Authorities Hope To Avoid Knee-Jerk Reaction To Crime Stats

Feb 15, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 7:18 am
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Some law enforcement officials have written a memo hoping to influence the way the new president attacks crime. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the group called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The memo was co-written by Ronal Serpas. He had a long career as a law enforcement chief - Nashville, Washington State Patrol and finally, chief of police in New Orleans. And over those years, the chief learned some lessons.

RONAL SERPAS: We, in our history, have had periods of time where there's been knee-jerk responses to crime spikes.

KASTE: There, he's referring to the lock-'em-up response to the 1980s crack epidemic. But he's also thinking of the current situation in which President Trump has generalized murder spikes in a handful of cities to make it sound like murder is spiking nationwide.

SERPAS: To suggest that the whole nation is in a crime wave - the data is just not there yet. And if it does develop, then we'll deal with it. But right now, it's not there yet.

KASTE: The truth is that the national murder rate is up, but it's nothing like the 47-year high that Trump claimed just last week. The rate is still only about half what it was in the early 1990s. Still, at the attorney general's swearing-in ceremony, the president pledged action.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today's ceremony should be seen as a clear message to the gang members and drug dealers terrorizing innocent people. Your day is over. A new era of justice begins, and it begins right now.

KASTE: So far, the president hasn't proposed anything that unusual. He wants to go after drug cartels and protect police. And like presidents before him, he's setting up a task force to do things like improve crime data. But it's his tone that has the reformers worried. They wonder whether he'll push for a return to what Serpas calls dragnet-style policing.

SERPAS: Meaning arresting a lot of low-level offenders and quality-of-life crimes.

KASTE: It's the kind of zero-tolerance policing that's associated with Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani in New York.

SERPAS: I think we have learned, especially those of us who had a front-row seat to fighting crime and bringing it to the lowest level in 30 years as police and prosecutors, that that turned out not to be the best way in that we permanently criminalized a lot of people who, really, mental health or drug abuse was their problem.

KASTE: Serpas and his group don't want that lesson forgotten now in the Trump era. But the language of their memo is actually quite constructive, not confrontational. That may be because Trump has been so pro-police. And Peter Moskos says there's some appreciation for that among cops, especially after President Obama's emphasis on reform. Moskos is a former police officer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

PETER MOSKOS: It's a middle ground because what we're seeing here, I think, from these police chiefs now - it's thanks for thanking cops. You know, it's nice to be back on the winning team, but now we really have to get down to the nitty-gritty of what works.

KASTE: And what works, according to Serpas and his colleagues, is a focus on violent crime, reforming prison sentences, more mental health and drug treatment and community policing.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.