Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The decline of justice

As a child you’re taught that the police are society’s heroes, solving crimes and chasing down criminals. The men in blue are dedicated to serving their fellow citizens, and no problem is too small for them to handle. Policemen are idolized and apotheosized; they consistently rank among the most admired professionals. Yet the Platonic policeman portrayed in Hollywood, from Andy Griffith to Lennie Briscoe is far from the current reality. The modern municipal police is ill equipped to handle the amount of crime in a major city; homicide and other violent crimes are understandably prioritized, but filing a police report for a robbery (or other crimes involving property damage/loss) is largely a formality.

I was recently the victim of a brazen example of theft by taking, when someone smashed the window of my car and made off with my $2000 Macbook laptop. I immediately called the Atlanta Police Department and reported the crime. The operator said an officer would be on the scene shortly to take the official report. After 45 minutes, I was still waiting. Fortunately I spotted an off-duty APD officer, who, after perfunctorily taking the report, told me I shouldn’t get my hopes up about recovering the computer. Laptop theft being rampant in Atlanta, the police department just couldn’t realistically investigate all the cases. OK, fine. But surely a little old-fashioned gumshoe work could uncover where all the stolen computers are going. After all, above the disorganized mass of thieves there must be someone (a “boss,” if you will) in charge of liquidating the pilfered goods. A criminal operation likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year should not be that difficult to crack. It’s as if the police have been reduced to mere statisticians of non-violent crimes, having thrown in the white towel when it comes to actually solving them. I could almost imagine someone back at police headquarters keeping a tally sheet of the day’s thefts, tossing or shredding incoming reports after counting them. The knowledge that one has no hope of ever seeing his laptop again is quite disheartening, especially when insurance does not cover the loss.

This unfortunate situation in major American cities is in stark contrast to that of China (of all places), where the police are (suspiciously) quick to track down stolen goods. A friend of a friend was recently robbed of his Blackberry on the street during a business trip in Beijing. The police returned it to him the next day. Whether through illicit complicity between the police force and the criminal underground or just good old-fashioned detective work, the Chinese system is much more effective.

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