“The Community’s Credible Threat”

In a piece drawing upon the recent article “From Broken Windows to Broken Streets,” Charles Fain Lehman further explores the role of the community in fostering public safety – and how policing provides key support for the informal social control provided directly by the community. The full article, “The Community’s Credible Threat,” can be read at the City Journal.

In discussing the importance of police presence and the patrol function, Lehman writes: “The more credible a threat, the less likely it is to be carried out. In the criminal-justice world, the effectiveness of deterrence is thought to be partly a function of certainty: the more likely you are to be caught, the less likely you are to do the crime. Counterintuitively, that also means that more cops walking the beat can lead to fewer arrests, because criminals wind up proactively deterred. As the late scholar Mark Kleiman argued, deterrence lets us have both less crime and less punishment.”

Lehman then makes a connection between the power of informal social control within a community and formal police efforts. “This same logic, however, is apparent in the relationship between formal and informal methods of public-order maintenance. Communities not only police themselves through networks of informal social relation but also rely on the formal system of law and order as a credible threat that undergirds the informal system. An old lady’s demand that teens stop roughhousing outside her door works only if she has some recourse if they refuse her request; the last recourse is always calling the cops (emphasis added).

In considering the suggestions of some and the position of the defund-the-police advocates, Lehman provides the following caution: “This brings us back to the mistaken notion that strong communities can simply replace police. Informal social control depends upon the threat of formal sanction. Paradoxically, by trying to disempower and delegitimate the police, critics of policing are simultaneously disempowering informal social control by making the threat on which it relies less credible. With fewer cops on the beat, neighbors will be asked to shoulder a heavier and heavier burden for maintaining order.” (emphasis added).

In our article, The Importance of Us: The Failure of Being Cast as Them,” Thomas Lemmer spoke to the essential nature for both the police and the community-at-large to view the police as among the “community of us.” Efforts that seek adherence to the rule of law and constitutional policing strengthen the police-community relationship. However, efforts that seek to divide the police from the community harm the community.


We are interested in your thoughts, and invite you to comment below.

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