Notes on Reply All Episodes #127 and #128: “The Crime Machine, Part 1 and 2”

The Reply All podcast had a recent two part show that I really liked. (You can listen to them here (part 1) and here (part 2). My background in government and public administration is a big reason for my interest in these two episodes, but I’m pretty sure both of you will find this interesting and entertaining.

This thread will be place to jot down my thoughts on the podcasts.

If you really want to know a summary, I’ll give you one, but I think you should just listen to the first ten minutes, and if that doesn’t grab you, you can take a pass. Before I give a summary, I will say that part of what I think you’ll find interesting is the profile of one of the people in this. For me, he’s the type of fictional detective I’d really like (or used to) in a Hollywood movie or detective fiction. I think you would guys will find him interesting. Here’s a summary of the episodes. The podcast begins by chronicling problematic arrests in New York City. These arrests have their origin in a computer system. The podcasts examines the system, including the way it was built, how it initially worked well, and how things took a bad turn.

Can we really know what causes big increases and decreases in crime?

New York City had a big crime problem in the 1970s and 1980s, but at some point, crimes started decreasing, and kept decreasing over a long period of time. I was familiar with this, but as this point comes up in the podcast, I thought of the various theories to explain this phenomenon–e.g., the broken windows theory, reduction in lead poisoning and also making abortion legal and accessible. What stands out is the level of certainty advocates spoke with presenting their explanation. I believe in one instance the explanation began by dismissing other theories, claiming that the current explanation was actually the correct and definitive one. If we can assume that the causes and reduction of crime are complex (and I think this is the case), that they can involve several different factors, can we really speak confidently and definitively about the primary cause for crime and its reduction? Will we ever be able to?

(On a side note, this makes me think of using statistics to understand football. Football statistics seem to be a product of many interdependent variables, or they measure something indirectly related to some aspect of football. Will we ever had statistics and numerical data that will definitively give us the truth about football matters? If not, and we have to rely heavily on subjective analysis, we’ll never arrive at certainty.)

4 thoughts on “Notes on Reply All Episodes #127 and #128: “The Crime Machine, Part 1 and 2”

  1. The Cold, Hard, Painful Truth

    The podcast mentions that at some point only crimes that involved over $10,000 were seriously investigated. If a crime happened to someone who was poor and often a person of color, the NYPD wouldn’t really take these crimes seriously. My reaction upon hearing this: This is how things are, and probably the way things always will be, with a few exceptions. I say this in a somber, resigned way.

    A part of me doesn’t think this occurs because the NYPD is racist (although I don’t rule that out) or because of some level of corruption. Even if these two factors weren’t in play, I’d expect the above. The reason for this is that police departments have limited resources. Like many government agencies, the way they direct those resources involve who are what will make the most noise and cause the most discomfort and pain. If a poor person gets robbed, generally, they can’t do much to get the attention of the police department, and they have little means to make life difficult for those who run the department. But if a person of means or connections gets robbed, they tend to have a greater willingness and means to make their complaints heard and felt by the people running the police department. So the policy makes sense, based on human behavior. People aren’t going to act vigorously if there is little consequence to acting or not acting.

    Having said that, the police is still disturbing, and I’d like to think that other police stations don’t operate this way. What’s interesting is that Jack Maple, the person at the center of the podcast, was genuinely outraged by this policy, and actually obtained power to do something about it.

    When an Arrogant, Highly Competent Government Worker is Actually Given Power

    Jack Maple is the type of individual I would look to as a hero and role model, and you mostly see them in movies. He’s the talented maverick cop who is disgusted by the incompetence and bureaucracy around him, and isn’t afraid to express his disgust. Over the years, I’ve become less sympathetic to this type of person (although I haven’t seen many of them in real life, for good reasons). I still admire their dedication and intelligence, but their arrogance is oft putting and something I can’t support. An individual may have the right answers and their criticism of the system may be completely valid, but openly treating colleagues with contempt is really hard to justify. I wouldn’t want to work with such a person even if they were intelligent. Additionally, often reasons exist for policies that are not rational or efficient; working in such a system for a long time can also have deleterious effects on the administrators in the system, sucking out their enthusiasm and industriousness in the process. Scorn for these people can often be unfair and misplaced in my view.

    In any event, my sense is that people like Jack Maple rarely rise to a position of significant, administrative power. The podcast isn’t entirely clear (I don’t think) about how Maple actually achieved this. My guess is that the crime situation in New York City was so bad, that the Mayor and higher ups were really desperate for a solution. Maple got dramatic results in a few instances, and I suspect that enabled him to get promoted. My guess is that the key here is the level of desperation on the part of policymakers. If they really, really want something accomplished–if the stakes are high enough–they will tolerate the talented person, even if the individual is really obnoxious.

