Looking at suburban crime and police activity across suburbs

With the popularity of suburban surveillance and discussions of police behavior in suburbs, it is helpful to have data about suburban police activity and crime:

hotrod die cast model on board

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Since 1990, arrest rates have trended downward nationwide. In suburbs, though, they have been leveling off or actually increasing since 2015, says Leah Pope, a senior research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that aims to address the causes of mass incarceration and the loss of public trust in law enforcement. Arrest rates have declined faster in cities than suburbs.

This largely comes from a drop in “Part II” crimes, she says, which covers “less serious” offenses such as vandalism, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, loitering, and more. More serious, “Part I” crimes—including murder, rape, and robbery—have been declining as well, but arrests for Part II crimes have seen a sharper drop in cities than suburbs. These are arrests for crimes that many don’t think should necessitate an arrest anyway, Vera Institute research associate Frankie Wunschel notes: They could be citations, or warnings, or simply decriminalized, in the way that marijuana has been decriminalized, but not legalized, in some states.

Some suburbs are seeing their jail populations grow, too. According to 2015 data, nearly 9 in 10 large urban counties saw their jail populations decline. Between 2014 and 2015, the jail population in the country’s 61 large urban counties fell by more than 18,000 people total—equivalent to emptying Los Angeles County jails. The jail population grew, though, in 40% of suburban, small, and midsize counties.

Racial disparities also play a role in arrests for Part II crimes. Narcotic drug laws fall under these “less serious” crimes, and in 2015, more than one in four people arrested for drug law violations were Black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race. “There are huge racial disparities in arrests, and those racial disparities are more prevalent in suburban areas than they are in urban areas,” Pope says.

There are long-standing perceptions about the safety of suburbs as well as presumption that suburban police act better. But, this data and analysis suggests this can differ dramatically across suburban communities and suburban populations. At the least, this is a reminder of the complex suburbia of today: discussions of a monolithic suburbia simply do not line up with suburban realities. Going further, crime and policing can differ across suburbs, just as it can across urban neighborhoods or cities.

From this analysis, I wonder how the variation in crime and police activity across suburbs compares to the variation between wealthier urban neighborhoods versus those urban neighborhoods not as well off.

Suburban police and promoting a better future for youth

On Instagram, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez connected defunding the police to what suburbs do instead:

AOCPoliceandSuburbs

A few thoughts:

1. According to sociologists and other scholars who have studied American suburbs over the last century, an overriding concern in suburbs is to protect families and let children flourish. The assumption is that suburban life – with its lower density, single-family homes, more space, better schools, lower crime – will benefit children in the long run.

2. At the same time, suburbs are also based on exclusion. For decades, only white people – and certain ones at that – were allowed in many suburbs. While this is officially off-limits today, it can be accomplished in other ways such as through exclusionary zoning, drawing school district boundaries, and through police.

3. Police can and have reinforced the race and class based exclusion in suburbs. This could range from sundown towns to watching fire bombings in Cicero, Illinois to harassing motorists, residents, and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Wealthier suburban residents generally do not want to involve the police in their conflicts but they can and do at times.

4. Many suburbs offer limited social services. The expectation is that residents will have the resources to provide for themselves or that corporations and local charities will provide.

5. Many suburbs like having their own police department. This allows them to retain local control, important for #2 and #3 above.

6. For an academic study of how this works in wealthier suburbia, I recommend America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia. From the book description:

Adolescents, parents, teachers, coaches and officials, he concludes, are able in this suburban setting to recognize teens’ need for ongoing sources of trust, empathy, and identity in a multitude of social settings, allowing them to become what Singer terms ‘relationally modern’ individuals better equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations of modern life

A long history of violence in American society

From the beginning, the story of the United States of America is a violent one. From violence against indigenous people to slavery to armed rebellion to colonial conquests to the Civil War to vigilante violence to violence-enforced residential segregation military intervention around the Western Hemisphere and then the globe to police brutality to gun violence to celebrating the military to assassinations.

