Crime and Metaphor: Toward a New Concept of Policing

Police think of themselves as the front end of something called the 'Criminal justice system.' But what if the system does not exist?

George L. Kelling

Autumn 1991

George L. Kelling is a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and a fellow of Harvard University in criminal justice.

Excerpt below. Read in full in the City Journal here.

“The metaphor,” José Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities.... Its efficacy verges on magic.” Sometimes it verges on black magic: Last year, in a depressed section of Buffalo, eight schoolgirls were raped. They were victims, though no one realized it at the time, not only of a rapist, but of a metaphor.

What happened was this: Over a 15-month period, 11 girls ranging in age between 11 and 16 years old were raped. After the third attack, police determined that a serial rapist was stalking young girls on their way to school. The police had a description and a good sense of the rapist’s method of operation. Yet they did not notify parents, or circulate a sketch of the rapist, until five months and eight rapes later.

This was not an ordinary case of dereliction of duty. The chief of detectives, who withheld the information, was doing his duty as he saw it. Openly defending the department’s decision to angry residents, he explained that “sensational” news coverage might have hindered the investigation of the crimes and apprehension of the suspect.

During that fearful five-month rape spree, Buffalo police believed they were doing their job. But what was their job? Was it to investigate crimes and apprehend criminals? Then perhaps they were doing it.

But what if their job was to prevent more schoolgirls from being raped?

Read in full in the City Journal here.