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Defining Victory

To a man without a map all paths look the same.

Loose translation of an African proverb

A recent column in my local newspaper really resonated with me. The author discussed several lessons from the Viet Nam War. Since my service there, I have thought much on what we should have learned from that experience. Thus, I was disappointed that the writer didn’t cite what I believe was the war’s most important lesson: you need a clear picture of what Victory looks like. Without that anchor, policies are like a boat beating on a dock, doing little good and damaging both the dock and the boat. In Viet Nam, this resulted in way too many “We have to destroy this village in order to save it”s in a war that ultimately ended in failure.

One of my Beloved’s favorite jabs at the Bush Administration is that they didn’t have an exit strategy for Iraq – and she’s right. What started out as taking down Saddam Hussein (and looking for weapons of mass destruction we never could find!) evolved into a complicated mess involving nation-building and terrorist-hunting. In other words, we never seemed to have a clear picture of what we were trying to achieve, so we never got out until we just basically said, “To Hell with it! We’re leaving.”

In my User’s Guide to Expert Advice, I pointed out that clearly describing Victory is a prerequisite for success for community leaders. In one of my examples, I contrasted the US and Swedish approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The US approach to the pandemic has been to “flatten the curve,” i.e., victory was [sort of] defined as no Covid-19 deaths due to lack of appropriate medical care. The Swedish approach has been much more “Whole of Society” – balancing protection of the most vulnerable with maintaining an acceptable quality of life. We had the same dichotomy of approach among the US states. In general, the red states strove to limit the impacts of the virus on everyday life, while protecting the most vulnerable. Conversely, the blue states imposed strict lockdown and masking measures for much longer to prevent the spread of the disease (In fact, cities in some blue states are actually re-imposing masking requirements.).

In today’s inbox I received the results of a study (by the National Bureau of Economic Research) looking at each state’s overall performance during the pandemic. The authors looked at each state’s excess mortality, economic performance, and educational impacts. The states that took draconian actions to prevent infections did somewhat better in fighting the pandemic’s infectiousness than the others. On the other hand, those states’ economies took bigger hits and have taken longer to recover – some still have not. The biggest difference was in educational performance – kids in states that kept them out of school longer fell further behind academically and had more negative mental health incidents (and more suicides!) than their peers in more open states.

This echoes the results of international studies with similar findings. We now have a lot of data indicating that defining victory holistically leads to better overall outcomes than a single focus on just one aspect of life.

Going to the community level, several major US cities defined victory as defunding the police. They succeeded. But what did they achieve? Spikes in crime, officers’ resignations, loss of economic activity. In this case, “Victory” [=defunding the police] was easy to achieve but the cost to these cities is already outrageously high and getting worse. For example, just today it was reported that Seattle is not able to investigate sexual assaults because there are not enough police officers to do so. Rapes can be reported via an automated messaging system, but nothing happens with these reports. Experience indicates that single women and families will begin to flee the city in increasing numbers, further hollowing out its economy and making it less and less attractive for tourists.

To me, defining victory can be a cornerstone of community resilience, if done properly. We unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to it – it’s that “vision thing” we tend to ignore. So let me offer a few simple guidelines for community leaders.

• While Victory may not be measurable, it has to be clearly defined. Not only you as community leaders must understand what victory looks like, but its description has to be clear and understandable for everyone who cares about the community. Otherwise, it is unlikely that any progress toward it can be sustained.

• Victory has to enhance the quality of life in the community – for everybody. Doing something to help one group at the expense of another will ultimately help neither (see Seattle’s example). This implies that Victory needs to be thought of in a “Whole of Community” manner. Community leaders should ask, “Will the entire community be better off if we reach this destination?” If the answer is no, the community leaders need to regroup.

• Since Victory is a destination – an endstate – there needs to be a realistic path to get there. A rural community generally doesn’t have the resources to implement “big city” programs for health or economic development. So setting up the goals of those programs as the target for community policies simply isn’t realistic. In other words, no path = no victory.

• Although it’s not a formal part of their qualifications, the community expects its leaders to implicitly obey the first tenet of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. If Victory entails great sacrifices or harm greater than its benefits, or is perceived as such, then community leaders need to go back to the drawing board.

Above all, community leaders need to recognize that defining Victory in essence draws a roadmap for the community to follow toward its Future. It points to a destination and sets a path toward it. Thus, the brief guidelines I’ve drawn above can be summarized as:

  • If you can’t clearly describe the end-state you’re aiming for, don’t start down the path until you’re sure you’ll know it when you get there.
  • If the end-state isn’t good for the entire community, you need to rethink it.
  • If reaching Victory means needless suffering, then you need to rethink the path – and maybe the endstate.
  • And, finally, be damned sure to do no harm to any member of the community.

