Mickey Mouse No More

POLICE in the US have the capacity to break up a $39 billion illicit industry that is driven by over 23 million annual victimizations.

Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis declared in May in this space that police can cut the number of victimizations in half using existing resources, laws and amounts of effort.

Police have the intellectual candlepower, the willingness and the technical proficiency to bust up this industry.  Why hasn’t it happened?

I believe that some powerful myths about what constitutes real police work get in the way.

But first, here are the numbers on the black market industry I am talking about.

In 201o in the US victims reported 9.1 million property offenses (larceny, burglary, auto theft, arson), with larceny serving as the driver.  The FBI Uniform Crime Report estimates that in 2010 in the crimes reported to them thieves made off with about $15.7 billion worth of other peoples’ property.

Let’s assume, conservatively, based on the National Crime Victimization Survey that the reported total represents 40% of victimizations.  So we’ll estimate the actual number at 23 million property victimizations that violated peoples’ sense of security, wrecked a lot of neighborhoods and took maybe $39 billion worth of peoples’ stuff.  A study also suggested that every theft spins off two additional crimes of related types.

By contrast, about 5,500 bank robberies reported to the FBI in 2010 netted about $43 million in loot.

In a comparison that is kinda apples and oranges but helps us absorb the enormity of the losses from property crimes, Ford Motor Co. reported global net earnings of $6.6 billion in 2010.

Here is where our myth problem manifests itself.  By myth I don’t mean lies or make-believe but myth in the psychological sense. Every culture and subculture creates myths over time that explain to themselves and new members how and why the culture exists and by what criteria people are judged worthy and successful.  They tell us what the group means and what it means to be a member.  Every culture has a creation story.

For modern American policing that creation story emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century centuries.  Taking cues from the new full-time, centrally controlled national Army and the ideas of the Progressive Era, police were to be professional soldiers in the ‘war on crime,’ under the command of powerful chiefs.  Police were to create distance  from communities and the corrupting influences of the masses of people.  The emerging US auto industry helped by making cars more reliable and affordable.  Chiefs could put officers in remote, motorized boxes with wheels that pulled officers off  the sidewalks. The basic look of current uniforms and the formation of a chiefs’ professional association, the IACP, are artifacts of this creation story.  To be a serious professional police officer was to “fight” serious crime.

The warrior myth grew deeper and more elaborate over the intervening  100 years.  The professional crime-fighter fought serious crime and serious bad guys.  Crimes against property lost status.  Property offenses became “Mickey Mouse stuff.”

A lot of property crime came to be seen as simply environmental, especially in urban areas.  This small-time stuff happens in cities.  In the 20th century city detectives could be heard to give this helpful advice: “Ma’am, you should think about moving.”

Thefts never went away, however, they just got downgraded.  Today, executives talk about “getting killed with car breaks” in tones that seem to suggest that once they get past this outbreak of nuisances the department can get back to concentrating on the real crimes. They ‘get killed’ in part because Americans have so much valuable stuff that is increasingly easy to carry off.  It has always been thus.  One study suggested that between 1947-77 the best predictor of burglary rates was the weight of the smallest TV in the Sears Catalogue.

Of course, police must care deeply and as expertly as possible about crimes such as homicide and rape.  They are the worst things people can do to one another and the police must dedicate sufficient brainpower and staffing to bring killers and rapists to justice.  Here, again, we miss opportunities for deterrence (see earlier posts about “We know how to do this”).  But at a minimum we need to be able to identify and stop the villains post facto.

Caring about the worst of crimes against persons does not require treating property crimes as not quite ready for prime time.  It’s not as if police are not doing a lot about these offenses.  They just are not getting all the benefits from what they do.  Consider the following facts.

Police made 1.6 million arrests for property crimes in 2010.  That means 1.6 million opportunities to disrupt, deter and defang business networks in the property crime industry. Like any industry, the property crime sector has its successful entrepreneurs and its duds, its mom-and-pops and its big, far-flung firms.

