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Fewer guns, fewer shootings

Some may shudder at the words “consent to search.” But hear me out

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The St. Louis Police Department’s Mobile Reserve Unit simply knocked on doors in neighborhoods plagued by gun violence and asked parents if they could search the homes for guns.

This essay is reprinted with permission from the Violence Reduction Project

By Justin Nix, Ph.D.

What can cities do right now to reverse the recent uptick in homicides and gun violence? Get guns off the streets.

Let me be clear up front: that’s easier said than done, especially amid the current push to “defund” and “reimagine” policing. But perhaps this moment has opened the door for us to reimagine an innovative, soft approach from the early 1990s – one that showed great promise before it was unfortunately abandoned.

Revive the St. Louis Consent to Search Program

Some may shudder at the words “consent to search.” But hear me out.

At a St. Louis community meeting in 1993, a frustrated mother who suspected a nearby home was being used by teenagers to stash guns asked the police, “Why don’t you just knock on the door and ask the mother if you can search the house?” From this suggestion, the Consent to Search Program was born.

The St. Louis Police Department’s Mobile Reserve Unit, a small group led by Sergeant Simon Risk, simply knocked on doors in neighborhoods plagued by gun violence and asked parents if they could search the homes for guns.

Sergeant Risk developed a “consent to search and seize” form that promised that although officers would seize any illegal property they found, they would not make any arrests. The program’s initial success was promising to say the very least. In 1994, 98% of parents who were asked for consent to search their home granted it, and the Mobile Reserve Unit ultimately seized 402 guns that year. So why was it abandoned? The short answer is politics (see Decker & Rosenfeld, Berman & Fox).

Why not bring it back (and try to avoid repeating the mistakes that St. Louis made)? This sort of program checks several boxes:

  1. It’s simple, proactive and based on sound logic. Per Routine Activities Theory, crime and victimization are more likely to occur when motivated offenders interact in time and space with suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians. Seizing guns strips potentially motivated offenders of the means to carry out a specific criminal act (i.e., shootings) – at least temporarily.
  2. It focuses on the neighborhoods experiencing the highest rates of gun violence. We’ve known for decades that a small number of addresses generate a disproportionate share of a jurisdiction’s crime and calls for service. Similarly, evaluation studies collectively suggest that “place-based” interventions carried out at the neighborhood level have a great deal of potential to reduce violence.
  3. It can build trust between police and community members. In St. Louis, one woman apparently offered up her house key so that officers could come back and search any time they liked, while another offered to sign a stack of predated consent to search and seize forms. When community members trust the police, they are more likely to cooperate in crime prevention efforts (e.g., reporting crimes, testifying at trial, attending community meetings; see Sunshine & Tyler, Tyler). Accordingly, the opportunity to speak with parents and demonstrate genuine concern about gun violence can have meaningful, lasting effects even if a search doesn’t result in a gun being seized (see e.g., Peyton et al. 2019).
  4. It’s not overly punitive. Aggressive policing can do more harm than good (Geller et al., Slocum & Wiley). A softer approach like this – which is predicated on consent and explicitly promises not to invoke the legal process – would hopefully be met with less opposition from critics of the police.
  5. It’s markedly different from gun buy-back programs, which don’t work (see also Makarios & Pratt). Gun buy-back programs tend to attract people who are unlikely to use their guns for criminal activity. By comparison, Consent to Search is all about seizing guns from people who are disproportionately involved in community violence.
  6. Agencies can do it right now at no additional cost. This seems like a huge selling point right now, amidst discussions of cutting police budgets while simultaneously needing to address rising violence in many cities. Though to be clear, I would want to see agencies partner with credible researchers to evaluate their efforts.

The first step for agencies is to identify the best officers for such a program. This could prove to be the most difficult step, as officer buy-in is always essential.

When I’ve shared the St. Louis story with officers in the past, they’ve usually scoffed and said something along the lines of, “We’ll just lose a bunch of homicide convictions.”

This sort of cynical and legalistic rationale would likely be a common response if one surveyed a random sample of 1,000 cops. But consider the 402 guns seized by the Mobile Response Unit in St. Louis in 1994. It is certainly possible that some homicide perpetrators escaped punishment because of the decision not to make arrests for guns seized during consent searches. But it is just as likely – perhaps more so – that future homicide (as well as non-fatal shootings) were prevented.

The thought of sacrificing a homicide conviction in exchange for possibly preventing future crimes (which would be far more difficult to quantify) will probably be a tough pill for many officers to swallow. But as long as we’re re-imagining policing, I strongly believe this outside-the-box idea is one we should consider.

NEXT: How police education and training can contribute to violence reduction

About the author

Justin Nix, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where he teaches classes on policing and coordinates the Master of Arts degree program. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 2015. His research interests include police legitimacy and officer decision-making. To date, Justin has authored or co-authored more than thirty peer-reviewed journal articles on these topics, as well as several book chapters, research briefs and op-eds. In 2019, he was one of four early-career researchers selected by the National Institute of Justice for its LEADS (Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science) Academics pilot program.