Safety Last

Thinking About Crime

by James Q. Wilson
Vintage, 260 pp., $1.95 (paper)

New York Cops Talk Back

by Nicholas Alex
Wiley, 225 pp., $13.25

Police: Streetcorner Politicians

by William Ker Muir Jr.
University of Chicago Press, 306 pp., $15.00

The Growth of Crime: The International Experience

by Leon Radzinowicz and Joan King
Basic Books, 342 pp., $11.95

Officer Down, Code Three 60176)

by Pierce R. Brooks
Motorola Teleprograms (4825 North Scott St., Schiller Park, Illinois, 266 pp., $7.95

More has been said, written, and muttered about the police than any other group of public servants. This emphasis is understandable. Schoolteachers and social workers provide services. We look to the police for physical survival. Three centuries after Thomas Hobbes, we still live in “continual fear and danger of violent death.” Yet even with the police, few of us living in large American cities feel fully protected. Ought we to expect more safety than we are currently receiving?

It can be argued that the problem has become one of numbers: the blue line is so thin that it can no longer cope with a swollen criminal class. At last count, in 1975, 664,000 people were employed as police, one for every 320 of the rest of us. Arrayed against them are those citizens willing to inflict physical injury on others. It is impossible to estimate how many; they include part-time and peripheral participants, few of whom regard crime as a permanent profession. We cannot even say if they number as many as one million. Close to 300,000 people now inhabit this country’s prisons; but not all are there for crimes of violence. Anyway, it is those on the outside who worry us most.

In 1975, the police made 373,000 arrests for crimes of violence: murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The average officer works for more than a year without making a felony arrest. Even if we had several hundred thousand more police, the rate of arrest would not increase appreciably. Officers can’t be everywhere at once; nor would most of us like it if they were. Nor can we create a police presence pervasive enough to deter would-be criminals. An officer on every corner would still leave the side streets open. (One welfare hotel in New York, the scene of repeated mayhem, is next to the local police station.) Even Chief William Parker of Los Angeles, an oldschool hardline commander, held out little promise of protection. Crime rates, he conceded, pay “embarrassingly little attention to the most determined efforts of the police.”

This view is shared by James Q. Wilson, a professor at Harvard, whose Thinking About Crime has recently come out in paperback. Wilson’s own thinking accords with the view of his Harvard colleagues, such as Edward Banfield and Nathan Glazer, that social reforms seldom achieve their intended results. What makes Wilson’s book refreshing is that he applies the same skepticism to the popular remedies for the police, an agency often omitted from such scrutiny. Take the matter of patrols, the uniformed officers “driving through the streets, waiting for something to happen.” Wilson doubts that this costly and cumbersome activity has a discernible impact on crime. He cites a year-long Kansas City experiment, using three comparable precincts. The first continued with its usual allotment of patrol cars. The second withdrew cars altogether, sending them in only in response to requests. The third was given twice to three times the normal complement, a marked increase in visibility.…

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