The Police’s Place in a Lasting Peace

Review: ‘Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence,’ by Patrick Sharkey

New York City Police Department officers and other first responders work the scene after an attempted terror attack in a passageway linking the Port Authority Bus Terminal with the subway

New York City Police Department officers and other first responders work the scene after an attempted terror attack in a passageway linking the Port Authority Bus Terminal with the subway / Getty Images

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America’s multi-decade crime decline, according to Uneasy Peace author Patrick Sharkey, was not caused by Roe v. Wade or leaded gasoline bans, but by civil society. Sharkey’s new book is an exploration of how the New York University sociologist thinks the crime decline happened, and how it can be preserved. But his solution, while more inspired than some, suffers ultimately from an infection of liberalism that threatens the very civil society he extols in the first place.

Why should we believe that it was civil society institutions that drove the crime drop? Sharkey presents his own research, which shows how community groups were key in bringing citizens together to make their streets and neighborhoods safer. He also points to copious empirical evidence showing that more police on the streets correlates with lower crime rates.

"It was the hard work of community groups, combined with the enhanced presence of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and private security forces that helped bring about the drop in violence across urban America," Sharkey writes.

This hard work led to measurable improvements in America's cities: Thousands of lives not lost to murder, business owners no longer afraid, and children able to walk safely to school. The post-decline reinvigoration of urban life in America's previously cowed metropolises is what Sharkey terms the eponymous "uneasy peace."

It is uneasy, Sharkey argues, because the peace was paid for with increased incarceration and militarized police. This point is by far the weakest portion of the book; Sharkey recycles bromides about the war on drugs, fixates on federal policy with little-to-no focus on state- and local-decision making, and couches his argument in flowery, substanceless language about "justice" versus "punishment" and "abandonment" versus "imprisonment."

Sharkey's plan for making the peace permanent feels insubstantial, even awkward. He calls for the substitution of police "warriors" for a more expansive set of civil society "guardians." These include "community quarterbacks," who coordinate otherwise decentralized civil society groups, and "community advocates," who sound like police officers without guns: unarmed people on patrol, solving small problems in the community.

Sharkey writes that these organizations could be organic, organized from the bottom-up. But the creation of the community quarterback he focuses on, in Atlanta, was prompted largely by the work of a single wealthy local. And the community advocates are either the product of highly bureaucratic states, like England or France, or created to compensate for the shredding of the institutions of ethnic minorities, as with the advocates Sharkey focuses on in Australia.

This managerialism is a stark contrast with the institutionalism which Sharkey means to foster a lasting peace. He wants new organizations and more experts roles—an attitude inimical to true institutional health.

The preceding summary notwithstanding, it is often hard to tell what, exactly, Uneasy Peace’s point is. Perhaps this is because the book is ambitiously interdisciplinary, combining criminology, urban theory, and sociology. At times, Sharkey handles this deftly; at others his knowledge is lacking, as in the inexplicable claim that the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 passed Congress (it did not).

But maybe Uneasy Peace feels awkward because Sharkey uses a liberal, managerialist way of thinking to try to create a basically anti-managerial system, a politics of institution and community. This is critically true in the way that Sharkey deemphasizes the police, leaving community maintenance to totally new institutions, while cops continue to fill an enforcement role with a reduced scope. Sharkey's "community advocates" sound so much like beat cops because Sharkey appears unable to see police officers as "community advocates" themselves.

At several places in the book, Sharkey glimpses this possibility. From George Kelling and James Wilson's classic article "Broken Windows," Sharkey quotes: "the essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself." This claim is expanded by another quote, this one from urban theorist Jane Jacobs: "the first thing to understand is that the public peace of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves."

Appealing to Kelling and Wilson's "broken windows" theory is, of course, verboten among reformers, tainted as it is by connection to policies, such as New York's stop-and-frisk regime, which face regular charges of racism. However, the basic theme of Kelling and Wilson's original article is less "proactive policing," more "order maintenance."

Order maintenance is roughly what it sounds like: The police are responsible for making sure the proceedings of the community are orderly. That means helping make sure the streets are clean, discouraging antisocial public behavior, and preserving a sense of community safety. The insight of "Broken Windows" is that, while such enforcement does not consistently reduce crime rates, it does support a more vibrant community, which then fights violence through the kind of self-organizing which Sharkey extolls.

Kelling and Wilson contrast order maintenance with "law enforcement"—the actual catching of criminals, solving of cases, etc. They argue that, although we tend to think of police doing law enforcement, order maintenance is really what they are for. This is true both contemporaneously—Wilson’s 1978 study of police behavior in Syracuse, N.Y., found that the majority of police time was taken up with order maintenance—and historically—in a 1969 Atlantic article, Wilson explains how, in the early 19th century, the Boston police started a soup kitchen to help fight crime in the city.

The order maintenance/law enforcement dichotomy helps us to make sense of why Sharkey might be skeptical of police. The "warrior cop" is law enforcement taken to its logical extreme: Police treating the community as an enemy to be subdued. Unsurprisingly, as the law enforcement model has increasingly predominated, so too has hostility between police and their communities.

Kelling and Wilson argue that  law enforcement policing arose in no small part as we "[became] accustomed to thinking of the law in essentially individualistic terms." Policing became an individualistic procedure, concerned with individual crimes, individual criminals, and individual rights. What was lost was the basic idea that criminal justice was a community concern, with the police contributing to the upholding of, to return to Jacobs, the "intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves."

Sharkey is right to argue that a lasting peace will be possible only with a robust and healthy urban life. But the way in which he wants to create this life is limited by the same liberal themes which produced the shift from order maintenance to law enforcement. A real lasting peace can only be attained by rejecting Sharkey's lens, and considering not how to create new institutions, but how to restore to the old ones a submission to the community which those same liberal politics have caused them to lose.

Charles Fain Lehman

Charles Fain Lehman   Email Charles | Full Bio | RSS
Charles Fain Lehman is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He writes about policy, covering crime, law, drugs, immigration, and social issues. Reach him on twitter (@CharlesFLehman) or by email at lehman@freebeacon.com.

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