Blane Nordahl is very good at stealing high-end silver from old homes all over the U.S. He is also, however, a creature of habit. His methodology is so constant, and so distinct, that if a bunch of silver starts to disappear, it becomes obvious to those who know his m.o. that Nordahl is responsible. Then he is hunted down, arrested, and sent to prison for a while — after which he is released and goes right back to his stealing ways.
Back in 2004, I wrote a long article about Nordahl for The New Yorker. There were two detectives who knew just about everything about Nordahl: Cornell Abruzzini, then of the Greenwich, Conn., police force; and Lonnie Mason, a retired New Jersey detective. Abruzzini is still a cop in Connecticut; Mason is still retired. But that didn’t stop Mason from contributing to the last manhunt for Nordahl, helping police departments across the south gather evidence against him. This resulted in the re-arrest of Nordahl early yesterday. The New York Times has the whole story on its front page today, written by Kim Severson.
If you are a TV or movie producer thinking about hijacking this story, you should note that Law and Order already did it (“ripped from the headlines” indeed).
New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy has been the subject of major debates and several lawsuits in recent months. A new paper (gated) by Stephanie A. Wiley and Finn-Aage Esbensen analyzes the relationship between “police contact” and future attitudes and actual criminal acts among children and teens:
Current police policies are based on assumptions that proactive policing strategies will not only deter crime but will also improve police–community relations. Deterrence theorists argue that general and specific deterrence can be achieved through such policing strategies. Labeling proponents, however, maintain that juveniles stopped and/or arrested by the police, rather than be deterred, will actually engage in more delinquency as a result of this contact. Research to date has provided mixed evidence. The current study seeks to inform this debate by examining the effect of being stopped or arrested on subsequent delinquent behavior and attitudes. Relying on three waves of data from a multisite sample of youth, we use propensity score matching to control for preexisting differences among youth who have and have not experienced police contact. Our findings reveal that being stopped or arrested not only increases future delinquency but also amplifies deviant attitudes.
The BPS Research Digest elaborates:
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The key finding is that with participants matched for propensity, those who had contact with the police at time two (compared with those who didn’t) said at time three that they’d feel less guilt if they committed various offences from theft to violence; they expressed more agreement with various “neutralisation” scenarios (e.g. it’s OK to lie to keep yourself out of trouble); they were more committed to their deviant peers (e.g. they planned to continue hanging out with friends who’d been arrested); and finally, they said they’d engaged in more offending behaviour, from skipping classes to taking drugs or being violent. This pattern of results differed little whether police contact involved being arrested or merely being stopped.
I doubt this statement will shock you or light up the blogosphere, but drunk driving is bad. Our own Levitt has looked at the costs, and found that those who have had even one drink are seven times more likely to cause a fatal crash, while for those over the legal BAC limit the risk is multiplied by 13. This equates to a cost to society of more than 40 cents per drunk mile driven (2013 dollars), implying that a fine of $10,500 would be appropriate if drunk drivers were to bear the full cost of their actions.
The good news is that we have made tremendous progress. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, road fatalities due to drunk driving have dropped from 21,113 in 1982 to 9,878 in 2011. The decrease is even more remarkable given that total miles driven almost doubled during that period. So the drunk driving fatality rate per billion miles traveled has dropped from 13.4 to 3.4 in the last 30 years.
Some of this is due to general improvements in driving safety, such airbags and increased seatbelt use. But this is only a part of the equation. A suite of policies specific to alcohol has also been implemented, with considerable success. These have been recently analyzed by Susan A. Ferguson and Koyin Chang, Chin-Chih Wu, and Yung-Hsiang Ying, among others. Successful policies have included toughening laws and their enforcement, such as reducing permissible blood alcohol content (BAC) levels, especially for underage drinkers. Sobriety checkpoints are a very effective enforcement mechanism, particularly if properly publicized. Other policies that have been found to be effective are higher alcohol taxes (very), and to a lesser extent laws banning open alcohol containers in cars and higher legal drinking ages. Read More »
An interesting e-mail from a reader:
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Hello. My name is Thiago, and I am writing from Brazil. I always read freakonomics posts thru my rss reader and I saw a news today that inspired me to write to you.
Rio de Janeiro’s police started a new policy to incentivize cops to arrest the most wanted drug dealers. The prize: 15 days off and one weekend in a beautiful island at Angra dos Reis with all costs included.
I wondered if this incentive will have a positive effect, whereas there are bad cops who are bribed by drug dealers. What if these bad officers began to been rewarded by drug dealer with tickets to Disney instead of arrest them?
The Times-Picayune reports on Louisiana’s prison ecosystem — and the perverse incentives for sheriffs to keep inmate numbers high:
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Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.
The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.
Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations.
A friend of ours had her purse, containing her driver’s license and passport, stolen in a German train station. She reported it to the local police, who told her that she may well get the purse back — minus any cash. Homeless people in the stations troll the trash bins for food and other goodies. When they find purses, wallets, etc., they turn them over to station police. In exchange the police do not roust them out of the stations, which they use for shelter and warmth. In fact, the police were right — the friend did eventually get some of the lost items back.
The field of forensics has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years, so much so that decades-old crime cases can sometimes be solved with DNA testing and other modern technology. In an effort to increase case clearance rates (and catch bad guys long gone) police departments have slowly opened more ‘cold case’ units over the last 20 years; a phenomenon that has been documented and dramatized on TV.
In a new RAND paper, researchers Robert C. Davis, Carl Jensen, and Karin E. Kitchens set out to measure the effectiveness of cold case units by posing a simple question, though one that’s rarely asked of police work: What’s the return on investment? Read More »
Last week was the sixth annual Operation Rolling Thunder police crack-down in Spartanburg, SC. Each year, law enforcement from North and South Carolina converge on the Spartanburg interstate highways for a five-day dragnet aimed at drug trafficking. This year officers made 18 felony arrests, netting $215,000 of seized cash, 11 pounds of cocaine, and eight pounds of marijuana.
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“The numbers are a bit lower than in the past, I’m proud of that, meaning they are staying out of Spartanburg County, which that is our desire,” said Sheriff [Chuck]Wright. “I try to tell everybody that every piece of drug paraphernalia or drug you can find and get off the street, that’s one more somebody’s son or daughter that’s not having to deal with that.