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Listen up, Mayor. Here’s a new formula for a modern police chief.

UCLA's Mark Kleiman during an April 23 interview in Seattle Credit: Kent Kammerer/Crosscut

When Mayor Mike McGinn soon gets down to picking a police chief, he will face a decision that could do a lot to establish how much of a mark he will leave on the city. He might do well to borrow a page, or all the pages, from a book that has received significant local attention through a likely rival, City Councilman Tim Burgess.

So far, the city’s search for a police chief has played out quietly. But it will gain greater visibility when a search committee interviews begins interviews of the current field of nine candidates on Saturday (May 8). By the middle of next week, the committee is expected to name three finalists for the mayor to consider.

The mayor’s veto of a Seattle City Council measure on aggressive panhandling — sponsored by Burgess — may have loaded the selection of a chief with the potential for political trouble. If the council thinks it can make McGinn’s choice look like a poor one, the confirmation hearings of the new chief could be an early opportunity to give the mayor some political payback.

The selection, though, offers McGinn plenty of upside personally and politically, especially if he makes the kind of appointment that looks too smart for the council to challenge seriously and a new chief ends up serving the city well. For a city that needs to control its budget, would like to improve current levels of public safety, and would certainly prefer to lead people to productive lives rather than tossing more of them in prison, McGinn has a promising guide for the next police chief in the ideas on police and crime advanced by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, whom Burgess spent a couple days last month escorting around town.

Politically, McGinn has no good reason to do anything that validates the work of Burgess, considered a possible mayoral candidate in 2013. Plus, beyond avoiding an embarrassment, McGinn doesn’t necessarily have a lot of incentive at the moment to concentrate on his choice of a chief. McGinn came to office on the basis of strong support as an environmental candidate, and he has been scoring points with much of that group by his high-profile challenging of car-oriented parts of major transportation projects.

His veto of the panhandling restrictions only solidified his position with other liberal leadership groups, especially in social-justice and ACLU circles. Unless McGinn thinks he actually might end up gaining support from businesses and downtown interests, where much of the talk about crime and aggressive panhandling originated, he has little political reason to care what they think about his pick of a police chief.

Yet, let’s suppose McGinn’s actions so far on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Highway 520 bridge replacement projects have much more to do with a sense of environmental mission than with politics and solidifying his base. Then, it’s possible to believe the mayor, while still likely to focus a great deal of his attention on the environment, could also look at other issues from a perspective that transcends politics and concentrates on what is best for the city’s long-term future.

Burgess helped bring Kleiman here to talk about the rather remarkable set of ideas on policing, crime control, and incarceration, laid out in Kleiman’s recent book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton University Press). In it, Kleiman conducts a broad survey of research on what works in reducing crime, what is most cost-effective, and how offenders actually respond to police, courts, and the corrections system. Then he concludes the book with a credible, wide-ranging, even holistic agenda for achieving the twin miracle of reducing crime and jailing far fewer people (in this most incarceration-happy of nations).

Kleiman strikes notes that ought to appeal to a very broad spectrum. He is at once passionate about the concerns of minority communities (and liberals like McGinn’s core supporters) about the scandalous and disproportionate incarceration rates and about the needs for all neighborhoods to maintain orderly, safe streets.

Instead of making quick arrests, the police and prosecutors put together three-ring binders of the necessary evidence and paper work for a trial that would end in a long prison term — right down to an arrest warrant. The dealers were summoned to three meetings: with the neighborhood leaders, the social-service providers, and a criminal-justice team.

Kleiman lays out a data-heavy argument that smart policing and punishment strategies can bring safer streets at very manageable costs. He is forceful about the need to leave people as much personal freedom of conduct as possible, and he makes it clear why it matters that society be smart enough not to threaten punishment without being able to deliver. But he shows how tackling something like an open-air drug market forcefully can be very affordable, even less expensive than ignoring the problems, while not only solving one neighborhood’s issue but also avoiding simply moving the problem elsewhere.

For instance, Kleiman recounts how High Point, N.C., a city of 100,000 people, used careful mapping of crimes, meetings with neighborhood leaders, and cooperation from social service groups who would be willing to offer “a smorgasbord of assistance” to any reform-ready dope dealers (including dental work and tattoo removals). Then, police started by focusing enforcement on one neighborhood, using the standard tactic of making undercover buys in a most creative way.