I listen to detectives talk about how much they have learned about how the business works. These cops are smart and they know a great deal.  But there is a big gap between learning and practice.  But they are constrained by the paradigm — a rule of acceptable performance generated by those myths —  of “law enforcement” from putting more of their knowledge into action. For example, as the result of a technically superior investigation police in one town will arrest John Smith for breaking and entering.  Detectives  in  another town, also smart and highly proficient, periodically bust J&J Produce for the unexplainable luxury car parts, art objects and jewelry next to the potatoes in their basement.  But the customary practice has been to treat the two matters in isolation, as separate incidents in separate jurisdictions. It’s been beyond the borders of the paradigm for anyone to venture to understand the dynamics of Smith’s business and out it out of business.

Missed is the opportunity to 1) identify J&J as Smith’s most reliable fence and 2) to tie these two to the many additional thieves, fences and end-users/buyers who make up this illicit trading network.

We need to match out thinking to the problem as it actually operates and leverage resources to carry out the deterrence and the disruption.  Instead of viewing the law enforcement success — the arrest or other clearance — as the end, we should see it as the beginning of the process.

The opportunities present themselves every day of the week. The recent experience of Greater Boston thief Craig Cromartie is illustrative of what is possible when police create a networked response that is matched to the dynamics of the thieving industry.  The Boston Globe reported on June 20,

Boston Police Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald said during a press conference at police headquarters that Craig Cromartie, 44, of Dorchester made off with more than $1 million in stolen goods from his alleged months long crime spree.

Fitzgerald said Cromartie has more than 300 prior arraignments on his record for theft-related charges.

He said Florin Ghita, 62, of Weymouth has also been arrested for allegedly buying some of the stolen merchandise at his space in a jewelry warehouse at 333 Washington St. in Boston.

Cromartie is obviously an industrious businessman.  And he is the type of thief who drives the numbers.

In the past, because Cromartie stole in several disparate communities in the region, no one had the big picture of his business.  Like any businessman, he operated with a sense of the rules of the market, including the likely behavior of threats and competitors.  Based on experience, those 300+ arraignments were not a concern.  Each time he would be arraigned on what everyone in the courtroom believed was a Mickey Mouse offense.  He knew he would soon be out the door and back to work in his business.

Recently, however, detectives in those several communities began independently to probe a little deeper and they met in the middle.  With a special contribution from the Needham MA police they mounted a technically expert investigation and they were then able to break up Cromartie’s black market.

SO what are the steps to the PC Davis’s 50% cut in crime?  We can start with these.

1. Steady, relentless research on the categories of property crime you prioritize.  Some days all hell will break loose and you’ll have to suspend the research.  But then there is the next day.  This probing will lead organically to greater collaboration with neighboring departments.

2.  Your group can deepen the work by developing a list of the Impact Players in your area.  If you haven’t done this already, simply convene some detectives and POs from the towns contiguous with yours.  Ask everyone to throw on the table the names of the Impact Players in the category you have prioritized.  Start working together on the names you have in common.  You’ll soon ID their trading partners and networks.  This will lead, again organically, cop to cop, to linking with other jurisdictions.  Go wherever the research leads you.

3. Get together the Three P’s — Police, Prosecutor and Probation.  Get the right ADA and the Chief Probation officers in the affected courts and start planning a strategy for focused intervention on the IP’s.  The Three P’s will come to court every morning with ironclad dossiers on whatever Impact Players are appearing that morning.  Ask for IP’s to be held pre-trial.  That will be hard to get but if you develop your cases with the other two P’s you’ll have a better chance of getting the IP placed on a Probation electronic anklet. So when the Cromarties appear (as he has 300+ times), they can be treated with the urgent seriousness they have earned.  Most judges will become increasingly responsive to the high-qaulity arguments that Prosecutors and Probation officers will be able to make.  Many a thief’s jaw will hang agape as he watches the anklet get snapped in place.

4.  For the crime(s) you prioritize, take seriously every incident you hear about.  When you get some B&E’s or larcenies ask Probation if they have any clients living near the area. Follow-up relentlessly and de-brief every arrested suspect about what s/he knows about who is doing the crimes.  That word will be one of your most useful deterrents as it filters back through these criminal enterprise networks.  Yours will become a jurisdiction and a region to avoid.

5. Use your regional network to continue to identify and disrupt the illicit trading networks.

Otherwise, if $39 billion is Mickey Mouse stuff, I’m gettin’ me some ears.

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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