The works of systems-dyamics thinker Dr. Jay W. Forrester recently crossed my path, synchronously with a recent piece by Civic Strategies consultant Otis White about an innovative way to shut down drug-dealing. Forrester, whose 1969 book, Urban Dynamics, promoted his ideas and their application to cities, gave a 1998 presentation on his philosophy in Seville, "Designing the Future" (PDF). From that presentation:
[A] social system implies that people act partly as cogs in a social and economic machine. People play their roles while driven by pressures from the whole system. Accepting the dominance of social systems over individuals is contrary to our cherished illusion that people freely make their own decisions. …
We do not live in a unidirectional world in which a problem leads to an action that leads to a solution. Instead, we live in an on-going circular environment. Each action is based on current conditions, such actions affect future conditions, and changed conditions become the basis for later action. …Each person reacts to the echo of his past actions, as well as to the past actions of others.
[A] few observations about drug markets. These are places, nearly always in poor and usually minority neighborhoods, where dealers congregate on street corners and sell drugs openly. People pull up in cars, do a little haggling and drive off minutes later with crack cocaine or heroin. …
The markets are also difficult to shut down. Reason: Police sweeps often result in arrests only of the unluckiest or slowest afoot, and in days the markets are back in business. And the sweeps come at a cost. Much as they hate the dealers, residents also resent the heavy-handed way police squads pour into their neighborhoods, guns drawn, slamming suspects against walls and questioning everyone in sight. Still, what else can the cops do?
Back to Forrester, whose words seem to be echoed in White’s example above:
In short, [sometimes] the policies established to solve a problem are actually the cause. Such a situation can create a serious downward spiral. If the policies being followed are believed to alleviate a problem, but, in hidden ways, are causing the problem, then, as the problem gets worse, pressures increase to apply still more strongly the very policies that are causing the problem.
Forrester goes on to say that we may want to "blame troubles on outside forces," but that "most difficulties arise from internal causes." Believing that our direct actions will bring about a solution, we can often cause additional problems, and calcify the very realities that we attempt to dissolve. The new approach to crime-solving attempted with great success in High Point entailed the followingmore from White’s piece:
First, identify the drug markets, then do months of undercover work, including videotaping, to establish how it workswho are the kingpins, who are the underlings, who might be violent, who isn’t. In the next phase, authorities contact the relatives and mentors of the non-violent underlings, the young men who stand on the corners. And they bring in neighborhood leaders, including ministers. To each group, they present their evidenceincluding videotape of the suspects selling drugsand say they’re willing to offer a deal. If the suspects agree to change their ways and others in the room promise to support them, they won’t arrest the young men.
Then comes the theatrics: The police call the suspects as a group to the police station and surround them with family, social workers and ministers imploring them to give up the thug life. This usually makes little impression. Then they lead the young men to another room, where they lay out the evidence, including the videotapes. They are shown their arrest warrants, which lack only the judge’s signature. Prosecutors warn that, if they don’t change, their offices will seek maximum sentences against them. According to those who’ve witnessed these encounters, the suspects’ attitudes change almost instantly at this point. Most accept the deal on the spot.
For the source of these innovations, White points to David Kennedy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who posited that disrupting the drug market itself was the key to solving the problemrather than simply arresting dealers. It’s like solving malaria epidemics, for example: killing mosquitoes won’t necessarily do the trick, but depriving them of water (also known as "draining the swamp") works to keep them from coming back.
By using the force of the community’s will against drug dealers, they can be enticed to give it up, or so goes the thinking. But this takes a whole different perspective on the source of the problem, an understanding that the dealers are working within a system that currently supports them, a system much more powerful than we may want to believe.
Then there’s the whole idea of public outrage if the police are occupying themselves with surveillance, while drug-dealing appears to run rampant.