Good Measure

To the Editors:
My reaction to George Kelling’s article ("Measuring What Matters," Spring 1992) was, "Well, of course." The problem of dealing effectively with crime is so fundamental, yet we are not dealing with it.

Imagine how great New York City life would be if our public areas were safe and pleasant. One lives in New York City because of its density and richness of experience, but this is something largely denied its residents, particularly its poorer citizens.

The Police Department alone is not responsible for controlling behavior in our public places. Community policing works because it seeks to enlist the neighborhood in preventing crime. Instead of competing with the Federal Government for high-visibility prosecutions, the district attorneys of each county need to focus on the problems their constituents have in the streets where they live.

Community courts, whose primary concern is quality-of-life problems like disorderly conduct, harassment, shoplifting, and minor drug offenses, are not just more efficient—they involve residents and give them the will to control their own streets. This decentralization and attention to poorer neighborhoods heals racial divisions by giving power and, most importantly, by showing respect to its residents. The real meaning behind the failure to demand certain standards of behavior is that others see the residents of these communities as not being able to maintain this behavior or not caring how they live.

However, this involvement demands resources we have refused to allocate and a will to reject, with force of law if necessary, certain behavior. I believe it is possible now to command these resources and display this will.

Edward W. Hayes
New York, N.Y.

To the Editors: Mr. Kelling’s provocative article points to a widespread problem: figuring out whether public employees are doing a good job. This is not necessarily harder in the policing field than, for example, in libraries, but policing is evolving more quickly than other municipal services, so the need to evaluate efforts at preserving order is greater.

One way to measure police performance is by surveying the opinion of the public they serve. Recently some police departments have tried contacting complainants to learn how they felt they had been treated and how their problems were resolved. The Houston Police Department tried calling to offer advice and assistance in the days following the crime to help victims recover from their experience. Chicago contacts complainants to determine whether patrol officers and detectives have been keeping honest records. However, only a very few departments have tried to systematically sample and re-contact large numbers of complainants on a continuing basis to provide feedback on precinct, unit, or individual officer performance. Madison, Wisconsin, does this with a postcard, but a telephone inquiry would get a higher response rate and permit the asking of many more pointed questions tailored to the kind of complaint involved.

Police effectiveness can also be monitored by using the "hot spots" that any police computer can pick out from the flood of data coming into the department’s dispatching system. Computers and their human assistants can generate overnight reports on emerging concentrations of complaints. A management system could require beat officers to investigate and develop plans for resolving these complaints. Police performance could be judged by whether the same hot spots continue to show up on the computer after a certain length of time, providing one basis for determining the effectiveness of police response.

In the long run, however, the use of new technologies might supersede both of these schemes. One goal of community policing is to increase the flow of information from neighborhood residents to "their" officers, perhaps as the officers walk the beat or service a community station house. Little of this information could now be monitored without introducing more unwanted paperwork into the lives of beat officers. As more of them—and us—carry around personal communications gear, the capacity for citizens to reach their own officers directly will grow exponentially. In New Haven, Connecticut, police on community beats carry beepers so they can be contacted directly, and also have answering machines. This may account for some of the recent drop in "calls for service" logged in the city’s 911 system.

Police departments are driven by their communications systems: at the turn of the century by gongs and horns on station house roofs, later by telephone and dispatch radio. The next step may be to bypass downtown and the dispatcher—and the department’s data system—completely. This will make evaluating officer performance even more difficult than it is today.

Professor Wesley G. Skogan
Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

To the Editors:
Princeton University and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics have launched a collaborative project on redefining criminal justice measures in ways that enhance the performance of police departments and correctional agencies. As director of that ongoing project, I found Mr. Kelling’s article a most welcome contribution. As usual, Mr. Kelling hits the nail on the head: We do need to build databases that measure the problems that citizens really care about. Cheers to the City Journal for publishing this important and timely essay.

Professor John J. DiJulio, Jr.
Woodrow Wilson School
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Beyond Gridlock

To the Editors:
Dick Netzer’s article ("Congestion By Default: New York’s Haphazard Transit System," Spring 1992) highlights many of the problems afflicting New York City’s transportation network. No one would argue with Mr. Netzer that for far too long New York underinvested in its transportation infrastructure. All too frequently one experiences delay, inconvenience, or distress arising from the lack of adequate maintenance and renewal of the region’s highway and transit network.

Since 1982, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has spent nearly $16 billion on restoring the subway, bus, and commuter railroad systems to a state of good repair and maintaining them in that condition. This effort has led to more reliable service, an improved commuting environment, and in some cases increased service. Yet more remains to be done.

The MTA has proposed spending $10 billion in its 1992-96 capital plan to continue rebuilding the system and begin adding some of the amenities Mr. Netzer and I would like to see in our system. Presently, the State Legislature has only approved one year of this plan, but it has asked the authority to resubmit its program in October. Without continued funding the system will begin to regress and few of the capacity improvements that the MTA would like to initiate, such as the Queens Boulevard connection to the 63rd Street Tunnel, will begin.

This summer the MTA proposed a new package of creative pricing incentives and service enhancements that could attract new riders, reduce traffic congestion, and help the region attain federal clean air standards. This "Fare Deal" program would phase in monthly transit passes with unlimited rides, two-fare zone discounts for riders who use multiple systems, and modest service enhancements.

The "Fare Deal" proposals are dependent on full funding of the authority’s automatic fare collection system and establishment of a multiyear financial plan by the State Legislature. The AFC system will offer the capability to extend peak and off-peak fares to the bus and subway system, a form of congestion pricing which Mr. Netzer and many others advocate.

