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Don't Poison Policing With Racial Politics

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Don't Poison Policing With Racial Politics

October 10, 2004
Urban PolicyOther

Bringing down Hartford’s crime rate is the prerequisite to reviving the city’s fortunes. Mayor Eddie A. Perez has made a terrific start by appointing as police chief Patrick J. Harnett, a major player in New York City’s unprecedented crime turnaround of the 1990s. But Chief Harnett will be limited in what he can accomplish unless policing is decoupled from the issue of race.

New York cut crime nearly 70 percent over the last decade through two simple concepts: accountability and analysis. For the first time in NYPD history, the department’s top brass held commanders accountable for reducing crime in their precincts. In weekly meetings that came to be known as COMPSTAT, the police commissioner and his deputies would ruthlessly grill commanders about crime trends in their jurisdiction. If a commander had no plan for tackling an emerging robbery pattern, say — or worse, didn’t even know that the robberies were occurring — his career could suffer, and severely. Commanders who developed successful safety strategies, by contrast, were rewarded.

COMPSTAT meetings (which continue to this day) revolve around sophisticated computer analysis. With a click of the mouse, police leaders can explore a host of details about local crimes. By tracking crime trends so closely, commanders deploy officers in the most effective way possible — increasing manpower in a certain neighborhood, for example, before a nascent drug problem gets out of hand.

The results are startling. After climbing above 2,000 a year in the early 1990s, New York City murders in the last few years have dropped below 600. Whereas Hartford experienced one homicide for every 2,777 residents in 2003, New Yorkers saw one homicide for every 13,400 residents. With crime at a three-decade low, central Harlem and other poor neighborhoods came roaring back to life in the late 1990s.

Chief Harnett, a COMPSTAT expert, can engineer such a turnaround in Hartford, as long as sound policing isn’t poisoned by racial politics. The chief rightly disciplined Lt. Stephen Miele, if the lieutenant did indeed order a subordinate to arrest nonwhites downtown — an outrageous violation of a police officer’s oath to uphold the laws equally. But contrary to received wisdom, such bias is rare on police forces. The greater threat to effective policing is the unfounded charge of “racial profiling” when officers are merely responding to crime.

Here’s how “racial profiling” junk science works: Anti-cop activists get their hands on law enforcement data, such as stop or arrest rates by race, and compare them to racial proportions in the population. If the numbers don’t match, a cry of “racism” goes out over the land. In New York City, for example, blacks are 25 percent of the population but constitute 50 percent of all stops and frisks conducted by the NYPD. Case closed, say the cop-bashers: The police are singling out blacks for enforcement based on the color of their skin.

Not so fast. The victims of violent crime in New York City identify their assailants as black 62 percent of the time. Blacks, in other words, are committing a disproportionate amount of violent crime compared to their representation in the population — and that’s according to the victims themselves. This means that when the police try to solve or prevent violence, they will more often be patrolling in minority neighborhoods. It is not racism or “racial profiling” that sends officers there, but the heartfelt demand of the residents for safety. Once there, the overwhelming majority of officers use behavioral and locational cues, not race, to decide whom to stop.

But here’s the painful dilemma that police departments face in the era of pseudo-“racial profiling” analysis: In responding to community demands for protection, they will generate stop-and-arrest data that can be used against them. In Hartford, for example, whites are nearly 30 percent of the population, but committed only 7 percent of violent crimes from August 2003 to August 2004 - according to the victims. Victims reported that blacks and Hispanics, together about 78 percent of the population, committed 90 percent of all violent crimes during that period.

Any effective policing strategy will target law enforcement resources where crime is highest, which means that there will be more police activity - more stops, more arrests - in minority than white neighborhoods. But to an anti-cop activist, the resulting law enforcement data mean only one thing: discriminatory policing.

Such specious analysis has torpedoed community safety in cities across the country. Accused of racism for merely doing their jobs, officers eventually back off of assertive policing. The result is more crime. In Cincinnati, arrests plunged 30 percent, violent crimes shot up 40 percent, and homicides reached a 15-year high following a vicious crusade against the police that culminated in three days of rioting in 2001.

The vast majority of inner-city residents respect the law; they deserve to live as free from the fear of crime as wealthy suburbanites. The Hartford Police Department can provide them with that freedom, so long as such color-blind innovations as police accountability and crime analysis are allowed to work without interference from racial politics.