Toronto had a bad year with 308 shootings and 79 homicides in 2018. In Chicago, a similarly-sized city, there were 2,388 shootings and 565 murders. Baltimore, again about the same size, recorded 309 homicides in 2018.
Politicians, media and citizens in all three cities are increasingly shocked about increases in violent crime and diminishing public safety. And officials struggle to devise strategies to counter the trend of increasing violence.
The obvious responses include:
- increased patrols by uniformed police in areas prone to gang activity and violent crimes;
- increased focus on enforcing bail and parole conditions;
- enhanced undercover operations against gangs, drug trafficking and firearms offences;
- enhanced intelligence-led initiatives through surveillance, informants, agents and covert initiatives;
- improved community participation through anonymous-source programs such as Crime Stoppers;
- and greater commitment to seeking stiffer sentences for offenders.
Police services may, for instance, develop a list of outstanding warrants for violent offenders and assign officers to executing those warrants. Community response units may be assigned to specific problem areas. Officers may also investigate the proceeds of crimes, enforce immigration laws against violent offenders and share information with partner agencies.
All of these are common-sense, obvious, tried-and-tested responses to crime and disorder management. However, they require careful assessment of the resulting reductions in crime. Quantitative measures are increasingly important when trends stretch beyond acceptable limits.
However, every strategy has unintended consequence, despite its effectiveness in achieving intended goals.
No one wants to openly acknowledge that some people are completely immune to correction and redemption. But a significant proportion of the current generation of violent offenders and gang members are unlikely to be completely rehabilitated. Rehabilitation greatly depends on correctional services programs offered.
As well, how police respond to the present generation of criminals, and how their apprehension and detention is executed will have a direct impact on the families of the accused. The execution of zero-tolerance strategies could result in another generation of citizens who view the police as heavy-handed and unfair.
That means police leaders must redouble their community-based policing efforts. Community policing should not be a fair-weather strategy. It’s even more critical when officers must serve as guardians of public safety against the most violent offenders.
There must also be a proportionate increase in the support for the victims and victimized communities, and for the families of the accused.
In addition, while rehabilitation is not a function of the police, nor should it be, the quality and effectiveness of rehabilitative efforts do impact on public safety – so it does impact policing.
While police leaders have been notably vocal in their resistance to drug legalization, and even to harm reduction strategies, there has been much less advocacy for programs that improve rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.
Just as the effectiveness of policing is based on prevention and enforcement, those downstream must do more than simply warehouse offenders.
Correctional institutions must include programs for the safe and effective reintegration of those who are released back into society.
According to the Ontario Solicitor General’s Department, the recidivism rate for offenders serving a term longer than six months was 37 per cent while that for those sentenced to community supervision was 22.6 per cent.
A United States Department of Justice study tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states following their release from prison. It found that about 67.8 per cent were re-arrested within three years and 76.6 per cent were re-arrested within five years.
By contrast, the two-year recidivism rates in Norway ranged from 14 to 42 per cent, depending on whether the samples included arrested, convicted or imprisoned persons. There’s a one-year recidivism rate of 25 per cent in Northern Ireland, and 43 per cent in England and Wales.
It would be unfair to attribute greater responsibility to those downstream from police intervention for greater effectiveness without recognizing the complexity of rehabilitation, compounded by factors such as deviance, intellectual functioning, age, sex, race, maturity, socio-economic status, and many other criminogenic and socio-economic factors.
These, however, are not new challenges. They have already received substantial academic and practitioner resources and attention. So it would not be unfair for police leaders to expect corrections services to have greater impact on mitigating recidivism.
Initiatives like the Gang Exiting and Outreach Program (GEOP) in British Columbia can be effective. It brings together government and justice agencies, community-based organizations, civil-rights advocates, community members, parents, and educators to focus on youth justice innovation and fairness and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in detention.
Simply locking up more prisoners is at best a temporary solution and at worse creates a new supply of recruits for the criminal training grounds of overcrowded prisons.
The war on drugs and crime of the past three decades has filled jails to capacity. As these prisoners are released, they face high unemployment, compounded by a lack of social and technical skills, making reintegration difficult.
A lack of support and encouragement is likely to result in a return to marginalization and a life of crime. Police leaders must therefore advocate for an integrative approach to social services to help former inmates rejoin their communities.
Anil Anand served as a police officer with a Canadian service for 29 years in a variety of roles, including being assigned to Interpol. He has a master of law degree, as well as an MBA, and has taught criminology and community policing courses. His book Mending Broken Fences Policing, looks at the role of contemporary policing in modern society.