In January 1992, the MTA released a study entitled Van and Car Service . Issues Affecting NYCTA Surface Operations. While space does not permit me to fully discuss this issue, the MTA supports review of the bus franchising process in New York City, changes in surface transportation planning, and development of a role for licensed, inspected, and regulated vans in the delivery of surface transportation.

Furthermore, it is likely that many of Mr. Netzer’s ideas with respect to roadway congestion and goods delivery will be given serious consideration as the region moves to comply with the requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Peter Stangl
Metropolitan Transportation Authority
New York, N.Y.

Saving the Schools

To the Editors:
I read with great interest the thoughtful and persuasive article "Putting Schools First: Changing the Board of Ed’s Priorities," by Raymond J. Domanico and Colman Genn (Spring 1992). Most right-thinking New Yorkers agree that substantive changes must be made in our city’s public school system in order to provide students with the education they deserve and need to function as productive and responsible citizens.

However, I and many others question whether "choice" is by itself a panacea. Certainly, choice has the potential to help schools improve, and it can help replace bureaucratic inaction. Nonetheless, choice alone is not the answer. In order for all youngsters to benefit from choice, all parents must have real alternatives. When a system offers a limited number of good schools, benefiting a limited number of students, many will be left out. Choice may force some schools to become good, but what happens to the rest? If the playing field is not leveled, New York City’s public schools will remain as inequitable as they are at present.

All schools must be brought up to a superior level. A major investment must be made in early childhood development, so that children come to school prepared to learn. The lack of care of our school buildings and facilities reflects a disregard and disrespect for the students and teachers who spend so much time in them. Capital investment in school buildings is vital. Our teachers must be given a chance to improve their skills. An investment mechanism must be found to ensure appropriate pay and to increase morale, retention, and performance, and we must further develop the leadership of school principals and administrators.

These changes need to happen across the board. All schools must improve. Only then will the parents of all of the children of this city have a "real" choice.

Reuben Mark
Colgate-Palmolive Company
New York, N.Y.

In Defense of Wicks

To the Editors:
Having been deeply involved in public construction for more than thirty years, I can attest to the fact that the problem with public construction is not the way the contracts are bid (the sole province of the Wicks Law) but the way construction projects are managed.

What’s frustrating is that Joseph Rose, in preparing his article ("Politics and the Wicks Law, " Summer 1992), made no attempt to talk with me or any of my colleagues in the mechanical trades he so viciously pillories. If he had spoken with any of us, he would have learned several important facts about public construction:

* The Wicks Law is not perfect (the $50,000 threshold is too low, for example), but it is closer to what happens in the private sector than the single contract he espouses.

* Weaknesses in the Wicks Law mandates can be eliminated by instituting several simple rules that are standard operating procedure in the private sector, including pre-qualifying contractors and using construction managers to oversee on-site activities and serve as the owner’s representative.

* The Wicks Law mandates that the public agency hire the lowest responsible bidder. Jobs are rarely delayed when a disqualified contractor files an Article 78 complaint.

* Opponents of the Wicks Law always complain about "the administrative burden of preparing and bidding at least four individual contracts for each project." No matter how a job is bid, multiple contracts must be prepared, whether by the public agency or the general contractor.

* Many people have pointed to the "success" of the New York City School Construction Authority—which is Wicks-free—as proof of how the Wicks Law slowed down construction of schools and inflated costs. In four years, the SCA has finished only four school projects from ground-breaking to ribbon-cutting. Illegal and potentially dangerous use of unlicensed electricians and plumbers and serious Building Code violations are a constant problem.

The debate about the Wicks Law swirls around superfluous issues rather than probing the true shortcoming of public construction: the lack of rational long-range planning and the absence of capable and comprehensive management of the city and state’s multibillion-dollar construction portfolios.

George V. Whalen
Council of Mechanical Trades Contractors
New York, N.Y.

Joseph Rose replies:
George Whalen’s complaint about poor management of public construction projects calls to mind the classic illustration of the Yiddish word chutzpa: the son who murders his parents and then appeals to the court for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. Of course public construction projects are chaotic: the Wicks Law makes it inevitable.

None of Mr. Whalen’s assertions is new or alters in any way the simple fact that the Wicks Law is a boondoggle that squanders public funds.

* Raising the threshold from $50,000 would only omit the smallest projects from Wicks-related plunder. Efficient management is much more crucial on large projects than on small ones.

* The elaborate procedures required to disqualify a troublesome contractor are so burdensome that they are rarely used.

* While most large projects do demand many subcontracts, government agencies should not have to handle all the administrative paperwork that would ordinarily fall to a general contractor.

* As I stated in the article, the dubious compromise that exempted the New York City School Construction Authority from the Wicks Law is so rife with impediments to effective construction management that it is a poor example of the comparative efficiency of Wicks-free construction. A special panel of the Bar Association that scrutinized the terms of the agreement concluded that the actual construction conditions would only be minimally improved.

Nothing in Mr. Whalen’s letter (or in other statements by him and his colleagues) in any way refutes the fact that the Wicks Law is a wasteful statute which is difficult to administer, raises the cost of public construction, and leads to extensive delays, litigation, and often shoddy construction. The law’s longevity—despite decades of vigorous opposition by a remarkably broad coalition—is a tribute to the influence in Albany of Mr. Whalen and his colleagues. It is also a stinging indictment of the New York State Legislature, one that should alert all New Yorkers to how their trust and tax dollars are abused by their elected representatives.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next