Jan 8, 2013

Legitimacy, a New Crime-Fighting Tool?

For residents in many of America’s inner city communities the pain and emotional turmoil that accompanies the loss of a loved one to gun violence is far too familiar. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, large metropolitan areas account for more than two-thirds of deaths by gun violence each year, with inner-cities most affected. The persistent tide of inner-city deaths from gun violence, most of whom are black youths in their early teens to mid-20s, challenges stakeholders to reconsider their positions on crime and policing and motivates an openness to innovative crime control strategies.

Last week, during a visit to the Center for Court Innovation Yale Law School professor, Tracey Meares presented a more flexible approach to policing that emphasizes procedural justice and legitimacy. Traditionally, police-civilian interactions have been assessed using a legal framework. Take a police stop for example; usually what we use to evaluate the validity of the stop is whether the officer had reasonable suspicion (i.e, Was there reasonable suspicion justifying the stop or probable cause justifying an arrest?). Meares argues that when we limit our evaluation of police encounters to the domain of law and describe the problem as a legal one, we significantly undermine the importance of legitimacy in promoting law-abiding behavior.

Legitimacy as Meares defines it is the belief that the police are trustworthy, honest, and care about the communities they serve and as such police authority ought to be accepted.  Research shows that what often matters most to individuals during a police encounter is the quality of decision-making by the officer and the quality of treatment received. People care about being treated with dignity and respect and when they perceive the police as legitimate they are more likely to voluntarily accept police decisions, follow police directives, and comply with the law.

Using these elements of procedural justice and legitimacy Meares has crafted a gun violence reduction strategy in Chicago as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods, referred to as offender notification forums. The forums are one hour meetings with gun offenders recently released to parole and probation designed to deliver a clear message to potential shooters that they have a powerful choice to make.  On the one hand, law enforcement representatives testify that violence and gun possession will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted harshly.  On the other hand, ex-offenders and social service providers communicate an uplifting message that change is possible and that neighborhood resources are available to those wishing to leave behind a life of violence.

From a procedural justice standpoint the forums promote fairness by informing individuals about the law and sanctions and providing individuals with vital information about the services and programs available to support successful reentry. Importantly, the very architecture of each forum is designed to create an environment of mutual respect and accountability between law enforcement and participants. Legitimacy theory says what you want to do is convey a message that you are somebody who counts in my eyes. As such speakers and participants sit in a roundtable style so as to minimize hierarchy and support an understanding that individuals returning home are equals to other members of society. Additionally, each forum is conducted in a place of civic importance, such as a park, museum, or library with the idea that participants are returning citizens and should be welcomed into all places that citizens enjoy.

This past year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, in a partnership with DOCCS, kicked off their first Offender Notification forums in East Harlem. Each month, DOCCS notifies approximately 20 individuals under parole supervision for violent offenses that they must attend a single meeting as one of their conditions of parole. As the Meares model requires, the meetings take place at a location of “civic importance” with all attendees sitting around a single table.  Various state and federal law enforcement partners , including the Manhattan DA’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the NYPD, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives ,  are present to directly address the men and detail how they prosecute and investigate violent and gun crimes and  educate them on  the severe consequences of reoffending. The DA’s Office drives the point home by giving the attendees a card that includes the number of years they could face if they choose to commit another violent offense. Each law enforcement partner also expresses its sincere hope that they “never see them again.”

Following the message from law enforcement, formerly incarcerated individuals who are now employed by local reentry non-profit agencies address the men.  These credible messengers also send a message of deterrence directly to the men, but stress the themes of hope and opportunity. Finally, the Harlem Community Justice Center, convenor of the Manhattan Reentry Task Force, offers one on one assistance and support at one of its formal programs or through its weekly drop in hours.

While local efforts are still in their infancy, the collaborative effort of governmental agencies, social service providers, and ex-offenders to disrupt normative beliefs around gun violence signals a promising future.