Charles Fain Lehman joins Brian Anderson to discuss why police departments are losing officers, flawed arguments for progressive criminal-justice policies, and the enduring relevance of James Q. Wilson’s work on crime.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Charles Lehman. He's a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He's a contributing editor of City Journal. He's been working primarily on the Manhattan Institute's policing and public safety initiative, and he writes prolifically for CJ, including a number of recent web articles about criminal justice. He's got a wonderful feature on the legendary social scientist, James Q. Wilson called “Contra Root Causes” that will appear in our forthcoming summer issue. So Charles, thanks very much for joining us.

Charles Lehman: Yeah. Glad to be on, Brian.

Brian Anderson: One of your recent pieces for the website, which I was mentioning, it seeks to answer why cops across the country are quitting. This is in fact, I believe, your most recent piece for us. The numbers are quite striking. As you know, a 2020 survey found that resignations were up around 20 percent. Retirements were up 45 percent nationwide. Many officers who haven't quit, they're leaving big-city police departments to work in suburbs. You did quite a bit of reporting for this story, talking to police about their profession, their reasons for leaving, how they see the job today. What are some of the conclusions that you reach from these conversations?

Charles Lehman: Yeah, I think that the overwhelming sense is policing is a dangerous job and it's a particular kind of danger. It requires making certain split-second decisions that sometimes can go wrong, catastrophically even. That if you decide to pull your firearm in the wrong circumstances, somebody can end up dead. If you decide to use a taser, if you decide to act to protect yourself and others, there could be adverse consequences that you did not expect. And you know, that's part of what policing is. That's part of why we have police, because somebody needs to be in a position to enter and cope with those circumstances.

And I think the overwhelming message that I got from the officers to whom I spoke, people who had retired, who had left their departments in big cities to go to the suburbs, was that they no longer felt like if they made a choice that was going to be subject to controversy, if they were forced into one of these split-second decisions, they no longer felt like they could trust that the bigger administrators, the mayors, city councils, even chiefs of police would have their back.

They no longer had the sense that there was going to be support for their police work, and said they expected just this tidal wave of fury to descend on them if they happened to come down on the wrong side, if an honest mistake was made, if in the course of doing police work something went wrong. So I think that's really at the core of a lot of their fears, that because policing entails these challenging split-second decisions, you need to have a certain amount of leeway built in, and they feel like the leeway has evaporated. They feel like there is simply a whole cohort of people who are waiting for them to slip up.

Brian Anderson: Well, an exodus of veteran police officers is unlikely to have a good effect on the quality of policing in the United States presumably.

Charles Lehman: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. Both on the exit side where you're losing both people with experience, but also just bodies. The Minneapolis PD, for example, has lost something like 20, 25 percent of its force, and they're just no longer able to do proactive policing. They don't have the resources. They just sit around and answer 911 calls because they can't do anything else. Proactive policing is a really important part of crime control, and unsurprisingly crime is exploding there.

So, it's important from that perspective. It's important from a manpower perspective generally. We know that cops on the street keep crime down. Fewer cops in the street, more crime. That's bad. More demand on the officers who remain, more overtime, more stress. And that means that they are more likely to make harmful mistakes.

We also know that there going to be problems on the other end, on the people who are coming in. When you make policing a less desirable profession, when you sanction it, when you say to young people being a cop is a bad thing to do, fewer young people are going to want to be cops. And for the young people who want to be cops, the people who are going to be in it for a sense of social duty of moral uprightness, who say if I want to live out my values, I'm going to do it as a police officer, those people aren't going to do it. And you're going to be selecting from a weaker group of people who maybe are less well-motivated. So it's going to be bad on both hands. You're going to lose the good people and you're going to have a harder time bringing good people in

Brian Anderson: Yeah. How do you turn this around? Is it a question of different policies that might improve recruitment and slow this flood of departures? Or, maybe these are both, is it a question of a change in the political dynamic in the country and the way we're talking about some of these problems? So does it come down to policy, or rhetoric, or both?

