To Protect and Serve, But Not Necessarily Reside

God love Twitter, I got this update in my feed this morning.

The debate continues over whether Memphis Police Officers should be allowed to live 20 miles outside Shelby County.
The Memphis City Council is divided over the matter, but is holding a meeting Tuesday, November 18, 2008, to vote on a resolution.

I don’t want to start a law enforcement debate, but I’m not positive that “more cops” = “less crime”. Washington DC has a whole lotta cops and a whole lotta crime. Do does Detroit. What do these two cities have in common? A whole lotta poverty. That’s not to say that poverty causes crime, or that the impoverished are criminals, but that poverty reinforces conditions that allow criminal behavior to flourish.

Memphis, like DC and Detroit, has a whole lotta both too.

So will hiring more cops really lower the crime rate in Memphis? Probably not. Still, that’s what politicians do, hire more cops to try and stop more crime because fixing the conditions that make crime more likely (like lack of education, opportunity, hope, etc.) is just too damn hard to sell to the voting public.

But this debate is about whether to open up residency restrictions, not whether hiring more cops is necessary. Personally, I’d rather the cops here in Memphis at least live in Shelby County. I think people are more likely to stay cops in a community that they share a stake in. It costs a lot of money to train a cop, and I would hate to see Memphis put all that money into training just to have an officer leave after a couple of years to someplace else, taking all that training, and training dollars with them. At the same time, I don’t want to lower the bar any further on who can or cannot be a cop, because I think it’s plenty low right now, so maybe looking outside our borders is an answer.

If Memphis wants to look outside our borders for the current or future law enforcement professionals necessary, we need to create a system where we reward them for eventually moving into the city. I’m not sure how to do this structurally, but it’s something to think about.

Ultimately, Memphis needs to think about why we consistently rank so high in violent and property crime, and what current conditions exist to maintain that circumstance. Most people don’t turn to crime because it has any great upside, or for the benefits package, or any of the other reasons people make career choices. Maybe, just maybe, we’re thinking about this all wrong.

I don’t know what happened here in Memphis, but in the mid to late 1990’s in Little Rock, after years and years of some of the highest murder rates in history, something happened. Everything slowed down. Strangely, the unemployment rate also went down. It’s funny. People who have relatively good jobs with some hope for the future don’t rob people or businesses, or try to kill each other, by and large. Sure Little Rock had more cops on the street, but not significantly more. Not enough to cause the decline in crime. Over the past several years, as the unemployment rate in Little Rock has climbed, so has the crime rate…could there be a connection?

Surely not. /snark

Another thing, I’ve never really understood how more cops on the streets magically prevents crime from happening. The immediate presence of law enforcement officers may motivate some ne’er do well to move elsewhere, or wait ‘til the coast is clear to commit a crime, but it doesn’t necessarily stop the crime.

Cops can’t just pick people up because they look like criminals. Can you imagine how many lawsuits the city would face if law enforcement just started detaining people who “looked like” criminals? Hell, what does a criminal “look like” anyway, if they’re not carrying a plasma TV down the street at 2 am, what is the distinguishing characteristic of a “criminal”?

My point here is not that we don’t need more cops. I don’t know if we do or don’t. My point is that if we really want to reduce crime in Memphis and Shelby County, we have to look at the root. Smart City has a good post on this too.

Until we stop ignoring the conditions that maintain the status quo, we’ll never deal with our crime rate.

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