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Traditional Policing Works, So Why Do We Sabotage It?
Photo by ev / Unsplash

Traditional Policing Works, So Why Do We Sabotage It?

Back in February, MNPD began Operation 72, an initiative dedicated to investigating car thefts in Nashville. Since its inception, every police precinct has enlisted detectives from their respective field intelligence teams to focus on “recovering stolen vehicles, identifying thieves, and advancing any other criminal investigations that may be associated with the stolen vehicles,” according to MNPD Public Affairs Director Don Aaron.

The director attributed the downward trend of Nashville’s crime rate to this precision policing method, noting that since February, it has resulted “in the recovery of 238 stolen or carjacked vehicles and 101 firearms.” Additionally, he says, “421 arrests have been made on more than 800 felony charges and nearly 700 misdemeanor offenses.”

Indeed, there were 259 fewer cars stolen between March and May this year compared to the same timeframe last year; similarly, the amount of guns stolen from vehicles has fallen by 35 percent. MNPD doesn't just anticipate a significant decrease in auto theft throughout the rest of the year, it expects to see a measured decrease in other violent crimes as well. “We know that a person who steals a car is oftentimes going to be involved in other criminal acts— from perhaps auto burglaries, to the theft of other vehicles, to even robberies,” explained Director Aaron. This correlation is why the police chose to hone in on car break-ins and thefts. “Precision policing essentially means that you're working to identify and hold accountable those persons in the community who are committing acts of violence,” said Aaron, “or who, in other ways, are disrupting positive quality of life.”

MNPD knows what works, and so does Mayor O’Connell. “You may know the Metro Nashville Police Department has started a special focus on car theft,” he said during last Friday’s roundtable. “And actually, they're seeing—since that initiative started in February—downward pressure again on the car theft process.”

According to Manhattan Institute fellow Charles Fain Lehman, there’s a distinct difference between the approaches that help mitigate property crime versus those that reduce violent crime. “Violent crime is not really about deprivation, per se,” Lehman explained. “It's about…being stuck in these networks of norms. You get these very tight networks…where there's low enough social control, you have just enough young impulsive men, and you have just enough access to guns.”

Unfortunately, whenever a police department in a major city implements an effective strategy to target criminal behavior, it’s only a matter of time before the efficacy of that strategy is called into question. “When you look at Chicago, they ran something called the Strategic Subject List, where they identified the…most prolific offenders in the city and the PD was tracking them,” said Lehman. “And, unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the guys on there were young black men. And that was not popular with the ACLU, and the agency all got shut down.”

Lehman’s example isn’t far off from what has played out in Memphis over the last few years. In 2023, the Memphis City Council passed a bill restricting the police’s ability to make low-level traffic stops. The council felt justified in making the change following the death of Tyre Nichols, but local authorities have argued that routine traffic stops are crucial in keeping communities safe. Though activists scoured police statistics for proof that “pretextual” stops disproportionately target black drivers, the DOJ hasn’t found evidence showing “patterns of discriminatory police work” in the Memphis Police Department. The governor has since signed a law nullifying the Memphis Council’s “Driving Equality Act” by prohibiting local governments from limiting law enforcement’s routine traffic stops.

“We know that police presence is not only something that matters from a community's perception perspective,” said O’Connell, “but it really does have an impact on crime rates.” Despite his emphasis on using community-based programs to improve high-crime areas, most of these programs have yet to come online. The initiative O’Connell named as having the most significant impact on Davidson County was the Partners In Care Program, which sends a clinical mental health provider to accompany police officers on certain law enforcement calls.

Of course, any cop could tell you there’s an easy way to strengthen relationships between communities and law enforcement without adding any new, multi-million dollar non-profit initiatives: assigning officers to a regular beat. According to one MNPD officer, patrol and shift assignments were once routine and efficient, but became scattered and disengaging after Summer 2020. Now, instead of encouraging proactive and preventative policing by placing officers in familiar settings, the department moves them all around the city, fracturing the foundational trust they were once able to establish in neighborhoods. “It's all been scaled back and now they're doing community-related [initiatives, like] dealing with the homeless,” said the officer in an interview with the Pamphleteer in 2022.

We’ve seen what works. We know what works. But, is there a will to stay focused on what's effective in the face of political pushback?