The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. outside his home on July 16 has triggered a familiar media frenzy on the topic of race and policing. Nothing that has emerged to date suggests that Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley was motivated by racial bias in arresting Gates for disorderly conduct. The broader discussion about whether the police in general are biased has been in turn characterized by two standard lacunae: silence about minority crime rates and about the massive benefits to urban neighborhoods from proactive policing. This latter omission is particularly unfortunate. Public safety is the absolute precondition for reviving city economies once the recession starts to ease. President Barack Obama’s reckless embrace of discredited ACLU stereotypes about the police last week puts that precondition at risk.
Go to any inner-city police-community meeting, and you will hear the following message from residents: We want more police and more law-enforcement activity. In the many such meetings that I have attended, from the Bronx to South Central Los Angeles, I have never witnessed complaints about police brutality or racial profiling. Instead, I have heard: “Why aren’t you getting the dealers off the streets?” Or: “Why are the dealers back on the corner the day after you arrest them?” Or: “Youth are congregating outside my building; can you please enforce the loitering laws?” (Answer: No, the courts won’t let us.) Or: “Drivers are blasting their car stereos at top volume; can you stop them?” Ghetto residents, in other words, desire the same quality of life and freedom from fear that residents of more affluent areas enjoy.
In decades past, the often-justified racial rap against the police was that they ignored this hunger for order in poor, minority neighborhoods. A policing revolution in New York City that began in the nineties, however, ended such callous neglect. Police Commissioner William Bratton began holding his precinct commanders accountable for every crime that occurred on their watch, whether on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan or 125th Street in Harlem. The NYPD began obsessively analyzing crime data on a minute-by-minute basis and deploying officers to high-crime areas. This policing revolution, known as Compstat, triggered the most important public-policy achievement of the last quarter-century. Crime in New York has dropped 77 percent from 1990 to 2008, a deeper and more sustained crime decline than in any other U.S. city.
Nowhere have the effects of this crime drop been more startling than in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Children no longer sleep in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets; they can even be seen riding bikes on streets once dominated by drug gangs. Elderly residents can walk to the grocery store without worrying about getting robbed. Vacant lots that had served as breeding grounds for crime and disorder have been snapped up and developed; national chain stores have moved into areas that they had long shunned, bringing jobs and desperately needed consumer choices. And over 10,000 minority males have been spared the bullet that would have taken their lives had New York’s homicides remained at their 1990 peak of 2,262, rather than dropping to 516 in 2008.
The data-driven Compstat method sends officers to neighborhoods where crime is highest; it doesn’t pay attention to race. But given black crime rates, proactive urban policing will inevitably produce disparate stop and arrest rates. In New York City, for example, blacks commit about 82 percent of all shootings, though they are 24 percent of the population; whites commit less than 1 percent of shootings, though they are 35 percent of the population. Such disparities—which are typical of violent crime across the country—mean that when the police are searching for a gun suspect, they will almost never be stopping whites based on a victim identification but will disproportionately be questioning blacks. As long as crime rates remain so unevenly distributed racially, police activity will be as well. (As for car stops, the other frequent target of ACLU propaganda, Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys show that black and white drivers are stopped at identical rates.)
President Obama’s ignorant attack on the police during his July 22 press conference for picking up blacks and Hispanics “more frequently and often time for no cause” jeopardizes the public-safety gains in every city where the police have brought crime down since the early 1990s. When activists and politicians, not to mention the President of the United States, accuse the police of bias, some officers decide that proactive policing is not worth the risk to their jobs and reputations. It’s easier to wait for someone to be shot than to try to get that gun off the street before it is used. No government welfare program has come close to effective policing in reviving inner-city neighborhoods. If President Obama wants to continue that urban success story, he should acknowledge the value of policing and the hard work of the countless inner-city officers who tell themselves every day they go out on patrol: “I work for the good people of this neighborhood.”