  2. A Highly Motivated, Talented Public Administrator Can Really Make a Difference,…

    At this point in my life, I don’t have a lot of optimism with regard to making government work both effectively and efficiently. However, one scenario where this might happen involves highly-motivated and talented high-level administrator(s). If one or more of these individuals have the skills and desire, they could possibility be a force that would significantly increase the effectiveness and efficiency of a government agency. If this administrator began to gather and track the right data, and then began scrutinizing the managers right below them, this could have a positive rippling effect in the agency.

    This is the effect that Jack Maple had on the NYPD (at least according to the podcast, which seems to rely heavily on interviews with people who saw Maple in a positive light). Maple focused on getting better information about crime and then began using this to hold police administrators accountable by questioning them during regular review process (which would include policymakers*). I believe the podcast mentioned that Maple fired some of these administrators, but even if he didn’t, I think this type of scrutiny could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of an agency.

    (The podcast creates the impression that Maple’s approach was largely punitive. That is, the police administrators feared Maple, and this motivated them to make changes. The meetings could be more constructive and positive. For example, the meeting could focus on identifying problems, but they assisting police administrators with constructing a plan to address the problems. There could be ways to emphasize the successes, rather than emphasizing the failures. However, if the police administrators demonstrated bad faith, in both the meetings and their work overall, a more negative, punitive response might be appropriate.)

    In the next post, I’m going to discuss the dark side to this process.

    (*The idea of having key policymakers present during this type of private session appeals to me, if the top administrator is leading the proceedings. The top administrator would also have been to be highly competent and knowledgeable as well. But the process could not only provide accountability for the administrators, but it might be a better way to inform and educate the policymakers. Additionally, the process could be effective without any overt rewards or punishments (e.g., financial rewards or job termination).

    However, I think several conditions need to be in place for this to work. First, the agency needs to have good information. The information should provide strong indications about the quality of work by the agency. Second, the top administrator must understand and use the information appropriately and fairly. If they draw the wrong conclusions or blame or credit an administrator inappropriately, the system won’t work very well. The top administrator has to possess good information, understanding, and exercise good judgment. How likely would it be to find such an administrator? I’m a little more pessimistic about these prospects.

    What I’m saying above applies whether key policymakers sit in on the meetings or not. However, if they do sit in, they must also possess similar qualities I described above.)

  3. You can always assume that I’ve listened to Reply All at least once (and usually twice) within two weeks after an episode has been released. It’s my second-favorite non-daily podcast. Not only did I go back and listen to all the back episodes once I discovered it, I listened to Vogt and Goldman’s podcast before they moved to Gimlet, TL:DR.

    This two-parter wasn’t one of the more interesting ones for me. I didn’t listen to it twice, but I did enjoy it. Of course, I wasn’t listening to it with a public administrator’s ear; I was listening to it from a tech geek’s ear, which probably resulted in a different takeaway.

    You said, “Scorn for these people can often be unfair and misplaced in my view.”

    In most management positions I would agree, but this guy watched crime be ignored for a very long time, and he obviously took it seriously. I think when it comes to public safety, you’ve got more scorn leeway. Like, don’t be a cop if lapses in public safety don’t really affect you, you know?

    1. …I was listening to it from a tech geek’s ear, which probably resulted in a different takeaway.

      I’m interested in hearing what you took away from this, if you don’t mind sharing, that is.

      You said, “Scorn for these people can often be unfair and misplaced in my view.”

      In most management positions I would agree, but this guy watched crime be ignored for a very long time, and he obviously took it seriously. I think when it comes to public safety, you’ve got more scorn leeway. Like, don’t be a cop if lapses in public safety don’t really affect you, you know?

      I think these are valid points, and I want to be clear that I’m not disagreeing with Maple’s sense of outrage. I think that’s wholly appropriate and understandable. My comment referred to directing this at the people working in the department. There’s no doubt that there are people who don’t care enough or who are incompetent, but my feeling is that this is ultimately symptom of something larger. Apathetic, incompetent, maybe even corrupt police officers (and government workers) result from a bigger system. To make meaningful changes, you’re going to have to change the system.

      Having said that, maybe I’m cutting the some of the NYPD too much slack. It’s a notion that I wouldn’t dismiss.

      (By the way, on a slightly related note, Maple’s scorn and frustration reminds me a little of the critics of the media–specifically, the Trump coverage. To me, the situations are basically the same. Getting mad and exasperated at people running the NYT or CNN seems misplaced. Those individuals operate within a larger environment that have economic constraints to what they can and cannot do. With Maple and media critics, I feel like they’re not adequately accounting for these systemic issues.)

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