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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Toward an aldermanic theory of crime prevention

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2009 - One of the most misused words in the English language is "theory." In popular usage, "theory" has become roughly synonymous with "opinion" - a personal point of view that one has every right to hold but no right to impose upon another. "It's just a theory" thus becomes a convenient way to dismiss an idea whose implications make us uncomfortable because they challenge previously held beliefs. Things that are "theoretically possible" are understood to be unlikely to occur.

Given this misconception, evolution and phrenology are peers in the universe of intellectual thought. Each is but a "mere theory" as opposed to an irrefutable "hard fact." From a scientific perspective, of course, such a notion is utter nonsense.

As Immanuel Kant demonstrated, all statements of causality are theoretical in nature. In terms of strict objectivity, an observer can only state that one phenomenon tends to follow another. The causal link between the thunderhead in the heavens and the mud puddle in the gutter is supplied by the intellect, which seeks to understand the inter-connectivity of events.

Broadly defined, a theory is a postulated model of causality. It's a systemic organization of ideas about how factors interact that attempts to explain an observable phenomenon. For a theory to be considered scientific, it does not necessarily have to be factually correct, but it must be testable.

Both phrenology and evolution entered the world as potentially scientific theories. The former postulated a relationship between the lumps on one's skull and a person's intellectual abilities. The latter formulated the concept of natural selection. Due to a dearth of supporting empirical evidence, phrenology is now dismissed as pseudo-intellectual babble while evolution, backed by an expansive body of subsequent observation, is considered to be the central organizing principle of biological science.

Theories also tend to have limitations. Geocentrism - the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth - appeals to common sense. As I walk out my front door in the morning, I can see the sun rise from the eastern horizon. By the time I get home at night, it's setting in the backyard. The house is where I left it, so it would appear that the sun has moved.

Interestingly, this factually incorrect theory works quite well for most of our daily needs, which probably explains why, centuries after Galileo, we continue to speak of the sun coming up in the east and going down in west. Apply the concept to space travel, however, and the whole thing falls apart like the illusion it has always been.

Lest the reader conclude that I've become hopelessly esoteric, let's apply the above concepts to a real-world situation currently unfolding in St. Louis.

Last year, city voters were presented with a sales tax increase. The main import of the measure was to help defray shortfalls in the city's contributions to the police and fire pension funds. Additional funds would be used to hire some extra cops and to give police and firefighters already on the rolls a modest pay raise. A small percentage of the anticipated revenue - about $1 million a year - would be devoted to "crime prevention."

Given the generally gloomy economic circumstances of the time, the proposal was given little chance of passage. Though city hall offered nominal support, the effort was lackluster at best, perhaps because most politicians would rather not be too closely associated with losing causes. Miraculously, the local electorate again rallied on behalf public safety and passed the measure 55 percent - 45 percent.

Earmarked funds for pension capitalization and expanding the police force have been duly allocated. The more nebulous concept of crime prevention, however, has become problematic.

With all due deference to the Greatest Deliberative Body on Tucker Boulevard, relatives of the Board of Aldermen appear to have been over-represented among proposed grant recipients. Aside from the usual collection of in-laws and cousins in executive positions, some programs listed P.O. boxes for business addresses and one new crime-busting initiative was headquartered in an alderman's private residence.

The press did its job and exposed the troubling irregularities. As of this writing, disbursement of the funds is under review.

At first blush, the lesson here would seem to be that offering a million dollars in discretionary spending to a group of politicians is akin to waving a roasted pig in front of a herd of velociraptors. Upon further review, however, the problem may be one of inexact language.

It is always difficult - though by no means impossible - to measure prevention. That's because you're trying to quantify something that didn't occur. In the case of crime prevention grants, this problem was circumvented by simply omitting a requirement that any of the funded programs demonstrate that they were in the least bit effective in reducing the crime rate.

An even more fundamental difficulty involves the undefined term "crime." Drug trafficking, shop-lifting, child molestation and murder are all illegal activities. Does anybody believe that one program can prevent all of these wildly diverse behaviors?

When a term is defined this broadly, it becomes impossible to test the impact of any theory on its overall occurrence. In the absence of hard evidence, we rely on common sense. As the example of geocentrism illustrates, this can be misleading: Will better pre-school reading programs later reduce the incidence of sexual assault?

Perhaps now that the Board has a chance to reconsider, it will develop specifically targeted programs that lend themselves to reliable testing to ensure an effective expenditure of public funds. That, I suppose, is theoretically possible...

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis police officer who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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