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Sun., March 31, 2013

Smart Bombs: Fear snuffs out wise policies

Fear can be a rational emotion that saves your life, or an irrational demon that ruins it. The strong reaction to the fatal shooting of alleged car thief Brendon Kaluza-Graham demonstrates that fear in Spokane is widespread. But is it warranted?

In 2008, a similar shooting took place in Seattle. From his apartment balcony, Douglas Sheets saw three people trying to break into his car, so he got his rifle and returned to his perch. When the thieves saw him, they fled. One of them, Jhovany Hernandez, was carrying a large subwoofer he had taken from Sheets’ car. Sheets trained his sights on Hernandez and ordered him to stop. He said a fleeing Hernandez turned back and appeared to reach into his waistband. Sheets pulled the trigger, and the bullet struck Hernandez in the back of the head, killing him.

A year later, Sheets was charged with using more force than was allowable under state law. He entered a guilty plea, bargained the charge down to second-degree manslaughter and ended up serving a 9-month work-release sentence.

I asked a Seattle Times reporter who helped cover that story whether it ever erupted into a community-wide controversy. She said she recalled some racist comments because of the victim’s Hispanic name, but that the story itself didn’t spark a major outcry. Her recollection was that the most common response was that Sheets overreacted to losing a piece of stereo equipment.

The circumstances of the Spokane shooting are similar, though the details are different. For one thing, it’s a car instead of a subwoofer. Then again, there is no law stating that when property reaches a particular dollar value, a shot to the back of the head is justified. Nonetheless, we should probably wait for more details before passing further judgment.

What this incident has exposed are the raw nerves created by a series of events. First, the city indicated the Spokane Police Department’s property crime unit had been disbanded. Second, a deranged Adam Lanza went on a shooting spree at an elementary school. Third, gun control measures were introduced in Congress and state legislatures in response to Lanza’s spree. And, finally, a backlash has erupted against those proposed limits.

Fear is the most potent weapon against rational public safety policies. It’s driven by the perception that crime is rampant and government has abandoned us. In its most virulent form, fear spawns the belief that the government itself will become the attacker.

But is crime out of control this country? Not by historical standards. Spokane is safer now than in the 1990s. Nationwide, the violent crime rate has dropped precipitously over four decades, though you wouldn’t know it from stubbornly high incarceration rates. No modern nation punishes criminals as severely as ours, but the belief that punishment is insufficient compels public safety decisions that are counterproductive.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, has a fascinating piece in the spring edition of the political science journal Democracy on how smart justice is undermined. Criminologists have long considered three factors in deterring crime: Are the consequences swift, certain and severe? In the United States, fear has steered us down the path of severity because tough-talking politicians can pass stricter sentences and gain popularity. But, as Kleiman shows, swiftness and certitude are more effective. Death penalty cases drag on for years, losing whatever deterrent value they may have. But for many people capital punishment still packs a satisfying visceral punch.

Crime is mostly a young man’s game, but we continue to lock people up long past the age when they’re apt to reoffend. Rather than wasting huge sums on 40-year-olds behind bars, it would be smarter to ramp up efforts to thwart the current generation of budding bad guys. Which would make you safer? More guards at prisons or more cops in your neighborhood?

If we want to effectively combat crime, we have to conquer the irrational impacts of fear. So, please, calm down. It’s for your own safety.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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