Problem-Oriented Policing in Chicago Public Schools

1102775_cemetery_rosesThe new chief officer of Chicago public schools has a fresh strategy for preventing the killings of public school students.  Such killings occur with alarming regularity; 67 since the start of the 2007 -2008 academic year.  If this doesn’t sound bad enough, the 67 doesn’t include the hundreds of students who were shot or beaten but managed to survive.  Right now Derrion Albert—the football player and honor student who was beaten to death when he got caught between rival gangs—is dominating the headlines.  But anyone who lives in Chicago expects that we’ll soon know another name.  The violence is relentless.

Enter Ron Huberman, the new chief officer of Chicago public schools.  He has a plan to stop the killing, one that is based on an analysis of more than 500 students who were attacked.   The plan might work, provided that Chicago is able to resist its inevitable temptations.

As Susan Saulny summarized in the New York Times,

Officials know that deadly violent outbursts are not truly random. The students at the highest risk of violence, by statistics, are most likely to be black, male, without a stable living environment, in special education, skipping an average of 42 percent of school days at neighborhood and alternative schools, and having a record of in-school behavioral flare-ups that is about eight times higher than the average student.

The analysis of student attacks also show that they typically happened beyond a two-hour window from the start and end of school — that is, late at night or very early in the morning — and blocks away from school grounds, where neighborhood boundaries press against one another.

 Huberman plans to spend $30 million on the 10,000 students whose profiles suggest that they are most at risk.  Chicago is aiming to radically intervene in the lives of these students in ways that “favor mental health strategies and prevention over policing and punishment.”  The goal is to create meaningful relationships with adults and to give each student a part-time job.  All of this requires coordination between the schools, the Police Department, the Department of Children and Family Services, and local community groups.  Chicago is also “becoming more strategic about providing safe passage to school by increasing police enforcement and by keeping tabs on gang and clique activities in real time as their turf wars hopscotch around school catchment areas.”

Chicago’s plan is an application of problem-oriented policing, which Professor Herman Goldstein pioneered in the 1970s and 1980s.  At root, problem-oriented policing calls on police to increase their understanding of the conditions that create community problems and to understand seemingly discrete events as related incidents that share common characteristics.

Consider this description of problem-oriented policing, taken from Michael Scott’s Problem-Oriented Policing, Reflections on the First 20 Years:

Under a problem-oriented policing approach, the police would recognize how functions like moral education, youth recreation and charity are integral to public safety, but would not see their role as one of providing these services directly, at least not permanently.  The key for the police is first, to establish some sense of ownership or responsibility for a community problem, and if the problem falls within the police mandate, either address it themselves, [or] broker ownership to some other entity. . . .  The police may join with many divergent entities in studying a problem, but ultimately the responsibilities for various responses should be apportioned among those entities according to their resources and competencies. 

Problem-oriented policing can yield extraordinary results.  One classic example is how New York City was able to clean up its subway system after closely studying the problem of vandalism and implementing responses that ranged from changing the way that spray paint was sold to immediately taking defaced cars out of service.  The work of Michael Scott and others provides additional examples.

As the New York Times noted and Huberman recognizes, kids have “to bite” in order for Chicago’s new approach to work.  This is the part that makes me nervous.  A problem-oriented intervention sometimes morphs into a traditional law and order approach.  Again New York City provides an example.  Rudy Giuliani may have described himself as subscribing to broken windows—that is, as cracking down on quality-of-life offenses to provide a sense of order that would discourage more serious crimes—but the quality-of-life crackdown also provided a pretext for making arrests that led to bigger collars and ultimately worsened relationships between the police and minority communities. 

The 10,000 kids at the heart of Huberman’s plan will have myriad connections to the neighborhood gangs that Chicago would like to break up or see unravel.  Many of the kids will have information that the Chicago police department would find enormously useful.  But unless Chicago resists the temptation to try to use these meaningful relationships to make bigger collars, the kids won’t bite.  Then Huberman’s smart plan will become another failed effort.

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