State and city leaders can reduce crime, if they want to

I started covering public safety for American Experiment a couple of years ago, writing about a surge of violent muggings in downtown Minneapolis. Things have got worse since then. Minneapolis has recorded 96 homicides so far this year, just one behind the grim ‘record’ of 97 set back in 1995. St. Paul has set a new record for homicides in 2021.

This is one of the biggest problems facing Minnesota, not that you’d know it from the state’s leaders. Gov. Tim Walz — who thinks he can control the weatherprofesses to be powerless to do anything about the rising violent crime which is now spreading into suburban areas. Various city leaders, Mayor Frey, and the city council in St. Paul are more engaged and, belatedly, taking some positive steps. These steps would be more effective if Gov. Walz could scrape up the political courage to support them.

After a little while covering public safety, it occurred to me that is was a policy area like any other. Just as there is empirical research that shows what tax policies attract people to your state, there is also empirical research that shows what policies will reduce crime in a jurisdiction. That empirical evidence shows, quite clearly, that more police means less crime. It also suggests what these police should be doing: tactics such as ‘hot spot policing,’ ‘problem-oriented policing,’ and ‘focused deterrence.’

By contrast, there is little empirical evidence that alternative crime reduction strategies such as ‘violence interrupters’ are particularly effective. Furthermore, what evidence there is on the effectiveness of methods such as this or establishing summer jobs programs, raising the minimum age to drop out of school, greening vacant lots, installing more streetlights, creating more drug addiction treatments, implementing better gun control, or raising the alcohol tax, was all generated in a world where the police exist. They may be complements to policing, but they are not substitutes for it. Finally, whatever effect strategies that tackle the supposed ‘root causes’ of crime such as poverty may have, it is felt only after a very long lag. On the other hand, more police and more proactive policing has been shown to have a significant impact in the short term.

But while more police and more proactive policing is part of the recipe for greater public safety for Minnesotans, it isn’t all of it. It won’t help much if cops do their part if attorneys won’t prosecute and judges keep releasing even the most hardened repeat offenders. The war on public safety has been waged on multiple fronts. The war for it must be waged on just as many.

The increase in violence in the Twin Cities is a choice. It is, of course, primarily a choice made by the criminals responsible for it. But if policymakers refuse to make policy which reflects the empirical research — ‘follow the science,’ remember — then that, too, is a choice.