Surrounded by the Worst

“Most big city officers see the citizenry as at best uncooperative and at worst hostile.”  That’s a line from Thinking About Crime, which I heard about on a podcast and decided to read.  It’s written by James Q. Wilson, who also wrote my government textbook in high school (and probably yours).  The author is most famous for originating the “broken windows” theory of policing, used by Bill Bratton in several cities.  This theory was famously discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.  But the book has been influential in other ways.  Thinking About Crime was written in 1975, before the “evidenced based policing” movement, and before there was much good data in criminology.  There are a lot of interesting passages in the book, but one in particular spoke to my experience as a prosecutor.

By the nature of his job, the police officer is disproportionately involved with the poor, the black, and the young, partly because young males, especially poor ones, are more likely to be involved in criminal activities and breaches of the peace, and partly because even the law-abiding poor (who are, after all, the majority of the poor) must rely on the police for a variety of services which middle-class families do not require or, if they require them obtain from nonpolice sources.

This explanation for why officers tend to have a negative view of their communities it what we must digest.  Many prosecutors and police, myself included, do not live in the communities that we serve.  This may be a wise choice, given the feelings that our work inevitably produces, or an unwise choice, because the stakes are lower when it’s someone else’s community that you are working with.  For those of us who do not live in the community, our only interaction with it is during the course of our work.  Prosecutors see the citizens of their jurisdiction in court.  Sometimes, they see victims, but overwhelmingly they only see defendants.  Defendants in custody, defendants in the gallery, defendants in the hallways, defendants in the restrooms.  People who do not want to be there.  People who are angry and frightened.  And more than that, people that the police believe have committed crimes.

The point is that prosecutors generally don’t see normal community members; they almost exclusively see the worst people in the community.  It can be tempting to assume that the entire community is like that.  If you never thought about it, you might unconsciously make this kind of assumption.  After all, you drive home at night without any other community contact to change your mind.  Seeing only the community’s criminals, and seeing them in court, at what can reasonably be assumed to be some of the worst moments of their lives, may lead to a misconception about everyone else – those people that don’t have to come to court.

This misconception can be dangerous.  The role of the prosecutor is to punish the wrongdoer, of course, but it is also to protect the community.  We must give all our efforts to this work.  Protecting the community doesn’t just require hard work and legal knowledge, it also requires our compassion for the community.  It requires our sincere desire to help the people we serve.  That compassion can be extinguished and replaced by cynicism if we fall into the trap of believing that the community is like our defendants.  They are not.  On the other hand, our compassion for our communities can be strengthened if we pause to remember that the people outside of our courtrooms, though they may never come through the door and tell us, truly appreciate our swift and competent legal work.  And as bad as it is to deal with some of our defendants in court, it is far worse to deal with them on the street.

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