Friday, November 10, 2006

Crats vs. Crafts: Jerry Brown's Robo-Cop Vision

Jerry Brown, the last of California's chief executives to govern before the complex of growing prisons, gated suburbs and extreme crime panics came to shape political life in California , is now heading back to Sacramento fill the role of the state's Attorney General, a position now largely defined by its crime posture. A liberal who believed in minimizing the ambitions of state penal policy in the 1970s, Brown returns having passed through a recent purgatory as a Mayor of Oakland; a city which struggles to with constantly cycling of thousands of young men between its most vulnerable neighborhoods back from California's overcrowded, violent, and racially organized prisons. The last year of Brown's mayoralty, and his successful run for AG, were burdened with a significant spike in Oakland homicides and robberies. Brown's new control vision, brewed during his painful struggle with Oakland's crime and punishment problems, is outlined in Chip Johnson's column in the November 10th, SF Chronicle (read it now). Brown's Robo-Cop strategy emphasizes technology and surveillance to intensify what he considers the insufficient supervision by state parole officers and inadequate staffing of the Oakland police department. Case in point, Brown has pushed through the deployment of high tech system designed to pin point gun shot origins (one imagines that the Israeli's use things like this to launch retaliatory strikes against rocket launchers---and by the way the strikes occasionally go awry). Brown apparently believes this will permit pin point police responses that will incapacitate or deter Oakland's oversupply of young shooters. Brown may be right that the vision will resonate well politically at a time when Californian's just overwhelmingly adopted Proposition 83 which among other features will require felony sex offenders who have done prison time to wear GPS locators for the rest of their lives.

California badly needs a new vision on crime and punishment from the state level, and the experience of urban California with the war on crime ought to be the starting point. For my money, however, Brown's Robo-Cop vision of the future, has more in common with the largely media driven fantasies from which the state's current embrace of mass incarceration and gated suburbs then it does with the lessons to be learned in Oakland's streets. For one thing, Brown ignores the role that prisons and parole already play in cycling young men in and out of Oakland the harm that cycling itself does. Parole isn't tough enough in supervising ex-inmates according to Brown, or else we wouldn't have a 70 percent recidivism rate. Ding. Wrong. Much if not most of that recidivism rate is already driven by technical violations that are already detected by parole division all too well. More importantly, cycling itself may be producing violence by deforming social networks through a process relentlessly churning the population of sexually active and potentially economically productive young men in communities that are already suffering deficits of labor force participation (see recent the forthcoming book by Todd Clear).

For another thing, who says investment in technology will always buy you more security than investment in humans. If Oakland is under policed lets hire more police and let them do the kinds of highly discretionary intelligence driven and intelligent policing that has worked in New York. Frank Zimring's new book, The Crime Decline, mounts powerful evidence that New York's success in more or less doubling the national crime decline int he 1990s was due largely to more police and better police tactics, especially focused use of aggressive arrests. While most of these arrests were for minor crimes (that mostly did not result in prison time) they drove the guns off the streets of New York. Brown's gun spotting strategy is all "crat" i.e., technocratic reliance on automated systems and no "craft," i.e., no reliance on encouraging innovative use of police craft. Indeed, the system could strangle the residual craft tradition in Oakland policing as officers struggle to respond to the beeps coming from sex offender GPS as felony sex offenders succumb to temptation and visit a Burger King a few yards too close to a park or school or those coming from Jerry Brown's gun fire spotters. By the way this is not a rant against technology. What I'm calling "crat" is a way of subordinating human intelligence to tools and rules. Technology can and is being used to enhance the effectivess of craft traditions by enhancing communication and intelligence sharing. (for an innovative Bay Area firm doing this check out, ooTao)



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