It is not normally difficult to distinguish between the instrument and the goal. Think about “vaccine and health” and “recipe and meal.” As “law and order” comes again to the forefront in the presidential race, we must recognize that order is the goal and aspire to a modern version in which police command respect and partner with the public to root out disorder. Moreover, enforcing and obeying existing laws that directly relate to public safety, not creating new laws, will produce order.
Consider that there are now more than 4,500 federal criminal laws. It is a federal crime to refer to “ham turkey” as “turkey ham.” Similarly, it is a federal crime to sell onion rings made from diced onions. Not only are there so many federal statutory crimes that the Congressional Research Service gave up counting after reaching 4,500, but there are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of criminal federal regulations created by unelected bureaucrats.
Given the proliferation of criminal laws that cover activities a reasonable person wouldn’t have thought would be criminal, no one can be aware of every criminal law. Those that are unknown, and indeed in some cases unimaginable, cannot possibly influence behavior. Thus, more such laws cannot create more order.
Real disorder, of course, stems from violations of those traditional criminal laws that prohibit activities like theft that everyone knows are wrong because they directly harm others. Stealing is surely a crime on every street corner in the world. However, some have much more theft than others. This reality provides lessons on how we can achieve greater order.
First, while police are an essential buffer between order and chaos, they cannot be everywhere at once. The true test of character is what people do when no one else is looking. It should not be a mystery that stronger families, as well as the freedom to practice religion, lead to a more virtuous people.
Second, to take graffiti as an example, while most people will never even think about scribbling on public buildings and sidewalks, others will be determined to do so. But whether others deface property will be shaped by factors such as peer pressure, or the presence of other graffiti. Moreover, some will see rampant graffiti as a signal that more serious crimes are acceptable.
Accordingly, it is not just a family’s norms but a community’s norms that matter. By enforcing laws against graffiti and other quality-of-life crimes, “broken-windows policing” safeguards a community’s norms. Properly implemented, it does so not by throwing graffiti offenders in prison, but by accountability measures — like making them clean up their mess and that of others.
Finally, while police can intervene to address those crimes they witness, they mostly depend on ordinary people to report crimes. Therefore, the enforcement of laws hinges on the degree to which all people view both the government and its laws as legitimate.
So, if more laws are not the answer, where do we turn? Fortunately, there are several answers in addition to “broken-windows policing.”
First, we must build greater trust between police and communities. This means cultivating respect for police, which can begin as early as in our elementary schools, ensuring police have the resources they need — whether it is better training or options such as Taser devices to defuse tense situations. Also, departments must make evaluations of officers align with trust-building activities — putting as much emphasis on attending neighborhood meetings as there is on writing speeding tickets.
Second, we must take advantage of technological advances to replicate the success in New York City with data-driven policing, which enables departments to target police to hotspots on a real-time basis.
Finally, when it comes to stemming crimes spawned by gang activity, such as open air drug dealing and the associated crossfire, the Operation Ceasefire model has produced large crime declines in cities from Boston to Cincinnati. This focused deterrence model involves police putting gang members on notice at community meetings that feature not only threats from prosecutors, but opportunities to apply for a legitimate job and cajoling from ministers, mothers, grandmothers and neighbors.
Conservatives know more government spending does not produce more prosperity. Similarly, more laws won’t produce more order, though the ones that implicate public safety and quality of life must be respected and enforced. A society that is safe and free depends on both limited government and the bulk of its people being governed by their own moral compass, leaving a gap that is small enough to be filled by police while preserving our liberties.
Richard Viguerie is a “founding funder” of the conservative movement and a Right on Crime signatory. Marc Levin is the policy director of Right on Crime, the source for conservative ideas on criminal justice. It is a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in cooperation with the American Conservative Union Foundation and Prison Fellowship.