Take vigilante violence as an example. I read Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism at the recommendation of a colleague and having read multiple works by sociologist James Loewen. He argues that a significant number of Northern towns and cities had informal sundown laws that prohibited minorities from being in the community after dark with violence implied if the norms were not followed.

Or, take the example of the role of violence in residential segregation. After violence at a South Shore beach set off moreviolence in Chicago in 1919, residential segregation was enforced not just with restrictive covenants and blockbusting and redlining: actions involved bombings and attacks. Historian Stephen Grant Meyer detailed some of this in his book As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods, a book I read for a class paper. In places like Cicero, Illinois and Levittown, Pennsylvania, violence accompanied attempts of blacks to move to the suburbs.

CiceroRiot1951ChicagoTribune

Photo by Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1951

Or, take the last in the list as an example. The book that really brought this to my attention as a student was Philip Agee’s Inside the Company: CIA Diary. This led me to read a lot about the Church Committee’s work in 1975-1976 as well as assassinations in the United States and ones in which the United States played a role abroad. In several papers, I worked with the idea of assassinations, discovered databases of political violence in countries around the world that political scientists have collected for decades, and found that the political violence rates in the United States are high.

All together, the United States is awash in violence. It is part of American history, it is regularly promoted, and it is often excused or justified. Thinking about some of the examples I noted above, I found out about these through reading and research because these stories are widely taught, known, or experienced by significant segments of the population. Yet, violence is antithetical to numerous aspects of American society and ideals, including the religious beliefs of many Americans, particularly when harnessed alongside other destructive ideologies such as white supremacy or colonialism.

Repost: race matters in American life until we can show it does not

Watching police brutality and the response from all sides reminds me of a post I made on a similar topic on September 28, 2011:

I like how Harris-Perry flips this objection: looking at the broad sweep of American history, from its days of more overt racism to more covert racism today, why don’t we assume that racism plays a role in everyday life in this society? Can we really assume, as many seem to do, that the issues with race ended at some point, either in the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s or in the election of minority politicians or the ending of segregationist society in the South? With plenty of indicators of racial disparity today, from online comments from young adults to incarceration rates to homeownership to wealth to residential segregation, perhaps we should we see racism as a default feature of American society until proven otherwise.

I would argue the story is not any different in 2020. The disparities are still present, police actions repeat themselves, and there are predictable disagreements about what it all means (with the calls to choose between opposing police violence and “law and order”).

Less traffic, faster driving

Reports suggest more drivers are going fast on emptier roads:

Despite there being far fewer vehicles on the road due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, state highway safety officials across the country are seeing a severe spike in speeding. Many states have reported alarming speed increases, with some noting a significant surge in vehicles clocked at 100 mph or more.

Being a safe driver should always be a priority, but during the coronavirus pandemic, traffic safety experts at the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) say it is more important than ever. “While COVID-19 is clearly our national priority, our traffic safety laws cannot be ignored,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “Law enforcement officials have the same mission as health care providers — to save lives. If you must drive, buckle up, follow the posted speed limit and look out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Emergency rooms in many areas of the country are at capacity, and the last thing they need is additional strain from traffic crash victims.”

During the past month, pedestrian and bicycle traffic are reported to have increased exponentially, while motor vehicle traffic is down. Adkins noted that GHSA is encouraged to see so many communities across the country making roadways more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. To keep roads safe for everyone, traffic safety officials nationwide are pleading with motorists to slow down and respect traffic safety laws…

A 2019 report on speeding by GHSA, “Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” highlights excessive vehicle speed as a persistent factor in nearly one-third of all motor vehicle-related fatalities, while a 2020 GHSA report on pedestrian fatalities, published in February, finds that pedestrians now account for 17% of all traffic-related fatalities.

In many metropolitan regions, traffic is pretty constant throughout the day. COVID-19 has reduced the number of daily work trips plus some of the other reasons for cars and trucks on the road.