Charles Lehman: I do think it is both. In the long run, it's a matter of policy, and my Manhattan Institute colleagues, Rafael Mangual and Hannah Meyers, have written about sort of starting to think about improving the quality of staffing. Staffing matters so much. I think staffing matters even more than training, just because training is important, but you can only go so far training somebody who will be a bad cop into being a good cop. It's so much more important to identify the good cops at the start, to look for the heuristics that indicate that.

But I think that's a long-term project of sort of trying to turn around the decline in policing. In the short run, there's a reason that these guys are leaving big cities and going to the suburbs, because suburban municipal leadership are saying, "We want to have you. We want talented cops. We want experienced cops. We want you to come in and keep our city safe." And that kind of messaging is not coming from the leaders of New York, Chicago, L.A. They're saying, "We don't trust cops. We think cops are racists."

And, again if cops do not believe that there will be support for them at the highest levels of municipal government, then they aren't going to want to police there. It's just that simple. And so I think turning that around really is about public rhetoric as much as it is policy.

Brian Anderson: Let's turn to another piece of yours, co-written with our colleague Rafael Mangual, who you just mentioned, this one on the fundamental orientation of the American criminal justice system, and this wave of rising violent crime that we're seeing across the country. Responding to New York Magazine's Eric Levitz, you argued in this piece that progressive policies won't stop the crime wave. What was, to set this up, Levitz's argument exactly? And why did you see him as being wrong in this argument?

Charles Lehman: Well, you know, Levitz is responding to this tendency on the left to downplay the severity of last year's violent crime and homicide spike. And for the few CJ readers and listeners who don't know, homicide rose 20, 30 percent last year. We don't know the exact numbers. We're pretty close. Violent crime rose precipitously. And I think there's this tendency on the left to say, "Well, it's from a low base rate. Things were worse in the nineties. Really it's only in some places," when it's actually in many places and it's the largest year-on-year increase on record.

But I think there's this insistence that we need to downplay an additional 5,000 dead people from homicide. And what Levitz, to his credit, is saying is, "No, we, the Left, should be willing to embrace that fact because the people who are being victimized by this are the people who the left believes itself to be championing, the poor, the oppressed predominantly black, Hispanic people. And then we need to insist that left-leaning policies are the solution to this violent crime problem." And what Ralf and I would say is, "Yes, we agree that you should accept the facts of reality, but we don't agree that left-wing policies are the right solution to this particular crisis."

Brian Anderson: One way to think about Levitz's argument is in terms of sort of cynical politics. You know, crime could be a damaging issue to the Democrats. It could undermine their control of cities, their push to install progressives in some prosecutor offices across the country, even ultimately reaching the national level with President Biden. Moderate Democrats you could conceive of moving to the center on this issue, starting to use law and order rhetoric.

We've seen that to some extent with Biden and in this recent Democratic primary in New York, won by Eric Adams in part by starting to address the crime spike in the city. So progressives may want to preempt this moderation by rebranding genuinely radical policies as capable of controlling crime, as Levitz does seem to be doing. Do you think that's a kind of accurate way of looking at his new position on this?

Charles Lehman: Yeah. You know, I think it is. And this is always sort of a delicate line that progressives have to walk. I think, for example, about John Pfaff, who's a professor of law at Fordham who had a book a couple of years ago called Locked In. He's a progressive, but the book was responding to the sort of what I think of as Michelle Alexander-ism, the fury of mass incarceration propounded by Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which is that America has too many people in prisons, and the reason that we have too many people in prisons is because they're a bunch of low-level drug offenders who need to be released.

And Pfaff basically says, "Well, that's not true. Actually the majority of people in prison are there for violent sentences and really literally people by most intuitions agree that the people should be there." And then he additionally says, "But we should still massively decarcerate." It's still a moral imperative that we massively decarcerate.

