In one of the most powerful episodes of The Wire -- written by crime author George Pelecanos for David Simon's TV series about drugs, police and politics in Baltimore -- western district police chief Howard "Bunny" Colvin responds to a demand for a reduction in crime statistics by forcing all of the drug dealers into a "free zone," a neighbourhood of mostly abandoned houses, where they can ply their trade without harassment from the cops.
Nicknamed "Hamsterdam" by the corner boys who did not know what Amsterdam was, Colvin's gambit was a resounding success. With all of the gangs in one neighbourhood, there were no turf wars and the slayings they produce. Senior cops celebrated a sudden and profound drop in crime.
For all its practical success, Hamsterdam was political suicide. City officials loved the drop in crime but could not justify turning a blind eye to criminal activity. Colvin was ultimately dismissed, and the corner boys were sent back out to resume their war of attrition.
The beauty of Hamsterdam was how it surgically exposed the hypocrisy of the politics of policing and crime statistics and showed, with dramatic licence of course, the fallacy behind the idea an ever-increasing police presence will, in and of itself, curb crime.
It's hard not to think about Hamsterdam this week when crime and crime statistics are all over the news. In Toronto, in the wake of a tragic gangland shooting that killed two and injured 21 others, Mayor Rob Ford met with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to demand $10 million for additional police officers, notwithstanding the fact he has himself frozen police budgets.
Ford also met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a police station to "trade ideas" about how to stem gun violence. Although no details were made public, one can assume Ford and Harper focused their talk on tougher laws and more police. In doing so, the bombastic Ford relied on the tried-and-true political response following a violent crime: Smother the story with pledges of more cops and tougher laws.
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg on Monday, police Chief Keith McCaskill had the misfortune to oversee the release of the 2011 Winnipeg Police Service report that, no matter what it actually says, is generally regarded as bad news.
To be fair, the 2011 report was relatively positive: a 14 per cent overall decrease in crime and an eight per cent drop in violent crime. However, the report was followed Tuesday by the 2011 national crime index from Statistics Canada. It showed Winnipeg posting double-digit drops in both crime and crime severity.
Of course, Winnipeg still has the third-highest crime rate and the highest crime severity rating. In anticipation of those figures, McCaskill argued Winnipeg was safer but had to effectively apologize for not making more progress. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight," he said.
It is, at first blush, rather perverse to watch McCaskill apologize in the face of success. Cops are simply not responsible for every rise and fall in crime stats. Why then would we put top cops in the position of having to rationalize a genuine win for the good guys?
The easy response in the face of violent crime is to hire more cops. Do that enough and people begin to think police are the only effective tool for fighting crime. The hard facts in the police service report suggest there are limits to what police can actually do.
Consider that in 2011, Winnipeg police responded to more than 23,000 general or domestic disturbances, far and away the gross majority of calls. Would more police reduce that number? Unlikely. Just as many violent crimes including homicides, particularly where victim and perpetrator know each other, are not affected by police presence. However, these are the crimes that drive crime rates. It's simply not fair to hold police responsible for crimes that can only be addressed through case-by-case, family-by-family intervention and support.
Perhaps it would be useful if we broke down crimes into those that could be legitimately affected by police presence and those that are driven by forces beyond the control of police. Then we might know where to invest to get the biggest decrease in crime.
Which brings us back to Hamsterdam. Chief Colvin's gambit showed real crime reduction cannot be achieved by moving and containing the criminals. There is no doubt his district was safer, and crime stats showed a remarkable decline, which made his political bosses happy. However, following Colvin's directive, there were just as many dealers and addicts and dysfunctional families. And it didn't reduce crime, only criminal charges.
Where do we go from here? We can, like Toronto's Mayor Ford, throw more police at the problem to offer the public false comfort. Or we can roll up our sleeves and attack the root causes of the crimes that drain police resources. That will be tough given too many members of the public find all of their comfort in policing, and resent money being spent on social programs.
It's time to stop burdening police with the sole responsibility of reducing crime. To make a real dent in this problem, the police need help.
Ironically, that help will come when we start investing in things other than policing.