In Prospect

Spring 1999

Recent events give our two cover stories double urgency. First, they provide gripping inside accounts of the most striking municipal policy success in 50 years: the halving of New York’s crime rate since 1993. "What We’ve Learned About Policing," by ex-police commissioner William J. Bratton and William Andrews, is the clearest explanation to date of how Bratton’s NYPD achieved that crime reduction. Whereas previous accounts have oversimplified, Bratton and Andrews show that no single magic bullet brings about crime control. Instead, police have developed an array of techniques, from quality-of-life policing to the war on guns, which, rightly combined, can control any crime anywhere. Our story can serve as a guide to these techniques for police officials across the nation.

"Why the Jails Didn’t Explode" tells the hitherto unreported tale of another success: the transformation of New York’s jails from violent anarchies on the brink of deadly rioting into orderly places. How corrections boss Bernard Kerik achieved this is a model of management. More important, running jails right is key for overall crime control, which requires that potential wrongdoers learn that the authorities won’t tolerate disorder and crime. Jails—wall-to-wall in wrongdoers—are just where that message needs unequivocal articulation. Turning a blind eye to violence there, as done previously, can only increase this population’s contempt for the law.

What makes these stories even more urgent is the current attack on New York’s police tactics, aimed at delegitimizing the city-saving crime drop that is Mayor Giuliani’s biggest success. As Bratton and Andrews note, such attacks are nothing new: critics alternate between saying that the police had no effect on crime and saying that they reduced crime by illegitimate "Gestapo tactics." What is new is the intense racialization of these charges. Today’s critics hold up two shocking recent cases of police violence, the brutalization of Abner Louima and the killing of Amadou Diallo, as proof of a police rampage against black New Yorkers.

These incidents, except that they involved white cops and black victims, have little in common. Press accounts paint Louima’s assailants as racist psychopaths; if so, they merit harsh punishment. Diallo’s killing, by contrast, seems a tragic accident, with cops mistaking Diallo for a rape suspect and then panicking when they misinterpreted his actions as they approached him. All big-city police forces will have a few bad cops, no matter how hard they screen and train; all will have cops who make mistakes. But neither of these cases represents an official policy of oppressive, anti-black policing, even though at first Louima was reported saying that his assailants crowed, "This is Giuliani time, not Dinkins time"—a charge he later retracted. Such slanders remain the order of the day.

Far from an assault, the Giuliani anticrime push has been a boon to minority communities, which long suffered a plague of lawlessness. Nothing was worse for the law-abiding residents there than the fear of violence that made them loath to work the night shift or to send their kids to buy milk. They lived under what Tom Paine called the primitive oppression of "a banditti of ruffians." We no longer hear of housing projects crackling with gunfire, of families huddled on the floor to avoid stray bullets. Why? Because crime is down in minority neighborhoods even more than in the rest of the city: murder is down 89 percent in Central Harlem and Crown Heights, and 81 percent in Hunts Point. And that’s because the police now are active in neighborhoods unpoliced for years, doing any government’s most basic job.

If Gestapo tactics accomplished this, why do New York’s police shoot and kill far less often than other big-city police departments? Why are Civilian Review Board compaints down 14 percent since 1995? If minority neighborhoods live in terror of the police, why do they call 911 more often than anywhere else in town?

Criticism is fine, but charges of police Gestapo tactics are calumny. A race hustler like Al Sharpton has taken this line at least since he embraced the Tawana Brawley fraud. But for elected officials to invite arrest for civil disobedience to underscore such charges, as if they lived under laws too illegitimate to respect, is disgraceful. Poor dim David Dinkins does it to try to rewrite history: see, he was right to keep police ineffectual, as when they let rage for three days the Crown Heights pogrom on which his failed mayoralty foundered. Otherwise, they would have used Gestapo tactics. But when other black elected officials do it, cheered on by the New York Times and Mark Green and Clinton cat’s-paw Bill Lann Lee, their behavior is shameful, fanning the very racial tension they blame on the police.