A recent column by New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante inadvertently tells the truth about the public-safety desires of the poor—and thereby undermines the Times’s relentless crusade against the New York Police Department. The main thrust of Bellafante’s article is an attack on New York City for “inadequately . . . rank[ing] the needs of the poor” in its budget priorities. Her evidence is the allegedly slow pace with which the New York City Housing Authority has installed security cameras in its housing projects and the “mere” $51 million that it has allocated for doing so. That sum, Bellafante contends, compares poorly with the cameras now “commonplace to see . . . affixed to office buildings and expensive co-ops” (those cameras are privately funded, but who’s counting), with the “hundreds of millions of dollars for the development of lush tourist-luring green spaces like Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island” which the city is planning, and with a proposed $20 million to assist with Carnegie Hall’s renovation.
Bellafante’s claim that the city stiffs the poor is sheer delusion. New York’s poverty infrastructure has no national parallel. No other American city provides housing on demand to every childless adult and single-mother-headed household claiming homelessness, for example, to a tune historically of about $1 billion a year. Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the South Bronx teem with city-funded nonprofit agencies that send out armies of social workers and case managers in the name of poverty reduction. Mental health services, youth services, AIDS housing and AIDS counselors, family-preservation services—all roll forth from the city’s coffers. The city’s massive hospitals corporation is geared almost exclusively to low-income residents; its public-housing system is the nation’s largest. Special-education students in the public schools are surrounded by expensive paraprofessionals and aides. The mayor’s Center for Economic Opportunity and Young Men’s Initiative pour millions more into the poverty-industrial complex. Whether these billions accomplish anything is a different question, of course.
There is one city program for the poor, however, that has measurably improved the quality of life in distressed neighborhoods: policing. Violent crime is the most regressive of all taxes, since it falls heaviest on poor minorities, as University of California at Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring observes in The City That Became Safe. New York’s data-driven, proactive style of policing is government’s most progressive social program, for its benefits accrue disproportionately to those same minorities. And those benefits result from a disproportionate—and fully justified—allocation of costly policing resources to inner-city neighborhoods. Since 2005, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has deployed the entirety of each graduating class of new police rookies in the highest-crime zones of the city, rather than spreading them out throughout every police precinct, as the politicians in those districts would prefer. Once in those high-crime zones, the officers walk foot beats, look out for suspicious behavior, and enforce quality-of-life laws. Undoubtedly the residents of the 19th Precinct on the affluent Upper East Side would like to have their own pro rata share of new officers, but they’re not getting them.
As a result of the NYPD’s laser-beam focus on protecting poor minority lives, blacks and Hispanics make up 79 percent of the city’s record-breaking decline in homicide victims since 1993. The NYPD’s weekly crime analysis meetings, known as Compstat, have created a sense of urgency about safety in poor areas that is unprecedented in big-city policing. Precinct commanders without convincing strategies for protecting the city’s most vulnerable residents have no future in the department.
Bellafante provides reportorial support for those NYPD efforts, apparently without realizing the implications of what she has revealed. She visited the Bronx public-housing project where a four-year-old boy was killed this July in one of the senseless basketball-court shootouts that have afflicted the city all summer. “Resident after resident brought up the dire need for security cameras, better monitoring of building entryways and a more active police presence,” she writes.
Too bad Bellafante didn’t take the entire Times reporting and editorial staff with her. The paper has been running a nonstop campaign against just those police practices for which the residents of the Bronx Forest Houses and every other poor neighborhood clamor. In an effort to provide public-housing tenants the same level of security that residents of doorman buildings take for granted, the NYPD sends officers to monitor lobbies and walk project stairwells, looking for trespassing drug dealers and gangbangers. The Times’s position? Opposed, of course. The paper backed a lawsuit against police trespass patrols in the city’s housing projects brought by the elite law firm Paul, Weiss in conjunction with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Legal Aid Society. The suit preposterously alleged that such monitoring is “intentionally discriminatory” because the individuals whom the officers question are usually black and Hispanic. But so are the project residents. And it’s not the occupants’ race that sends the police to the city’s projects, but the extraordinarily high incidence of crime. (With 5 percent of the city’s population, the projects experience 20 percent of its crime.) Under the Times’s logic, wherever minorities are being victimized by minorities, the police should back off, since any enforcement effort would invariably fall most heavily on minorities.
Bellafante’s acknowledgment that the Forest Houses residents want “a more active police presence” is just as damning to the pervasive political demagoguery against the NYPD. That “active police presence” means more stops of people whom the police have reason to think are up to no good, which is just what a local state assemblyman from the Bronx, Eric Stevenson, also iconoclastically called for in the wake of the four-year-old boy’s shooting in July.
The rest of Bellafante’s column is far less illuminating. Only in New York could a reporter deem $51 million a trivial sum. Undoubtedly the program to install public-housing cameras could be run more efficiently—indeed, the New York City Housing Authority is rife with mismanagement. Welcome to New York. Such bureaucratic bungling is far too typical of city government, but it hardly demonstrates an insufficient commitment to the poor. (The camera project is a model of swift implementation compared with some of the mayor’s own pet projects, such as CityTime, for automating government workers’ time sheets; the New York City Automated Personnel System; and the oft-deferred bike-sharing program, whose users will undoubtedly not live in public housing.)
Bellafante’s insinuation that city spending on green space is regressive would surprise early twentieth-century Progressives who believed that providing public parks was a central strategy for social uplift. Last time anyone checked, none of the city’s parks had an income test for entry. Her sneer about luring tourists is a classic tic of the commerce-hating Left. If making the city attractive for visitors is indeed motivating the Governors Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park renovations—a dubious claim—that goal is far from incompatible with improving residents’ quality of life, unless you’re one of those urban sages who flatter themselves with nostalgia for the criminal- and hustler-dominated New York of the pre-Giuliani era.
As for the proposed $20 million for Carnegie Hall’s renovation, it’s a pittance compared with what the city spends on welfare and public housing. The auditorium is an international monument to civilization, providing aesthetic nourishment to all who enter, whether they live locally or—God forbid—are just visiting the city.
Bellafante concludes with a complaint that unlike other wealthy-donor-named buildings in New York, she has “yet to find anything called the Jamie Dimon Houses in Bushwick”—in other words, New York’s economic elites are uninterested in philanthropy for the poor. Yet the hottest charity in town is the Robin Hood Foundation, the darling of hedge-fund managers who want the cachet of association with the Foundation’s mantra of “ending poverty in New York,” rather than with such “elitist” institutions as the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. However predictably clueless about government antipoverty spending, Bellafante is nevertheless to be congratulated for piercing through her employer’s destructive anti-cop orthodoxy.