Brown Bag Discussion Series

David Kennedy on Police Legitimacy, Networks and Crime

Jonathan Stewart Jonathan Stewart

David Kennedy, Director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, led a discussion at the NYU Stern Urbanization project on Thursday to present some of his research and ideas about the nature of crime and policing. His talk reviewed and built upon the ideas put forth in his book, Don’t Shoot.

Traditionally, police think about crime fighting strategies in terms of whether or not the strategies are legal and if they successfully reduce crime. Kennedy argued that, in addition to legality and effectiveness, police should consider whether or not the strategies have legitimacy in the eyes of the community. He specifically referenced stop-and-frisk in New York City, saying that even if it were legal (the US court system has determined that it is not) the extremely high numbers of stop, question, and frisk incidents in high crime areas, or "hot spots," over the last few years have damaged police legitimacy in the eyes of these communities. By sowing the seeds of distrust and lack of cooperation, damaged legitimacy causes a feedback loop that makes fighting and preventing crime more difficult for police departments. Kennedy cited the “don’t snitch” norm, where community members with information about crimes don’t pass that information along to the police. Some contend that norms like “don’t snitch” exist for fear of retribution, but Kennedy asserted that “they’re not scared; they’re angry.” Kennedy attributes such norms to community distrust of the police force.

Kennedy then spoke about his alternative to hot spot policing. He said that in reality, hot spots don’t exist so much as “hot people” do. Half a percent (0.5%) of all people generally account for 60-75% of all murders in New York and other major US cities. Five percent of 18 to 26 year-old males are especially prone to violence (typically with about 10 felony priors), and 20% of that 5% are high impact players who keep arguments going among groups within their network. Despite the prevalence of drug activity among these groups, Kennedy’s research shows that this violence is primarily due to social friction, including perceptions of lack of respect, payback, boy/girl issues, etc. However, a “hot person’s” community can be extremely influential in ending the violence that results from social friction. When close relatives or friends – people that these violence-prone young men care about – express that violence is not acceptable to them or to the community, it has been shown that a “hot person” will become dramatically less likely to commit acts of violence.

Treating a community as if it is the problem is not only an inefficient use of police resources, it also loses the goodwill of the community. Police should therefore focus on positively engaging the community – thereby enabling community members to help prevent the violence committed by “hot people” within these networks – rather than focusing simply on the people who happen to be in the geographic areas where these groups operate. For the NYPD in particular, Kennedy said, the challenge is to build positive relations with communities that are still hurt by the high numbers of stop, question, and frisk incidents to which they were subjected. Kennedy’s perception is that the NYPD has made a good start by reducing stop-and-frisk incidents, and that gains in legitimacy are likely to continue under NYPD’s new Commissioner, Bill Bratton. We’re hopeful he’s right, and we look forward to watching the progress.

Tile image courtesy of Toban Black.

David Kennedy

David Kennedy

Director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control , John Jay College of Criminal Justice

David M. Kennedy is the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He directed the Boston Gun Project, whose “Operation Ceasefire” intervention was responsible for a more than sixty per cent reduction in youth homicide victimization and won the Ford Foundation Innovations in Government award; the Herman Goldstein International Award for Problem-Oriented Policing, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police Webber Seavey Award. He developed the High Point drug market intervention strategy, which also won an Innovations in Government Award. His latest book, Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America was published by Bloomsbury in September 2011.

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