And I think that what that exposes is that, frankly, progressives can either be popular or be honest, but they can't be both. I think Levitz's goal, the goal is sort of abstract. If we just reinvest in root causes. The real cause of crime is poverty, and if we just target poverty, then the crime will go down. And it's just not that simple. It's just the cause of street crime is not that simple. The efficacy of policy intervention in crime is not that simple. Solving poverty is just not that simple.

But I think by presenting the story, they've selected between being honest and popular. They've chosen to be popular because they know if they're honest about what really would be entailed by their policy proposals, they aren't likely to win a lot of support among the voters.

Brian Anderson: The costs of this rising crime across the country in cities, they tend to be born by the less fortunate on whose behalf progressives generally claim to speak. You know, so far we haven't seen a full-scale political backlash among sort of poor neighborhoods, which are afflicted with crime, against this progressivism. Perhaps the most striking example of that is what we've just seen in Philadelphia, where a very progressive DA Larry Krasner recently won reelection by a pretty significant margin. What explains, in your view this, I don't know if it's a paradox, but it's certainly a tension?

Charles Lehman: Yeah. You know, I think we're far from resolving this. In the Krasner story, he won an off-cycle election with 17, 18 percent of the eligible vote actually coming out, turning out and voting. I don't think that necessarily disclaims his legitimacy, but we know that the more politically engaged you are, the more activist you are, the more likely you turn out in an off-cycle election and the less likely you are to fit in all the categories we've talked about.

That said, I do think that there are signals that people are uncomfortable with the rising violent crime rate across the spectrum. My suspicion is that you can read the tea leaves either way on Eric Adams. He sort of pivoted as the law-and-order candidate, but he has a history of being sort of a crusader for reform from the inside, whatever you want to call that, as Heather Mac Donald wrote about in City Journal recently.

But what I think I can say in general is that when you look at the survey data from people all across the country, particularly from disadvantaged communities, fractured communities, is that they support having more police officers in their community. They believe that it's good to have these options in the community. How they feel about the Progressive Prosecutor Project is a little more up in the air. I think the effects of the Progressive Prosecutor Project are a little harder to parse out. I think they're sort of less immediately impactful. Although potentially quite damaging, they're less immediately impactful than large scale de-policing. And I think if you ask people, do they support large scale de-policing, the answer is pretty emphatically no.

Brian Anderson: Which is a good transition, I think, to talking a bit about your forthcoming essay in the quarterly journal. This is a full length profile of James Q. Wilson and his contribution to thinking about crime and justice, criminal justice. You draw out some of the major themes of Wilson's work showing that the debate our country's currently having today about crime, and how policymakers might be able to control it, is in fact a replay of arguments that Wilson was engaged with decades ago in some cases. So I wonder if you could talk just a little bit about who James Q. Wilson was. He wrote a number of great essays for City Journal back in the day. But explain what it is about Wilson's work that is really relevant right now in this current debate we're having.

Charles Lehman: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I wrote this essay in large part, frankly, because I wanted an excuse to go back and read a lot of his work. And for those listeners who don't know, James Q. Wilson was a prominent political scientist, commentator, advisor to presidents, governments. Arguably one of the most influential political scientists of the twentieth century. In the popular press he's sort of best remembered for pioneering the idea of broken windows policing, but he worked on a variety of issues across his career. On bioethics. On drug policy. On bureaucracy. He actually co-wrote a book with his wife about identifying types of coral reef fish. That's neither here nor there.

But he's primarily remembered as a contributor to the criminal justice debate. And I think a question that he came back to again and again—and I sort of traced this arc in his career—a question he came back to again and again, is this view that was dominant in the 1960s, 1970s—It's increasingly dominant again today—which is that if you truly want to address crime, you have to target its, quote unquote, root causes. And what that invariably means is sort of deep issues of poverty, racism, structural determinants and disparities that are the sort of favorite target of the left.

