Long-caricatured in both the press and the public imagination as the ultimate “New Age flake,” Brown—now mayor of Oakland, California—has seemed more John Wayne than Shirley MacLaine in recent weeks, boldly declaring that he would cut the city’s crime rate by 25 percent across the board over the next four years.

In making crime his top priority, Brown joins a wave of big city mayors—like Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell, Chicago’s Richard M. Daley, and, most notably, New York’s Rudy Giuliani—whose fiery rhetoric casts them in a role akin to modern-day western sheriffs: part-administrator, part-superhero.

The trend is understandable, as crime is clearly the problem that most profoundly impacts citizens’ lives. Not only does it leave residents in a state of fear, but high crime also compounds and exacerbates other modern urban problems: destroying neighborhoods, depressing property values, discouraging housing development, scaring off businesses, and even threatening children in the public schools.

But as suggested by several high-profile cases of alleged negligence, such as last month’s shooting of African immigrant Amidou Diallo by four New York City police officers, there may be dangers inherent in supporting overzealous government law enforcement. Citizens are sick of being victimized by gangs of thugs and thieves, but becoming a victim of local police—and of common police practices like indiscriminate property forfeiture, intimidation, “profiling” of suspects along racial lines, and a national “War on Drugs” that has become synonymous with a “War on People”—hardly seems an acceptable alternative.

Those who wonder if there might be another way—a criminal justice system that is proactive in securing neighborhoods and compensating victims for their losses, without becoming, in essence, an oppressive police state—should check out the latest research of economist Bruce Benson of Florida State University. In his new book, To Serve and Protect, Dr. Benson notes that, for centuries, crime control was almost entirely private and community based. Surveying criminal justice systems around the world, he finds the most successful have always been those that most closely adhere to this old model of “community policing,” in which victim restitution, citizen patrols, and private justice are valued most, while government police forces, prosecutors, courts, and prisons are almost an afterthought.

It should not be controversial to assert that government programs, alone, can no more solve the problem of crime than welfare programs could eliminate poverty or the federal Superfund program could stop pollution. But even more interesting is the conclusion that, ultimately, the market for criminal justice services works much like any other market. Where government cannot provide citizens with the level of service they require, private, community-based programs will do so. The growth of home security systems, devices like “The Club” and LoJack, and the use of private security patrols by housing developments and Business Improvement Districts alike are all testament to this fact.

Just as with other markets, the best thing mayors and other government bureaucrats can do is to step out of the way, and let these private market forces reach their potential. Among the innovations Benson suggests in his book are allowing citizens the use of private prosecutors in criminal cases, respecting the validity of business- and community-imposed sanctions, encouraging development of independent courts of arbitration to settle disputes, abolishing victimless crime laws that misdirect police services, and devolving police power to the most local neighborhood level.

Since the resources to expand city police departments are usually limited, more mayors should also avail themselves of the benefits of privatization and outsourcing of different types of criminal justice services. Though one must always be cautious when entrusting public funds to private interests, privatization can be effectively used to increase accountability, bolster police forces, and save money that can be returned to citizens to bring about greater prosperity—always an effective antidote to violent crime.

Also essential is for families and citizens to have access to the means to defend themselves against criminals. As Benson demonstrates, crime rates decrease, not increase, in areas where the public is empowered to with the right to self-defense. The Second Ammendment is not only a constitutionally protected freedom, Benson concludes. It is also smart policy.

The image of the tough-talking sheriff riding into town to “clean house” and “take no prisoners” is a popular motif in our culture. But history shows us that, whenever any society has wanted to get serious about crime, it is not the police or the politicians, but the people who make it happen.