Research shows that police do have an important role to play in reducing homicides. Studies consistently find that there is less violent crime when the chances of being caught and punished are high. Unfortunately, as Jill Leovy’s book “Ghettoside” has shown, all too often the quality of homicide investigation is highly uneven and correlates with the victims’ race and neighborhood. It is unsurprising, then, that some people of color argue that their communities need more and better policing. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 81% of Black Americans want police to spend the same amount or even more time in their area.
However, more police should not mean a return to steep sentences and mass incarceration. There is no evidence that stronger punishment, whether the death penalty or long prison sentences, prevents murder. What works is smart enforcement that combines direct punishment threats to high-risk offenders with community support offering potential aggressors a real alternative to violence. That means providing immediate services to those willing to consider stepping away from violence, including offering cognitive behavioral treatment, bolstering social services, conducting direct outreach through mentoring, and opening employment opportunities and job skills trainings. The idea is to work with the community to tailor the approach directly to what drives each person to engage in crime. When Cincinnati adopted this approach, it saw a 38% decline in gang-related homicides, in just two years. Smart enforcement has reduced violent crime in most cities brave enough to adopt it.