With more open road, perhaps it is “natural” for drivers to feel they can go faster. I am reminded of the argument by New Urbanists that narrower roads lined with parked cars and trees close to the street push drivers to slow down. The illusion is that with fewer potential obstacles on the road, a driver can be safe even while going faster. Of course, going faster reduces the time drivers have to correct and avoid things in their path.

It would be interesting to note how much local police forces are responding to speeders now. Is it worth stopping them if there is a risk of transmitting COVID-19? Are police resources needed more elsewhere? At this point, what other options do officials have in reducing speeds on less crowded roads?

Will the public be willing to pay more money so police and prosecutors can go through all the new video evidence they have?

The uptick in evidence from devices like video doorbells and police body cameras means more work for public servants:

But State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said prosecutors in some ways are busier than ever with new types of evidence, such as surveillance from Wifi-enabled doorbells, police body cameras and home and business surveillance, compared to several years ago.

“We’re now seeing video come in from Ring doorbells,” McMahon said this week during his monthly media briefing. “We’re now getting actual video, audio and digital information that must be reviewed and analyzed and ultimately stored.”

In recent months, video from doorbell cameras helped police arrest a burglary suspect, and data from a Ring doorbell was used to confirm the identity of a suspect in a Sleepy Hollow home invasion, attempted murder and sex assault. Both court cases are pending.

McMahon said reviewing body camera video from multiple officers responding to a violent crime or even a DUI arrest has increased the workload for prosecutors compared to several years ago.

If there is demonstrable proof that crime rates are going down or more crimes are solved because of this additional evidence, I would guess the public would provide more funds – likely through taxes – to help go through all of the evidence. But, if the evidence does not lead to much or it somehow slips through the cracks or is hacked, it might be very hard to find the public resources.

This also seems ripe for algorithms/machine learning tools to help county and municipal officials scan quickly through all these video feeds. All of this could be very expensive to do in the short-term but could help handle the increasing video streams of the future.

Police violence leading to joint suburban and urban activism

Responses to recent acquittal of a police officer in a shooting of a black man in the suburb of East Pittsburgh illustrates how concern crosses community lines in a metropolitan region:

East Pittsburgh is a small municipality that sits just outside of the city of Pittsburgh. It disbanded its police department in January, largely because of the Rose killing. And while Rashid’s clap-backers are technically correct about the differences between the police departments involved, the spirit of his tweet is still sound. For African Americans in greater Pittsburgh, there is little safety afforded to them when approached by police, whether in cities or suburbs. This is a concern for African Americans in almost every urban setting in the nation, but especially so in suburbs.

For Rose’s case, distinguishing between East Pittsburgh police and Pittsburgh police isn’t entirely clarifying in these moments. The fault line is not between Pittsburgh and its suburbs; it’s between the criminalization of blackness and the exoneration of whiteness. In that regard, the city of Pittsburgh could help bridge that divide if it recognizes that it shares this common problem with its smaller municipal neighbors…

It is true, as some have been quick to point out, that Pittsburgh police have more training than the police programs in surrounding smaller municipalities. Much of that training was imposed on Pittsburgh police after the federal government found a pattern of corruption and brutality throughout the department in the 1990s. Pittsburgh was the first major city entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform its police department. Meanwhile, there is no uniform police trainings across the state to ensure that small suburban departments are skilled on par with officers from larger city departments. But this is besides the point: What, to the victim of police violence, does it matter what jurisdiction’s name is on the clothes of the officer who shot him?…

In the event of police violence against people of color, the fate of cities and their suburbs are intertwined. Many of the high-profile police killings of black people of the past few years have actually happened in suburbs. But the neighboring major cities in those instances have felt the impacts regardless. The cries of the oppressed do not recognize municipal boundaries.

In work I have read about metropolitanization and addressing regional issues, policing is rarely discussed. The largest issue is usually economic: how to ensure that the wealth of the region, often limited to certain neighborhoods or suburbs and linked to numerous issues like housing and school funding, can be spread throughout a region to help all residents.

