With cyclical regularity, crime is a major political issue again. The unrest after George Floyd's murder rattled the Twin Cities and the nation. As usually happens after civil discord, violent crime spiked, here and elsewhere. Although violence is now declining from those recent peaks, street violence has a way of commanding headlines and preoccupying minds, and accordingly, has stayed front-and-center in recent local elections. As the debate has worn on, it has remained fixated on the single question of policing. Minnesota politicians have to think bigger, about the underlying social conditions linked to crime — especially racial and economic segregation.
America has been here before. Past waves of civil unrest have been followed by an upsurge in crime. It's as if police violence, which unleashes long-simmering frustration over profound inequality, also shreds norms about public safety and damages the shared values that keep communities safe. Police reforms may be adopted after initial protests. Yet the reforms are rapidly abandoned in the face of higher crime, and the process repeats over and over. In 1968, an upsurge in crime the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped elect a law-and-order president. That election led to more aggressive policing but also ended the great civil rights era.
On crime, many politicians appear caught between two difficult realities. First, the undeniable truth that crime is a real problem. It destroys property, injures people, kills people, and bereaves family and friends. Beyond the victims themselves, criminal activity also erodes the economic and social stability of neighborhoods, frightening residents, especially parents. The high levels of stress it produces harms the health of adults and children; medical researchers and sociologists alike have observed the devastating and lifelong effects of traumatic emotional experiences on individual well-being.
What's more, there are long-standing, well-established geographic disparities in crime levels. While politicized fear of violent crime is often centered around affluent, majority-white neighborhoods, it is important to remember that the highest spikes in violent crime are largely confined to the most vulnerable parts of the region — poor and racially segregated neighborhoods in the central cities. The crime in these neighborhoods is one of the most wicked harms of segregation, as it heaps even more pain on the region's lower-income and nonwhite residents, groups that already face vastly greater challenges than middle-class white families.
But there's another tough reality: the historic solutions to crime haven't been very good. Faced with spiking violence, politicians almost always embrace militaristic policing strategies, increasing funding for cops and new aggressive tactics, aimed at stopping and punishing wrongdoers. Unfortunately, research suggests that even large numbers of new police have a limited effect on rates of violence — not enough to prevent significant crime waves.
And a great injustice of American cities is that crime and policing often ends up hurting the same nonviolent bystanders. Researchers have demonstrated that adding police also increases the number of low-level arrests for nonviolent offenses, which are disproportionately experienced by Black residents. At times aggressive policing can almost take on the dynamics of military occupation: rich neighborhoods voting to pour police into lower-income areas, regardless of the harms it causes, in a misbegotten effort to keep criminals at arm's length. With little long-term effect, the cyclical pattern of peace and violence continues.
Relying entirely on police to prevent crime means leaving in place the social, economic and residential conditions that have led someone to commit a crime in the first place. A better, longer-lasting solution is to focus on those conditions. Scholarly research has consistently shown a correlation between racial and economic segregation and increased crime rates. Social scientists have a variety of theories for why crime is linked to segregation. It might be poor schools, lack of economic opportunity together with a sense of abandonment and isolation, the unfairness of having one's life trajectory is determined by their ZIP code.
Policymakers could fight crime by fighting segregation and the social conditions it produces. But no single neighborhood or city, acting alone, can eliminate dividing lines in our region. Instead, those lines are produced by regionwide forces. Policy strategies to dismantle these divisions must address multiple places at once.
What would such a strategy look like? It could start with affordable housing in affluent high-opportunity areas so that low-income people are not restricted to a handful of neighborhoods where there is little educational or economic opportunity. Racially and economically diverse areas, which are often economically vibrant but run the risk of tilting into greater poverty if middle-class residents begin to leave, should get the school and infrastructure funding they need to stay competitive. And the poorest neighborhoods should be the focus of intensive economic redevelopment, as well as educational policies like magnet schools that can help revitalize their housing markets.
To reduce segregation policymakers must also confront the public and private discrimination that creates it. Contrary to claims that segregation is a voluntary choice, social science research has demonstrated that the most severe segregation is invariably linked to systemic discrimination. That means policymakers must take on banks that refuse to lend fairly in poor neighborhoods or to nonwhite home buyers, and real estate agents who treat Black and white families differently. It also means ending discriminatory public rules that steer new affordable housing only toward struggling areas, and exclusionary zoning laws that make it impossible to construct additional homes in affluent places.
This approach isn't as simple as adding more cops to the streets. But it's a solution with many advantages. It protects people from crime without subjecting them to greater policing. It's durable and long-lasting. And instead of giving policy money for guns and cars, it gives regular people resources for things they want: better schools, cheaper housing, better infrastructure and a stronger economy. Ultimately, the best way to fight crime is by fixing lives and neighborhoods.
Myron Orfield is the Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights at the University of Minnesota Law School. Will Stancil is a research fellow there.