Forensic Investigations and Building Strong Neighborhoods
We began this chapter by recognizing that the practice of forensic science is inextricably connected to police reform. The relationship between the police and the community can have a significant effect on whether crimes will be prevented or cleared with an arrest. In an era of broken windows policing, officers are recognized and rewarded for enforcing minor quality-of-life offenses. As reviewed previously, aggressive law enforcement tactics tend to pit the police against the community and vice versa. According to sociologists, it is the game being played on the field—in this case, aggressive law enforcement on the field of policing—that shapes officers’ worldviews and dispositions. In the traditional law enforcement model, the police disposition is not conducive to community building and has led to fractured relations with residents. Recent acts of violence by the police against unarmed African
American men have created an impetus for change. The current aggressive enforcement model harms both the police and the community (Nolan, 2016).
Our central argument is that the problems of low and declining clearance rates in many cities is not the one that will be solved by simply increasing resources or improving technology used in forensic investigations. Indeed, clearance rates have declined despite noteworthy advances in these areas. Despite the importance of forensic investigations, the majority of cases are cleared due to cooperation from victims and witnesses who can name the suspect. For instance, a study of a sample of 1905 crimes investigated by the Los Angeles police department found that they cleared 86% of cases where a suspect was named, but only 12% of cases with unnamed suspects (Walker and Katz, 2013). As such, enhancing police legitimacy and improving police-community relationships are going to be key in improving cooperation with police investigations, increasing clearance rates and reducing crime in the long term. We argue that for this to happen, the game of policing must change. Specifically, it must shift from the renewed focus on what Goldstein (1979) decades ago called the means of policing (generating arrests, citations, searches, seizures, etc.) to focusing on the ultimate ends or common good of policing—building strong neighborhoods where residents and the police work in concert to maintain safety, order, and quality of life. Absent a change in the game of policing, levels of legitimacy will remain low, particularly in high crime, inner city communities. Consequently, investigations will be hampered by unwillingness of residents to cooperate with police in general and through the continued growth of Stop Snitching campaigns (Woldoff and Weiss, 2010).
We are currently living in an era of reform in many of our institutions, including the police. Therefore, it is not yet clear what ethical behavior in policing will mean. In order to do right, one must know the desired end at which policing is aimed. This might be referred to as the greatest good—the summum bonum of policing. Once this is defined, police officers are better able to assess action as right or wrong based on whether it helps achieve the greatest good.
Based on recent sociological research on neighborhood crime, we define the greatest good in policing—that is, the desired end—as the strong neighborhood. The conceptual framework of four neighborhood types helps officers see the types of actions that might work best in each context. Future research should evaluate the impact of varied police tactics targeted directly at these four types of neighborhoods and focus on assessing changes in collective efficacy and measures such as cooperation with police investigations in addition to any impacts on crime as we currently know very little about how the police can best strengthen community social controls (see Weisburd et al., 2015a). The role of forensic scientists is less clear in the short term as they must first conform to the norms of science. Perhaps doing right as a forensic investigator inside a police agency may be to support efforts to build strong neighborhoods, which will in turn be more likely to cooperate with their investigative efforts.