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Getting Used to Mugging

Serpico

by Peter Maas
Viking, 300 pp., $8.95

Robbery and the Criminal Justice System

by John E. Conklin
Lippincott, 208 pp., $5.75

The most urgent issue in American cities, we are told, is the fear of crime. Yet if this is true, writers and politicians no longer speak confidently on the subject, only reuttering common-places we already know. (The age-old recourse to draconian punishments is a case in point.) But perhaps most exasperating is the unwillingness of too many of us to follow through on the implications of our arguments. Let us suppose, for example, that we wish to have crime-free cities, or at least some approximation of that condition. The standard solutions run as follows:

(1) That we change the basic conditions which turn people into criminals: slum housing, bad schools, absent fathers, lack of employment opportunities. But the unpursued implication here is not the cost itself (anyone can conjure up a figure) but rather the extent to which the rest of us would have less money to spend and would lead quite different lives were this aim to be achieved.

(2) That the police be so omnipresent that would-be criminals would forebear from assaulting anyone, in view of the extremely high chances of getting caught. Here the undiscussed issue (over and above the cost) is the impact such expanded policing would have on everyone’s private habits and pursuits. We now have about one policeman for every 380 citizens. Do we really want a lower ratio than that?

(3) That all persons who commit crimes be caught, convicted, and imprisoned until the rest of us are assured that, upon release, they will lead law-abiding lives. Here, too, leave to one side the costs of more efficient apprehension, streamlined courts, and additional prisons. What is implied is the assumption that some young toughs had better be kept behind bars until they are at least seventy. Some people prefer to suppose that the places we call prisons will remove criminal tendencies, that there must be some correctional arrangements which will effect changes in the attitudes of inmates. Suggestions range from more highly paid and psychologically sensitive professionals to community-controlled institutions to no prisons at all. But apart from gouging out a criminal’s eyes, no one has any convincing proposals on how to prevent his reversion upon release.

Indeed no politician I have heard has a “plan” for dealing with crime, including the President of the United States, various governors, and former policemen who seek or have gained municipal office. Variations on one or another of the proposals I have just cited do not contain strategies for reducing criminality, for they shy away from specific suggestions. The fear of crime has produced more snake-oil merchants than we have seen in a long time, ranging from the domestic armaments industry to university-based rip-off artists who reroof their summer cottages with research grants. Several thousand criminals have succeeded in terrorizing several tens of millions of their fellow citizens. What are we, the public, to do? People who have had all sorts of bright ideas on everything from curing schizophrenia to bringing peace to Southeast Asia content themselves with reciting the “causes” of crime. Why have we reached this impasse?

Certainly crime tests the limits of liberalism. It is one thing to express compassion for women and children on welfare or underpaid agricultural workers. But it is quite another to regard the man nudging a knife into your ribs as someone to whom society offered no other choice. The tough position on crime is no longer a monopoly of the right. Even while opposing a return to capital punishment or mandatory life sentences, many of us wonder whether we can still afford to treat our street-corner gunslingers as sociological casualties. Writing off any human being certainly seems wrong, but then our New Deal parents never faced Saturday Night Specials.

I will deal here mainly with street crime, and particularly robbery. In fact the phrase “street crime” is a misnomer, at least in New York. Most robberies now occur inside: in hall-ways, elevators, shops, or subways. You are safer out on the sidewalk. I realize that muggers take much less from us than do corporate, syndicate, and white-collar criminals. I have little doubt that the average executive swindles more on his taxes and expense account than the average addict steals in a typical year. Moreover I am well aware that concentrating on street crime provides yet another opportunity for picking on the poor, a campaign I have no wish to assist. It is a scandal that a bank embezzler gets six months while a hold-up man is hit with five years. Yet it is not entirely their disparate backgrounds that produce this discrimination.

A face-to-face threat of bodily harm or possibly violent death is so terrifying to most people that the $20 or so stolen in a typical mugging must be multiplied many times if comparisons with other offenses are to be made. I have a hunch that a majority of city-dwellers would accept a bargain under which if they would not be mugged this year they would be willing to allow white-collar crime to take an extra ten percent of their incomes. Of course we are annoyed by corporate thievery that drives up prices, but the kind of dread induced by thuggery has no dollar equivalent or, if it does, an extremely high one.1

How pervasive is street crime? There are more than enough people prepared to attest that “almost everyone on this block has been held up at least once.” Even so, there is only one official statistic. In the case of New York City, citizens reported a total of 78,202 robberies to the police during 1972. The immediate reply, of course, is that some (many? most?) robberies are not reported to the authorities. But do reported crimes represent half or a tenth or a twentieth of the actual offenses? It is a case of pick your expert, and I happen to have picked Sydney Cooper, the former Chief of Inspectional Services in the New York Police Department and an almost-hero in the Frank Serpico story, who has been keeping track of various studies for the Rand Institute’s research on cities.

