Criminal Victimization and Perceptions of Community Safety in 12 cities, 1999.

3 One notable barrier erected by social planers is the gated community. In some neighborhoods outsiders are unable to enter without the permission of a resident of that community or a guard stationed at the entrance. Police have also been known to cruise the streets of affluent communities and stop and question those who appear to be out of place. For example, when Edward Lawson would take long walks at night in white San Diego neighborhoods, he would often be stopped by police, who would ask for his identification. Between March 1975 and January 1977 Lawson was stopped a total of fifteen times. He sued to have the California statue requiring that persons provide “credible and reliable” identification to police declared unconstitutional. Lawson won his case and later collected substantial civil damages from the City of San Diego. For more detail on this case see Jerome H. Skolnick and James F. Fyfe. Above the Law: Police and the Use of Excessive Force. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

Works Cited

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Monkkonen, Eric H. Police in Urban America 1860-1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Parenti, Michael. Democracy for the Few. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communities. New York: Touchstone, 2000.

Skolnick, Jerome. Justice Without Trial. New York: John Wiley, 1975

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Judson L. Jeffries is Associate Professor of Political Science and American Studies at Purdue University. He is currently writing an edited book on the Black Power Movement.

Harlan Hahn is Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California. His book, Ghetto Revolts, which he co-authored with Joe Feagin, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1974. He was written widely on American Politics, Urban Politics, and Disability Politics.

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