If you enjoy the gangster movie genre, then you’re familiar with the tactic. A man struts into the a business. There is a cordialness between him and the shopkeeper, but you can tell it is forced. After a bit of back and forth, the gauntlet is thrown down. Pay the gangster, or bad things will happen.
It is obvious that the person making the threat is the bad guy. The shopowner is scared. The threat is backed up by the threat of violence, of arson in the dark.
So why is it that police departments seem to think that this is a model for community relations? Here in St. Louis, a joint taskforce of federal and state law enforcement is going to talk to known criminals, and threaten their families.
Let’s start with “known criminals.” Because the police are just sitting down for a chat, we know that these people have not been arrested and indicted. Instead, what the phrase “known criminal” means is “We think you’ve done something. We just can’t prove it.” Now, I imagine that this is one of the worst parts of a cops job, not being able to legally prosecute someone who they “know” is a criminal. Problem is, we don’t know how the police “know” this. Is it because everyone on the street is talking about it? Is it because the individual committed a crime in the past, paid their debt to society, but can’t shake the mark of Cain? Is it because the person just didn’t comply fast enough to a police order, looked shifty, or any of a million other, completely subjective, possibilities?
Moving on. Just trust the government. They know who the criminals are. Can’t prove it. But they know.
Having found these known criminals, who can’t be lawfully arrested, it is insufficient to just let them know that eyes are watching. That they are on the radar. No. These known criminals must be threatened. And not just threatened. Their family must be threatened too. Do the crime, your family is going to do the time. Time on the street, when they are thrown out of their home for “code violations.” Time without water, because nobody needs to stay hydrated in the heat of summer.
Police and prosecutors are looking for “innovative” ways to combat crime. Understandable. And they are under constant pressure to be proactive, rather than reactive. But some things are, or must be, a bridge to far. And one of those things has to be adopting the tactics of criminals.