On January 24, the small city of Methuen, Massachusetts started laying off half of its police officers. Two years prior, in the fall of 2017, Methuen’s lawmakers passed a lucrative new contract for local law enforcement that now threatened to bankrupt the municipality, which sits about 30 miles north of Boston. After a budget standoff, the city of 50,000 had to tell 50 cops — 44 percent of the police department’s staff — that they were out of a job.
City officials were apoplectic. “It’s not only crazy, it’s dangerous,” police chief Joseph Solomon said to the Boston Globe. Paul Fahey, the mayor’s chief of staff, told Boston.com that the layoffs were “a true public safety crisis.”
Crime rates in Methuen, which are roughly in line with other cities its size, are the lowest they’ve been since the late 1960s and early ‘70s. But back then, there were only about half as many people working for the city’s police department. This follows a nationwide pattern; modern security systems are unthinkably powerful compared to what they were the last time crime was this low. Methuen’s panic is a symptom of how that power — in terms of technology, strategy, and sheer bodies — has come to seem normal and necessary. The city’s reaction is a perfect illustration of the country’s blinkered thinking about how to keep Americans safe.
In 1967, a presidential commission released a seminal report on crime in the U.S. titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,” which detailed the shortcomings of contemporary law enforcement. There were technical problems, like overstuffed filing systems that had to be searched by hand — if police found a suspect’s fingerprints at a crime scene, they couldn’t cross reference them with the department’s records unless they found prints from all 10 of the suspect’s fingers. Any fewer, and it would simply take too long to search through records to find individual matches.
There were also fundamental issues, like how difficult it used to be to contact the police. Calling meant ringing up the local precinct, and even locals might not know that number by heart — Los Angeles County’s police outposts had 50 different phone numbers. And you had to pay for the call.
“The victim of a robber careful enough to steal the last dime cannot now use the public telephone,” noted the report. Its publication helped spur the creation of 911, and began the computerization of police departments throughout the country.
In 1969, about a third of the nation’s security personnel worked at for-profit companies. Today, they make up almost two thirds.
Even with these advances, policing remained primitive by modern standards. Until the rise of Compstat in the 1990s, when departments began using up-to-date information provided by Compstat to map crime daily, departments sent officers out on patrol based on either old crime data or no data at all — the equivalent of checking last year’s weather before leaving the house. There were also relatively few cops back then: In 1970, there were only about 15 people working for the police for every 10,000 Americans, according to FBI data. By 2017, there were 34.
Even as public policing surged, private crime control grew more than twice as fast. In 1969, about a third of the nation’s security personnel worked at for-profit companies. Today, they make up almost two thirds, from legendary firms like Pinkerton to global giants like Securitas.
Then there’s the uncountable mobilization of the American public, which now polices itself on an enormous scale, whether through physical participation or, more recently, via apps like Citizen. The last time crime was this low, police mostly rejected neighborhood watch groups as “dangerous vigilantes.”
By 1993, a Methuen woman was patrolling her neighborhood in her minivan under the guidance of the city’s police department. She drove slowly, filming sex workers to try to scare them and their clients off the street. “Usually when they see my van they start running,” Linda Soucy told The New York Times. Today, people like Soucy are cultivated and saluted by law enforcement as “co-producers” of public safety.
In 1967, the same year the presidential commission reported on law enforcement’s overstuffed file cabinets, internet “founding father” Paul Baran wrote a paper for the Rand Corporation, Some Caveats on the Contribution of Technology to Law Enforcement, laying out the possible future of tech in policing. Baran envisioned transformative tech, like a “network of interconnected computers able to recall any selected information on any individual,” and a system that could “record the whereabouts of each automobile as it traveled any road.”
This was heady stuff, considering few police departments even had computers at the time. But his vision, which he worried could enable “the most effective, oppressive police states ever created,” has largely come true — think Automated License Plate Readers, and, well, the internet.