Without that roadmap, all paths will look the same, and almost all will lead nowhere.

Featured

The Camden Way

All direction of public opinion and humor must originate in a few.

Edmund Burke

Late last spring, as the protests after the death of George Floyd gained momentum, politicians in the Twin Cities and elsewhere began calling to defund or disband police forces across the country. For a few days, calls went out to follow “the Camden Way,” by which was meant disbanding the entire police department. Almost as soon as it started, though, mentions of the Camden experiment stopped. And that’s too bad, because there are useful lessons there.

In the distant past when I was a boy, my father worked for Campbell Soup in Camden, NJ. Even then, the city was slowly sinking into the same morass that other industrial cities – Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh – were in. Crime, grime and a feeling of tired neglect were my impressions of the town at the time.

By 2012, the city’s population was only 60% of its high water mark in the ‘50’s. There were ~2000 violent crimes that year (among the highest per capita in the nation), including 67 homicides; and drugs were openly bought and sold in the city’s streets. The police force was considered to be one of the most corrupt in the nation, its officers known for both their brutality and their high absenteeism. They were represented by a powerful union that had won for them large benefit packages, but also had blocked meaningful reform. Their general approach to crime was reactive – sitting in their precincts waiting for something to happen, and then going to the scene of the crime and busting a few heads.

Scott Thomson, the police chief at the time and a Camden native, believed there was a better way. He believed – and believes – in community policing. He wanted his officers to be out in the neighborhoods, getting to know the residents, playing stickball with the kids in the streets. But he couldn’t do that with the force he had available. There weren’t enough police officers to cover the entire city. At the time, “austerity” was the watchword for all of New Jersey – there simply wasn’t any money for Thomson to hire additional officers to fill the shortfall. And even if he could, the contract with the union limited officers’ ability to get out into the streets.

Thomson’s first tried to negotiate a more flexible contract with the policemen’s union. He failed. At his urging, the city government then disbanded the entire municipal police department. From that point onward, city policing was to be carried out by a newly formed county police department, under Thomson’s leadership. Even though the pay and benefits were less, 2,000 applied for the 400 positions on the force.

Residents saw immediate changes. Officers were out in the neighborhoods much more. New officers were “encouraged” to knock on doors, introducing themselves and asking residents for suggestions about how the department could do a better job. The drug trade did not disappear, but was driven underground. The mindset of police officers was transformed from “warrior” to “guardian.” The emphasis shifted from making arrests to making residents feel safe. The police sponsored ice cream trucks, and hosted block parties and barbeques. As the Catholic bishop of Camden said, Thomson ushered in an ethos of respect for residents.

The change has resulted in a substantial drop in crime, especially violent crime. From 2012 to 2019, the number of homicides fell by ~60% – from 67 to 24. Even with the turmoil of 2020, it was roughly the same – 23. Total violent crimes dropped by almost 50% over that same eight-year period. Excessive force complaints decreased by 95% (only 3 last year).

But still there are critics. They note that crime has decreased but has not disappeared. Camden’s residents are still poor; far too many are unemployed; there are disparities in health care. In effect, the critics are saying to take money away from crimestopping to try to treat the community’s other social ills.

To me, these criticisms miss the mark. The safety of its citizens and their property is one of the essential foundations of a community. It is nearly impossible for the poor to climb out of poverty without this firm foundation – opportunity cannot flourish if safety languishes.

What Thomson achieved exemplifies Burke’s quote above. He and his peers in city government conceived a new – and demonstrably better – way to ensure the public’s safety. They molded public opinion so that residents would accept these tough decisions. And they made their conception a reality. Instead of sitting in their precincts waiting for crime to boil over, police officers are out in the community taking its temperature and turning down the heat however they can. Residents are part of the solution, not impediments. This is not perfection but certainly is progress.

And perhaps that progress is why mention of the Camden Way ended so quickly: it didn’t fit the Narrative. The narrative that the police are evil warriors wallowing in prejudice; that they are the cause of crime and not its solution; that our communities can flourish better without them. And that we thus need less, not more, policing.

An honest recounting of what Camden has achieved belies that narrative. Thomson, et al., changed “public opinion and humor” – the community’s view of the police – not through less but through more – and more effective – policing. Those cities that have tried the other way – defunding the police – have had more crime and less safety.

And indications are that at least some of these formerly flourishing communities – Portland, Seattle – are already suffering, as those who can – leave. Small business owners, in particular – those who buy the uniforms for Little League, who display signs for local events, whose coffee houses and restaurants are where the community’s sense of itself are nurtured – are leaving, eroding the community’s tax base for certain, but also taking with them important parts of the community’s heart and soul. The coming days will be the ultimate test of the resilience of these communities, let us hope they can heal their wounds and regain their vitality.