Instead of making quick arrests, the police and prosecutors put together three-ring binders of the necessary evidence and paper work for a trial that would end in a long prison term — right down to an arrest warrant. The dealers were summoned to three meetings: with the neighborhood leaders, the social-service providers, and a criminal-justice team. As Kleiman writes, “The police and prosecutors delivered the final message: ‘As of tomorrow morning, the market is closed.’ ”

The effort provided a lasting solution (five years at the time of his writing) to all the targeted neighborhoods. Several dealers did wind up in new trouble, getting arrested for non-drug crimes. And crack buying reportedly shifted to strip clubs. “But dealing in the clubs does not disrupt ordinary life or lead to violence, and none of the lap dancers has complained,” Kleiman writes.

Of relevance to the debate about aggressive panhandling, he talks about New York’s one-time problem with “squeegee men.” Their behavior of walking out into traffic, cleaning a windshield, and then expecting a tip seemed too widespread to be manageable, and more a nuisance than a major threat to public safety.

But when police were ordered to go after the problem, it turned out that there were only about 100 operators. They proved quite capable of deciding quickly that even a brief incarceration wasn’t worth the economic gains. The city suddenly felt a little safer and more attractive for those coming into Manhattan to spend money. It’s possible to imagine a similar improvement in downtown Seattle and even in neighborhoods like the University District and Ballard if police were to enforce existing ordinances on aggressive panhandling or public intoxication.

In his veto announcement on the panhandling measure, McGinn said there were already enough laws about aggressive panhandling on the books. He could reinforce the message rather dramatically with a brief crackdown that, if properly designed, might solve the problem with little or no suffering on the part of the panhandlers.

Kleiman uses basic economic and game theory to explain why the knowledge of a short but swiftly and certainly delivered punishment is much more likely to deter most crimes rather than the path of draconian punishment (and unrealistic claims of “zero tolerance”) on which the United States has embarked for the past few decades. Time after time, Kleiman shows how communicating clearly about potential consequences to offenders — often even those with lengthy records — is part of the solution for communities and even individuals. For the public purse, the payoff is that the communication piece maximizes deterrence at little cost.

Talking with Crosscut writers and editors while he was in Seattle, Kleiman was clearly upset about not getting a chance to meet with the mayor and concerned that his ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously by the administration. According to Burgess, there was a schedule change that got in the way of a lunch where the mayor would have heard Kleiman’s views, but Burgess wondered about the lack of rescheduling. (Several attempts to obtain comment from the mayor’s office were unsuccessful.)

“Just by making effective use of things we already know how to do, we could reasonably expect to have half as much crime and half as many people behind bars ten years from now.” — Mark Kleiman

Still, Burgess said, “The police chief selection process is going to lend itself, I hope, to surfacing a lot of these concepts.” Already, he said, the police and neighborhood leaders have had successful experiences with working together in closing down a drug market along 23rd Avenue in the Central District last summer.

Burgess said he believes that Kleiman’s book actually should appeal to the mayor. It’s easy to see why a liberal mayor and his generally new staff, eager to create change, might indeed gravitate toward Kleiman’s work. His writing is both sympathetic enough to the plights of the poor to appeal to the most liberal Seattleite and so grounded in research, economics, and municipal budget pressures as to throw a lifeline to city officials.

In his quiet way, Kleiman does note the differences in police force size that mark the two coasts, with the East having considerably more officers per 1,000 people than the West. All things considered and assuming an intelligently deployed police force, having more officers tends to reduce crime, he writes. For McGinn and his advisers, who have been holding off on a council-authorized increase in police for budget reasons, that might seem like a warning signal to stay away from a chief who would push too many of the professor’s ideas.

But circle back to what underlies the passion of McGinn and his supporters for the environment, especially on climate change. At bedrock, their conviction is that the data demands that we make changes to prevent catastrophe. Similarly, there is much more to gain than to lose from a fact-based, data-rich look at the immense social problems around crime and punishment, especially for a mayor who reached out during his campaign to some of the more neglected communities in the city.

Of course, even if one assumes that McGinn is driven by facts and research on the environment, it doesn’t mean that he will necessarily take the same approach on another issue. And, it’s entirely possible that McGinn is so devoted to his own sense of environmental mission that he just won’t focus on such a mundane matter as the next police chief. But Kleiman says police actually tend to be very interested in studying what works, in part because their leaders emerge from competitive examinations. Cops are smart.

There could be big gains for Seattle in a smarter approach to criminal justice. Kleiman ends his book on an encouraging note that is as applicable here as anywhere: “Just by making effective use of things we already know how to do, we could reasonably expect to have half as much crime and half as many people behind bars ten years from now. There are a thousand excuses for failing to make that effort, but not one good reason.”

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