Relatively new security technologies have quickly become as banal as a door with a lock or a window with a latch. Home security systems had only begun to emerge in the ‘70s. As of 2016, the country had more than 60 million surveillance cameras. That’s up from roughly zero in 1968, when the town of Olean, near the southwest corner of New York state, became the first in the U.S. to install surveillance cameras. The town scrapped them after a two-year trial run — crime was too low to justify the cost.
The banality of modern crime control dulls outrage at its failures and blinds society to alternatives.
Crime rates then and now are roughly equal. But many still mythologize that era as a simpler, safer, fundamentally different time. A few years after Olean removed its cameras, in the winter of 1972, two kids coaxed a New York City firehouse’s watchdog into their car, “kidnapping” the Dalmation. But someone saw their license plate, and three weeks later, police had tracked them to Methuen. A couple of New York firefighters made the trip and picked up their dog, the Times reported. No charges were filed.
Crime rose steeply in the years after the Dalmatian’s abduction, and stayed high through the early ‘90s, powering the rise of nation’s security systems. All other things being equal, crime rates are lower than they would be without the resources the nation invests in security — if Methuen laid off half its police department, crime would almost certainly rise, research indicates.
But the banality of modern crime control dulls outrage at its failures and blinds society to alternatives. After all, no one actually knows why crime dropped so dramatically in the early ‘90s. Experts have tried to explain it with everything from the elimination of leaded gasoline to the the rise of smarter, stronger security systems, but nothing quite adds up.
The modern conception of public safety is founded on deterring people who might commit crimes, and catching and punishing those who do. That might sound reasonable. But it enables and justifies the pervasive harassment — and occasional murder — of black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement. By blanketing the country in surveillance, millions of people are funneled into cages.
(Jails and prisons may actually generate more crime than they prevent. Incarcerating people makes them more likely to break the law again when they get out than if they hadn’t been locked up at all, research shows. There’s also widespread crime inside jails and prisons, committed by both guards and inmates. But that’s easy to miss because crime behind bars is heavily undercounted, and statistics reliably exclude it from the nation’s overall crime rate.)
Imagining an America with fewer cops might seem as naive as a dog standing watch at a firehouse. Amid terrorism, billionaire drug traffickers, and cyber crime, the country seems to need modern, powerful security to face down modern, powerful threats.
People with badges and guns dominate (white) American notions of what security looks like.
Just how powerful are those threats? Laws are still disproportionately broken by mere teenagers. Most murders are committed with guns, knives, or what the FBI calls “personal weapons” — hands and feet. Crime is mostly the work of some combination of the young, the impulsive, and the desperate.
People with badges and guns dominate (white) American notions of what security looks like. But modern crime control is designed to deal with people who have already broken the law, and those who stand at the brink. It’s a last-ditch fix. It doesn’t address root causes of crime — and sometimes it creates root causes of crime. There are other, better ways to keep people safe.
Equal pay for women, for one, would reduce domestic violence. Narrowing the wage gap by 3.6 percent led to a whopping nine percent decline in domestic violence, according to a 2010 study. For many women, leaving an abusive partner means poverty or even homelessness. More money decreases abuse by giving women more “bargaining power” in their relationships, because it improves their “outside option”: breaking up.
Reallocating more of the rich’s money to the poor would also lower violent crime. There’s a tight, causal relationship between income inequality and violence, researchers have found. A 2002 study found that lowering inequality by just 2.4 percent would bring down the murder rate by 20 percent over the next 35 years.
The wage gap has shrunk in the years since crime was last this low, but women’s earnings were still only 85 percent of men’s in 2018. Income inequality, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. A decline in the Gini coefficient might not help anyone sleep at night. But the nation’s focus on law and order has left little room to consider systemic changes that would make people safer that don’t cost so much in dollars, liberty, and human lives.
Meanwhile, in Methuen, police never missed a day on the beat. The city revised the law enforcement contract, and rescinded the layoffs just two weeks after they were announced. The force stayed at its normal strength, double what it was in 1970.