Monday, June 2, 2014

"Crime" is the problem


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

June 2, 2014


                With its Task Force Report on Assessment, directed by Lloyd Ohlin, in 1967, the obsession with making “complete” police reporting of 6, then 7 “index offenses” and “clearance rates” by arrest look politically correct took full force, as monitored by the Law Enforcement Administration—the point at which the US Justice Department assumed control of criminological research funding in the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control Act.  That same year, Jerome Skolnick published Justice Without Trial, dividing police forces into three styles, one of which Skolnick found in small middle-class communities, the “service” style.  There the police were servants of their residents’ needs; there law enforcement and crime reporting was minimized.  Sadly, 46 years later, I see the same obsession among us criminologists regardless of political persuasion, critical or not.  Across the political and methodological spectrum, in research as in policy, references to policing have become defined as “law enforcement.”

                My own study of crime reporting began with my dissertation on how Minneapolis police responded to calls for service with offense reports in 1972, and was concluded in my study of police crime recording in Sheffield, UK, where I concluded that it was time for a moratorium on counting crime and criminality.  Anyone interested in my varied career studying crime and criminality measurements can find them in the list of publications at the end of page proofs of my Peacemaking” 2006 book, online at .  Since retirement in 2009, in my peacemaking blog, I have commented on the flurry of exposes of NYPD crime statistics manipulations: keeping “crime” down, filling arrest quotas.

                My frustration with the widespread use of crime and criminality figures as indicators of “evidence based” “best practices” has been compounded by my involvement, from 1992 until my retirement, in custody cases and with survivors of intergenerational satanic and pagan “ritual abuse,” in conjunction with my feminist justice seminar on children’s rights and safety, with mothers of sexually assaulted children in child custody cases, to survivors of cults that performed human sacrifices.  Alone among criminologists as I seem to be, I believe that adult sexual assaults on children including murder are a more unrestrainedly, personally violent class of ourselves than poor young men of color.  And most certainly to me, adult violence against children is at once subdued and omnipresent.  We who invest in nlaw enforcement against personal violence overlook the worst and most widespread personal violence. I have just come back from one of my favorite conferences, the annual meeting of the Justice Studies Association.  From its inception, JSA has been dedicated in part to promoting “restorative justice.”  Decades ago, I found myself proposing mechanisms for patrol officers and citizens to agree on what kinds of information about job performance went into the officers’ personnel files.  Now, I find the greatest inspiration in the ways communities are promoting circles to address all manner of community concerns, including among victims of violence and those who have hurt them.  It is rather astonishing that for all the ways and places circles are used to agree on social issues, I find no mention of using circles to adjust police-citizen relations and priorities.

                All it would take is to allow officers time on duty to join community circles in their districts, not as the focus of discussion, but to become connected with a variety of community residents and actors, to discover what they could contribute to a sense of personal safety, and contribute to fill community needs.  In this oral tradition what circle members do and expect is a continuing re-evaluation process in itself that no evaluation record can hope to capture in counts of crimes and criminals to fight.  When promotion is under consideration, letters of recommendation and commendation can become a prime measure of job performance.

For all the concern these days over mass incarceration, it is the police who provide the entry point by the arrests they make.  The current statistical system favors police forces who make more arrests.  While some argue that lower crime figures mean that fewer people should be fed into the prison-industrial complex, champions of law enforcement can argue that crime is down because more offenders are being taken off the streets.  All are fighting a chimera—certified crimes by certified criminals—in the name of promoting public safety.

The practical issue is not how much violence we can count, and how many offenders we can call to account, but how we learn what our social problems are, and how we organize ourselves to respond to them.  Policing stands alone in the criminal justice system for not employing circle decision-making.  May policing become a matter of community involvement rather than a matter of law enforcement.  For practitioners, policy-makers and researchers as a whole, fixation on “crime” is our major problem.  Love and peace, hal

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