Americans tend to like to have a police force for their own community. Regional policing or ceding police authority to an outside group – like a county sheriff – would strike many as undesirable and only an option if the community could not pay for their own police force. There is something about having even a small local police force that looks out for local residents and answers to those same residents that many suburbanites find reassuring. (Making that link to local suburban control and race and exclusion would be interesting.)

It would be helpful to know if there is a metropolitan region that tackles the issue of police violence and disproportionate responses to minority residents well. Are there regions where police from various departments train together on this issue? Can such an effort help all departments, big and small?

Speeding occurs when a road feels like a highway but has low speed limits

An analysis of high-speed tickets issued in Chicago highlights a fundamental contradiction with Lake Shore Drive:

The number of tickets issued on Lake Shore Drive points to a long-standing problem — with four lanes in each direction along most of the road, the drive looks and feels like a highway, though it was intended as a scenic boulevard and in some places has no guard rails or emergency shoulders. The maximum speed limit is 40 mph on the North Side and 45 mph on the South, but up to 95 percent of drivers exceed the limit when the road is not congested, according to an Illinois Department of Transportation study.

The majority of motorists getting nabbed for speeding on the drive were going at least 75 to 80 mph.

“I observe some people driving extremely fast,” said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “The roadway kind of invites that. When there’s not much traffic, it’s a pleasant drive; there are not many sharp curves. It feels like the Edens Expressway.”…

While drivers speed both north and south of Madison, there are more tickets on the South Side. It is both easier to go at high speeds and easier to catch speeders south of the Museum Campus.

The current solution to the contradiction seems to be more enforcement of speed limits on Lake Shore Drive. More tickets and public knowledge of more tickets issued should theoretically help drivers think twice before going fast.

But, this ignores the underlying issue: the road is built and designed in such a way that fast driving can appear safe. Even if the road is not actually built for those speeds, having all those lanes plus a large number of drivers going fast can overrule a rational approach to the speed limit. Additionally, this is a major north-south artery in Chicago. There are a limited number of these, particularly those without many traffic stops. Outside of a crowded Kennedy and Dan Ryan Expressways (consistently rated as some of the worst spots for traffic in the United States), Lake Shore Drive is it. Even with its traffic lights around Grant Park, it offers unparalleled ease of travel.

It would be interesting to see what the City of Chicago could dream up to slow down drivers. The other complication is the road is intended to be a scenic one as it often travels through parks and offers numerous great views on one side of Lake Michigan and on the other a thriving global city. Speed bumps? Giant signs about traffic? A road diet to limit the width of the road? More guard rails and visible safety symbols? If the true goal is to improve safety, just handing out tickets is not enough.

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.

Nashville police chief: crime fighting more about psychology, sociology

At a recent Nashville City Council meeting, the police chief explain what it takes to fight crime today:

After a recent spike in Nashville’s gun violence, Police Chief Steve Anderson and Health Director Bill Paul, appeared before the Metro Council Tuesday night. They discussed the numbers behind the shootings and how the city plans to combat them…

At the meeting, Chief Anderson outlined the statistics, but he also talked about the complexity of modern policing when it comes to gun violence, which disproportionally impacts poor minority residents.

“Police work has turned into more psychology and sociology than actually crime fighting. So that is where we all need to be,” Anderson said.

If only a broader set of civic leaders and the American public would pick up these ideas. To make such suggestions sometimes meets the counterargument that explanation like this excuse or condone the behavior. Not so: a better understanding of the social science behind crime should help communities alleviate the conditions that lead to crime rather than try to play whack-a-mole.

Going further with the police: does this mean Nashville police receive training based on psychology and sociology research? How does the force as a whole leverage this research? For example, the Chicago police force has been working with social network data to identify who is likely to be involved in or affected by crime.

At the least, the police and the public could follow a suggestion one of my colleagues made several years ago:

Our nation is only becoming more complex and diverse. We need police prepared to interact with complex and diverse people. Training in tactical procedures and weapon use, without a comparable ability for the police to think differently, learn quickly, and engage complexity is an invitation for more chaos.

Liberal arts graduates, if you want to make a difference in the world, consider this: become a cop.