That is at the center of somebody like Levitz's argument, and I think Wilson really pioneers thinking about how to respond to this. In the 1970s this is the substance of Thinking About Crime, which it's really a big breakout book for him. He makes the argument that there's sort of a fundamental policy error, a fundamental rational error in policy making towards root causes, that there nothing necessarily more efficacious about targeting the root cause. And in fact, because of its rootness it's also intractable and it's really hard to change. And so it's better to focus on what are the most successful, what are the most easily manipulated approximate causes?

In the crime space that meant, well, we should incarcerate more offenders. We don't need to think so much about why they become offenders. We can think about how do we stop them from offending, and specifically how can we incapacitate them? So that was early in his career. And I think later in his career, as he became more and more interested in really questions about what is human nature? What does modern science tell us about the classical understanding of human nature? And how can we reconcile them? He revisits these questions a couple of times and begins to think about what certain root causes get prioritized if you propound this view, frankly, because they serve their political ends. But there are a whole diversity of causes of crime, a whole diversity of terms of crime, which which contribute to and are not necessarily less, quote unquote, root.

And then we've also got particularly character. So towards the end of his career, he spent a lot of time thinking about character and what role the criminal law has in shaping and determining it, and articulating this view that a particularly punitive criminal law or one that enforces, that is tough on crime, serves to regulate and construct the character, re-construct the character of a person would be prone to offending. And so he goes through this critique of root causes to this argument that a root causes view should cause us to be tough on crime, not to be soft on it.

Brian Anderson: What does the social science literature tell us about criminal propensity among human beings? This is another issue you address through looking at Wilson's work. How much of this turns on a disagreement over whether responsibility for evil rests with society versus the individual? You know, what is the individual's responsibility here? And bearing this in mind, more broadly, what were the philosophical underpinnings of Wilson's position on crime?

Charles Lehman: Yeah, I think, as my colleague Rafael likes to say, we know that there's a criminal type. Is it the case that certain factors are contributors to criminal offending? There are more people who are poor who offend than people who are rich who offend. But there are also lots of poor people who never commit crimes. Actually, we know that the propensity to commit crime is highly concentrated within a select population, and they tend to have certain specific traits. As Wilson points out back in the 1980s, men are 10 times more likely to commit crimes than women. You have to be of the right physical build to threaten somebody if you're committing violent crimes. If you're small, you're probably less likely to commit a violent crime.

And then, you know, I think you have to think about the world in a certain way. Mark Kleiman rephrases this later. He says that criminal offenders are what he calls hyperbolic discounters. They very rapidly discount the value of the future as compared to the present. They see something they want and they take it. They're rash. They're impulsive. They are not prone to long-term strategic thinking.

So, I think Wilson along with Richard Herrnstein in his sort of his sort of magnum opus, Crime & Human Nature, lays out this typology of ways that we think about why people commit crime. And he says, "Well, there's some people," and here I think he's talking largely about Gary Becker and co, "There's some people think about crime as rational behavior. It's a cost benefit analysis. There's some people," and here he's talking about really today's root theorists, "Some people who think about crime in terms of sort of this Rousseauian model of like we're the product." Crime is the product of—

Brian Anderson: Social injustice.

Charles Lehman: Yeah. And he prefers what he calls an Aristotelian model. One in which humans are both a product of nature and nurture, that society exists in large part to shape us towards virtue, towards good behavior. And so its influences are as much positive as they are negative, that it takes the people who are more prone by virtue of circumstance or biology or whatever factor to commit crime, that the function of society is to turn them away from it through education, through support, but also through the law.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Charles. I look forward to having you on the 10 Blocks podcast again. It's very illuminating. The essay on James Q. Wilson is called "Contra Root Causes." It's in our forthcoming summer issue. Don't forget to check out Charles Lehman's work on the City Journal website. There's a lot of it there. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a good ratings on iTunes. Charles Lehman, thanks very much again.

Charles Lehman: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. Thank you, as always, for having me on.

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