There are different ways to rein in cops when they're out of hand: You can demilitarize law enforcement, repeal intrusive laws that create unnecessary conflicts, and focus police on the core responsibilities of protecting life, liberty, and property; or you can treat crime as a lark, discourage self-defense, and create an environment of chaos and danger. Most reformers hoped they were getting the first option, but too many Americans see themselves living in the midst of an Escape from New York remake. The result is likely a call for unleashing police that bypasses real reform and starts the cycle over again.
The Rattler is a weekly newsletter from J.D. Tuccille. If you care about government overreach and tangible threats to everyday liberty, this is for you.
This Week in Looting News
"At Target, we take the decision to close stores very seriously, and only do so after taking meaningful steps to invest in the guest experience and improve business performance. With that said, we have made the difficult decision to close nine Target stores across four states, effective Oct. 21," the retail chain announced September 26. "In this case, we cannot continue operating these stores because theft and organized retail crime are threatening the safety of our team and guests, and contributing to unsustainable business performance."
That wasn't even the most remarkable looting news this week. On Tuesday, organized gangs raided businesses across Philadelphia.
"Before the night was over, police said, groups had broken into businesses across Philadelphia, stealing, ransacking and leaving destruction in their wake," reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Dozens of people — including what police described as a caravan of 'criminal opportunists' — broke into stores along popular shopping corridors from Center City to the Northeast to West Philadelphia."
The Inquirer compared the night of looting to the even worse riots of 2020, which provides at least some insight into the motivation. Just as the events of 2020 drew inspiration from resentment of police misconduct, so some of the looters claimed justification for their crimes in the dismissal of charges against a former police officer who shot and killed Eddie Irizarry in August. In fact, though, outbursts then and now probably have more to do with the rising social tensions of recent years, exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns which coincided with the reversal of a decades-long drop in crime rates.
"After years of decline, crime rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly violent crime," the Brennan Center for Justice's Ames Grawert and Noah Kim pointed out earlier this year. "Amid a series of interlocking crises, violent crime and some types of property crime rose across the country in 2020 in communities of all types."
Criminal Justice Reform Done Badly
But a fractured society makes for an amorphous culprit when you want to blame somebody for crime. An easier target is the crop of reform-minded prosecutors who rode into office on a wave of unhappiness with law enforcement. That's made simpler when some of those prosecutors are divorced from reality and see their jobs not as changing the way police protect the public, but rather as deemphasizing the role of protecting the public at all. San Francisco's Chesa Boudin, the son of 1960s radicals, was especially complicit in botching criminal justice reform.
"A San Francisco Chronicle analysis of the new data found that, in his two years in office, Boudin has increased diversion rates for assault, robbery and drug cases, and decreased convictions of the same crimes," SFGATE reported before Boudin was recalled from office by voters. "An SFGATE analysis of the data found that trend also held true for defendants accused of petty theft, the charge most often leveled against shoplifters and other perpetrators of retail theft."
San Francisco has been a major center of smash-and-grab crimes which drive away shoppers and businesses alike. But it's hardly alone, as evidenced by events in Philadelphia and Target's store closures.
"Retail crime, violence and theft continue to impact the retail industry at unprecedented levels," the 2023 National Retail Security Survey found. "This year's study found that the average shrink rate in FY 2022 increased to 1.6%, up from 1.4% in FY 2021 and in line with shrink rates seen in 2020 and 2019…. While retail shrink encompasses many types of loss, it is primarily driven by theft, including organized retail crime (ORC)."
Some prosecutors go so far as to penalize people who defend themselves. Only under significant public pressure did Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg drop murder charges against Joseph Alba, a bodega worker who fatally stabbed an attacker. Charles Foehner, another New York City resident, faces a long stretch in prison because the gun with which he defended himself from a mugger wasn't licensed.
It's easy to see why the public might conclude that prosecutors are on the wrong side of the law.
Reformist Prosecutors Don't Deserve All the Blame
That said, the rush to blame reform-minded prosecutors doesn't fully stand up to scrutiny. Crime continued to rise in San Francisco under Brooke Jenkins, Chesa Boudin's tougher-minded successor. Elsewhere, homicides, aggravated assault, robberies and burglaries declined during the first half of 2023 relative to 2022 (the big exception is car theft, which is way up). It may be that recovering from the damaging pandemic lockdown policies of 2020, which severely aggravated mental health problems, plays a bigger role than the actions, good or bad, of prosecutors.
"My colleagues and I conducted a review of all of the studies on mental health conducted during the first year of the pandemic," Australian social psychologist Gery Karantzas wrote last year. "Those who experienced lockdowns were twice as likely to experience mental ill health than those who didn't."
But there's no doubt that deemphasizing the policing and prosecution of crimes against people and property is a bad idea, and a very unpopular one. Officials in Oakland, California, who two years ago were cutting police funding now face calls to hire more officers. Progressive prosecutors have become piñatas for law-and-order conservatives. And Target is far from the only business to call out theft and close stores in response. The public's concerns about crime need to be addressed.
But just as not all criminal justice reform is the same, neither is all emphasis on law enforcement. The danger is that, in recoiling from some prosecutors' refusal to take real crimes seriously, we'll get a renewed crackdown on bullshit "crimes." It wasn't long ago that New York's tax-driven ban on loose cigarettes got Eric Garner killed by police. That fueled calls for true criminal justice reform of the sort that would get rid of intrusive laws which create unnecessary conflicts between police and the public. Had we got that version of reform—and skipped an outbreak of crazy—we'd be far better off.
There's an enormous middle ground between pretending that assaults and burglaries are acceptable and self-defense a bad thing, on the one hand, and setting enforcers loose to torment the public with petty regulations, on the other. We should be occupying that middle, not swinging between extremes.