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Policing Under Fire


Policing Under Fire

March 23, 1999
Urban PolicyNYCCrime

The New York City Police Department is under fire in the wake of last month’s killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, whom officers shot 41 times. Both the Justice Department and the state attorney general have launched investigations of alleged police abuse, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold hearings in the city in May. Even President Clinton used his national radio address a week ago to denounce police abuse, and this week New York Gov. George Pataki joined the fray, criticizing the NYPD and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Diallo’s killing was a horrible tragedy. But the offensive against the NYPD should be seen for what it is: an ideological attack on a successful philosophy of policing. The astonishing crime reductions in New York during the 1990s came about because the city administration rejected the reigning doctrine that if crime was to be reduced, its “root causes”—poverty, racism and social injustice—had to be abolished. Mr. Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, stunned the “experts” by predicting they would cut crime, telling how and then doing it.

RootCause Liberals

Now, the rootcause liberals are mounting a second assault. Perhaps police can reduce crime, they concede, but only at the cost of abusing citizens, especially the poor and minorities. They link Diallo’s shooting with the 1997 police attack on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, claiming to prove that the NYPD’s crimereduction activities rest upon violating civil rights.

The Louima and Diallo incidents were in fact quite different. Mr. Louima was brutally assaulted and tortured in a precinct station house. The attack was inexcusable, and few doubt that it was motivated by racial bigotry. The officers involved are, properly, being prosecuted. Obviously, a police department should do all it can to combat such virulent racism, should recruit minorities and should improve training and supervision. But corruption and depravity are facts of life, and any system designed to control them will sometimes fail. When they do, the community and police department must rally together to condemn and contain such evil conduct.

The Diallo case, by contrast, was a street encounter gone awry. Four officers were searching for a serial rapist of black and Hispanic women, in a highcrime area where edgy youths carry heavyduty weapons. We don’t know for certain what happened, but the hypothesis of racist police seems farfetched. A more likely scenario is that in the chaos of a shooting that lasted only a few seconds, a stumbling officer, ricocheting bullets or reflected gunfire flashes disoriented officers, confirming the misperception that Diallo was shooting at them and leading them to keep firing. Street contacts between police and citizens in such situations are complex; police are understandably frightened; interactions take place in an instant and may result from inaccurate perceptions. Under such circumstances, police are bound to make occasional mistakes, some of which will prove deadly.

Remember that cops are not soldiers; they rarely draw their weapons and even more rarely fire them. Clearly, police should improve weapons training and reconsider how special units are deployed and used. But accidental shootings by police are a tragic fact of life. Even so, there’s no evidence that such shootings are made more likely by the philosophy of policing the NYPD has adopted—in which police do not wait for crime to occur and then respond, but instead take action to prevent crime.

In fact, last year New York had 0.48 fatal shootings per 1,000 officers, the lowest figure since 1985 and the secondlowest since 1973, when data collection began. This rate puts New York below Philadelphia (0.72), Dallas (1.05) Miami (2.01) and Washington (312). (These numbers, however, are not directly comparable and thus paint only a rough picture.) It’s true that the number of complaints against police has risen, but this must be understood within the context of an increasing number of officers on the street, their widening activity and growing antipolice activism.

In 1992, when David Dinkins was mayor, more than 2,200 people were murdered in New York City—a high proportion of them minorities. In 1998, the city had just 600 murders—fewer than in Chicago, whose population is barely onethird of New York’s. Sixteen hundred more New Yorkers would have died last year alone had crime remained at Dinkinsera levels. Calculate the number of lives saved, families spared grief, youths not imprisoned, and we are talking about thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been immeasurably improved thanks to the Giuliani administration’s crimefighting efforts.

These dramatic changes did not result from “business as usual” in the NYPD. Readied with a theory of action, leadership, sophisticated planning and crime analysis, and an accountability structure that riveted precinct commanders’ attention on neighborhood problems, the NYPD revolutionized itself and made clear just how much police can accomplish. The wholesale attacks on the NYPD are especially worrisome because policing’s gains are reversible. The continuity provided through Mr. Giuliani’s five years in office, and through Commissioner Howard Safir’s continued focus on order maintenance, can create a false confidence that the NYPD will never revert to the “stay out of trouble” mentality that ruled for the previous 20 years. In fact, if a new commissioner backtracked on maintaining order and on the careful precinctbyprecinct analysis of problems that characterizes the department today, control of public spaces could easily and quickly be lost.

Politics certainly plays a role here: Mayor Giuliani’s political foes can be expected to do their best to discredit him and the police department and to neutralize his greatest achievement—crime reduction. But more is on the line than a mayor’s political future.

The rootcause liberals are outraged; no longer can they hold crimecontrol policy hostage to an agenda of massive social change. So now, making political hay of the Louima and Diallo tragedies, they falsely accuse police of systematic abuse. And they wanted to have it both ways: When complaints against police go up, critics like Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union argue that police brutality is increasing; when complaints decline, it means that citizens do not trust the complaint process.

Attacks on order maintenance and indiscriminate charges of racism are not limited to the current discussion over New York; they appear in court, in elite law journals, in other cities. For example, in Seattle, City Attorney Mark Sidran has been called a racist because of his attempts to close a “nightclub” owned by an African-American couple. Never mind that it is a drug dealing center threatening the entire community.

Delicate Matter

Public policy dealing with race and crime is a delicate matter. But if charges of racism and threats of riot follow every disagreement, conflict or tragedy, as we are seeing in New York now, we are in a hopeless situation. In addition to minority recruitment, improved supervision and better weapons training, other issues need sober and thorough discussion. One example is the tendency of police departments to rely on large special units that have few links to neighborhoods. And we must remember that there are no panaceas: Washington, D.C., has a large percentage of minority officers, yet has had such a serious problem with police violence that the new chief there, Charles Ramsey, has asked for an outside investigation.

No matter how successful police are, mistakes inevitably will be fair game for political opponents in a democracy. That makes it all the more important that police seek the high moral ground. In the hurlyburly of urban politics, operating within the law and being successful are necessary but not sufficient; police must aggressively and constantly pursue the consent, cooperation and collaboration of citizens, never taking their support for granted. Only such an approach can provide the cushion of good faith that will allow citizens to tolerate and learn from mistakes, move forward and not retreat.

Mr. Kelling is a professor at Rutgers University, a research fellow at Harvard, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and coauthor with Catherine M. Coles of “Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and & Reducing Crime in Our Communities” (Free Press). He has worked as a consultant to the NYPD.