Listening to the Dallas City Council talk to the chief of police yesterday about smoke shops and convenience stores, thinking about Bill Clinton getting protested by Black Lives Matters, remembering a visit to our offices here last week by a group of Serbian prosecutors, I believe that I have discovered the answer to the crime problem. People need to act better.
No, I’m serious as a heart attack. You know what our own relationship with our police reminds me of? They work for us, right? They’re the servants, we are the master. It’s like here we are, the master in our stretch limo; the cops are our chauffeur (we’ll call him Jeeves); so we tell Jeeves to drive us to a certain bar:
“Now, Jeeves,” we tell our cops, “I am going to go into this bar and have a visit with some old pals of mine. I want you to follow me in. Sit off at a distance. But watch.
“Listen to me, Jeeves, this is very important, and I am holding you responsible. Your job is on the line here. Do not – and I repeat, do not – allow me to have that third drink. Cut me off at two, Jeeves. I insist.”
Guess why that doesn’t work? You know this as well as anybody does. It doesn’t work because it’s morally stupid. You can’t put somebody else in charge of your own morals, not even the cops. That’s not how morals work.
Some on the council yesterday wanted Dallas Chief David Brown to crack down harder on convenience stores where a lot of crime occurs. He balked at that idea, suggesting it might be more effective, not to mention fair, to work with the stores to help them avoid being targeted by criminals: “We don’t want to penalize a small business that is already being victimized by being robbed.”
The whole business of whom to go after seems to be a tough one for us, maybe for everybody. Our visiting Serbian prosecutors last week were brought to the Observer by a State Department program that seeks to expose visiting foreign dignitaries to really good-looking American journalists. Or something. I’m guessing a little bit on that.
In a captivating one-hour chat through a translator, one of them said at one point that prosecutors back in Serbia are always accused of only going after the little fish. We know all about the big fish, little fish thing, right? Our own best example is the Wall Street mortgage fraud crisis, topic of the Oscar-winning film The Big Short.
Moyers & Company, the weekly news magazine show curated by Bill Moyers, did a great piece three years ago comparing the Wall Street subprime mortgage fraud debacle with the savings and loans collapse of the 1980s. Savings and loan was a crisis one-seventieth the size of subprime, but it produced thousands of indictments including hundreds at the very top of the food chain.
In the Moyers & Company piece, Joshua Holland did a Q&A with law professor William K. Black, who as a government bank regulator in the '80s helped send many of the top savings and loan players to the pen. Black pointed out that the FBI has never had and will never have enough agents or knowledge to go out and scout for top-level financial criminals:
“First, the FBI agents will not have expertise in the industry,” Black said. “And second, they can’t patrol the beat. They have to wait until a criminal referral comes in, and that won’t come from the bank itself. Banks don’t make criminal referrals against their CEOs.”
The initial impetus, the decision, the push for prosecutions of big-fish people just does not come from cops. That impetus is social, cultural and political. We tell the cops to do it, speaking as ourselves or through our elected representatives including the president. Or we don’t. And they don’t. And it doesn’t happen. That’s never on the cops. That’s always on us.
Even when we do tell them, the cops have to wonder if we mean it. Or how long we mean it. After Black Lives Matter protesters tore up a Bill Clinton appearance last Friday, Slate did a great piece on something too many people seem to have forgotten: The Clinton 1994 crime crackdown bill the protesters were denouncing was passed with strong support from many black activists, community leaders and elected officials.
Look, I don’t especially blame people who weren’t alive yet for not knowing chapters of our racial history that have never since been written or taught, but back then it took a lot of work to get our deeply racist and mono-racial justice system to understand that black people wanted the same rule of law in their neighborhoods that white people enjoyed in theirs. Black people wanted to be able to close both eyes when they went to bed at night just like white people.
In the early 1990s Alphonso Jackson, who went on later to become a member of the George W. Bush cabinet, was the first black person to be made director of public housing in Dallas. Jackson had to fight hard to get the Dallas police to even enter public housing projects, let alone enforce the law, in part because white authorities back then thought black people had their own law.
And in the projects they did, sort of. It was called the Law of the Biggest Meanest Son of a Bitch in the Project. Jackson thought people in public housing deserved the benefit of the real law, instead. When he succeeded in bringing that reform about, public housing in Dallas became livable and humane and has continued to be ever since, no matter what ignorant critics of it may say now.
I’m not saying the 1994 crime bill got it right. As law professor Michelle Alexander has exposed in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, we have wound up in America with a prison system that looks eerily like African slavery itself. Locking up most of the young black men in the country can’t be the answer to anything.
But we do have to remember how we came to this point. This is what we told the criminal justice system to do for us back in the '90s, and many influential black voices joined the clamor for the draconian laws that have now produced this great deformity in our society.
It’s really hard to get this stuff right, but we are the ones – not the cops – who have to do it. We call the shots. Not them.
Let’s turn the Serbian big-fish dilemma around and gaze in the other direction, toward the little fish end of the pond. Oh, my gosh, do you see what those little fish are doing down there? So many white middle class little fish are doing Oxy and heroin that overall life expectancy for white people has declined.
So whom do we blame? David Brown’s six years as chief of police in Dallas were generally considered unblemished — an unmarred success story — until this year when homicide rates spiked in his city. As Eric Nicholson demonstrated here two weeks ago, you can cherry-pick your numbers to make the increase look like anything from 86 to 300 percent, but it’s safe to say that murders are up in Dallas by some alarming amount, and murder is always scary. I would consider even one murder a catastrophe if it were of me.
But cities all over America are dealing with murder spikes, not just us. The New York Times and The Boston Globe are blaming a big spike in St. Louis on Mexican heroin. The National Review, of course, is blaming the spike in Chicago on Black Lives Matter and on the cops not being as free as they used to be to shoot people on the street without feeling all self-conscious about it. All crime is down in New York City, which, one can’t help noticing, is now an island kingdom protected from the poor and most of the middle class by vast moats of water and mountainous rents.
And there is that. One can’t help noticing that the day-to-day lives of non-rich Americans seem to have been curdled by some sour brew of guns and drugs and that every night on the news we see that toxin seeping deeper and deeper into the body politic.
Should we tell our policeman, Jeeves, that he needs to do something about all that? Now, Jeeves, don’t let us do any Oxy tonight when we get home after a long day of not working, and also remember to remind us about our recent vow of no-more-gunplay at home.
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And then at the big-fish end of the pool, what about that? The Wall Street Journal published a story last month about a blue-blooded scion of old money, Andrew W.W. Casperson, accused by the Justice Department of defrauding clients, family and friends of tens of millions of dollars to feed “a habit.” But his habit was not drugs or sex. Casperson’s “habit” was Wall Street itself — unrelenting big-play speculation in the market.
A commenter on the Journal’s story pointed out wryly that Casperson was guilty mainly of being a little slow. All he needed, when he saw all of his investments tanking, was to close his fund, tell the investors sayonara and open a new fund the next day. Then he would have been legal or what still passes for legal on today’s street.
Should we tell Jeeves to do something about that for us as well? Look, I know we have to try to do something. Certainly we do want the police to enforce the law. We can’t just give up, because it’s a big problem.
But it is a big problem. All of it. Taken together. The police are circumscribed in their sphere of effectiveness. They don’t really have the long arm. Only we have that. They work for us. We’re the boss. I don’t think what’s wrong is really going to get fixed by firing the police chief. Do you?