In Cooper’s judgment there are at most about three unreported robberies for every one divulged to the police, and in most cases the non-reporting victim will be poor and disillusioned about any increase in his safety. On this speculation—and that is all that it is—300,000 robberies took place in New York throughout 1972. As the city has approximately six million residents aged sixteen and over, a New Yorker stands a chance of being robbed about once every twenty years. While the odds are clearly greater in the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, ironically the most noise about crime comes from Parkchester, Bay Ridge, and Staten Island, where the likelihood of being held up in an average lifetime is almost nil.

Even the most confident experts will refuse to hazard a guess about how many people commit most of a city’s robberies. I will be arguing that every large city contains a stratum of people I will call its criminal class. But estimating its size depends on a string of suppositions, none of which can be grounded on reliable data. Until recently, police officials have asserted that half of all robberies are committed by addicts. (In fact there is reason to believe that addicts prefer burglary and shoplifting.) In New York, this would mean they are responsible for about 150,000 such crimes each year.

This may sound plausible until we remember that the average addict needs $50 a week to support his habit, and perhaps another $50 for food and other expenses. Suppose that he can obtain this sum, or merchandise that will yield its equivalent, with one robbery a week and a few burglaries on the side. This means that if a typical addict performs about fifty hold-ups per year, it takes only 3,000 addicts to account for the 150,000 robberies attributed to persons on drugs. This seems a bit odd, since the head of the New York Police Department’s narcotics division talks about the city having 200,000 drug addicts; and even the New York Times‘s specialist on the question writes that “there are 150,000 to 300,000 heroin addicts and users in the city, according to prevailing estimates.”

What seems to emerge is that the number of addicts who commit robberies is a very small proportion of the total. Apparently many addicts raise their cash by selling drugs to each other and by noncriminal means.2 More likely, most so-called “addicts” can actually take it or leave it alone and do not want or need a dose every day. Reducing the incidence of addiction would clearly cut down the level of crime. Still, I am not persuaded that slavery to a drug habit is the major cause of holdups, especially when we look at the number of robberies committed by people who are not addicted. At all events, it does not take many thugs to terrorize a city the size of New York. My guess is that they are fewer than 10,000.

How much better a job the police might be doing, no one knows. Cities have no choice but to work on the assumption that a uniformed policeman, pounding a beat or patroling in a car, deters would-be robbers. Hence the demand that the number of men on patrol, particularly on foot, be substantially increased. Still, no one is willing to predict how many fewer robberies we might have were there a police officer on every corner. (Back in 1969 the New York department estimated that such a deployment would cost $2.5 billion a year.) In theory, the presence of the police makes a potential criminal realize the high odds of getting caught.

John Conklin’s informative and unpretentious study of 1,240 robberies committed in Boston in 1964 and 1968 shows that only sixty-two of these were “discovered by an officer sighting the offense in progress.” He also cites an estimate of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (1967) that the chance of a patrolman happening on a robbery while it was actually taking place is about once in every fourteen years. Perhaps some sympathy should be extended to police commanders who have to decide which proportions of their force they will assign to walking beats, riding patrol cars, and staking out likely locations in plainclothes. A good case can be made for putting the entire force in mufti and letting it wander unrecognized throughout the city. But how many of us are willing to give up even an infrequent glimpse of a blue uniform?

If prevention is moot, then the alternative must be apprehension. Catch those who have committed crimes (that is what plainclothesmen do best) and put them where they will not be able to harm the rest of us for some time to come. I won’t pursue here the question whether prison terms can ever rehabilitate criminals or even if such punishment can discourage subsequent lawbreaking. Nor can I consider, now, the propensity of courts to suspend sentences, accept reduced pleas, and throw out cases they consider too flimsy for convictions. I will merely note that New York City’s criminal courts apparently cannot handle more than about 600 felony trials in a year, and that New York State’s prisons have fewer than 22,000 beds in less-than-ideal conditions, where the annual cost of keeping an inmate comes to $6,000. I think it will be more useful to explore how the police go about catching criminals, which after all is one of their jobs, whatever happens further along in the judicial process.

  1. 1

    These anxieties are obviously more evident among the middle-aged or older, who lack the litheness to make a quick turn when they sense danger ahead. In addition, young people seem to shrug off a holdup more easily than their elders. Perhaps as most street criminals are relatively young, many noncriminal young people may see themselves as having more in common with the thieves than with their middle-aged victims. On the whole, crime as a public issue has failed to stir the young.

  2. 2

    See James Markham’s article “Heroin Hunger May Not a Mugger Make,” New York Times Magazine, March 18, 1973.

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