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Getting Used to Mugging

In 1972, New York’s police force of about 30,000 men and women made 19,227 robbery arrests. In other words, the average police officer goes a full year without making an arrest. Compared with 78,202 reported robberies, a record of 19,227 arrests is not the worst imaginable. Compared with what some say is a more realistic figure of 300,000 robberies, the arrest ratio looks less auspicious.

However arrest figures are tricky. To begin with, 19,227 robbery arrests signify the number of times that policemen charged citizens. Thus contained within those 19,227 arrests may be only 5,000 or 10,000 people, some of whom were arrested twice or more times during the year. The New York Police Department says it does not have the resources to keep track of how many people are arrested each year. Second, if two or more people are arrested for performing a single robbery, each person is recorded as a separate arrest. Third, and clearly most worrisome, at least some of those citizens arrested for robbery are in fact innocent of any such crime. The police have been known to bring in the wrong man, who may even plead guilty on a reduced charge out of despair of ever establishing his innocence. At the same time, many of the persons represented by the 19,227 arrests may have committed robberies in addition to the one for which they were arrested. According to Conklin, after a man is taken in by the Boston police, he “usually understands that if he confesses to other crimes, he will not be charged with these offenses and may even receive more lenient treatment in court.”

Still, it seems strange that a police force the size of New York’s can make fewer than 20,000 robbery arrests in a year. To be sure, we are continually told that they are doing their best in an impossible situation. In addition to the reported robberies, the police had to deal with reports of 356,101 other crimes ranging from 1,691 murders to 75,865 auto thefts. One detective lamented to me that on a given weekend, thirty such reports could land in his lap. He claimed that he could solve a lot more robberies if he were able to give a full week to each such incident, particularly in tramping the streets searching for informants. For example, modus operandi files are still kept, a holdover from the days when detectives had the leisure for detecting. If, on being questioned, you recall that the man who held you up used a white-handled revolver, the police can make up a list and then produce mug shots of men who seem attached to such weapons.

But this takes time. In Conklin’s Boston study, only nineteen of the 304 street robbery victims he interviewed were asked to examine mug shots, although others were asked to come to the station house to look at line-ups of men arrested for other reasons. There seems reason to believe that in large cities only murder cases are treated with a full investigation, with a wide search for witnesses and rounding up of suspects.3

But it is better to have no arrests at all than ones based on perfunctory investigations. This is something the police themselves acknowledge. Unlike civilian law-and-order buffs, the police still realize that a person can be arrested only for having committed a particular crime. John Smith cannot be charged simply with “being a criminal.” It is not enough to protest that everyone in his neighborhood “knows” that Smith is an addict and that he supports his habit by stealing. The police can only arrest Smith if he can be convincingly connected with a specific holdup. If householders demand of their precinct that something be done about Smith, they will be told that the police cannot act until evidence is adduced linking him with an actual crime. If this seems frightening or frustrating, consider the consequences of not permitting Smith the presumption of innocence. If it is your wish that the police lock up all the “known” muggers in the city, such a street-clearing strategy should also indicate how it will ensure that innocent persons do not fall in the net.

Between 1966 and 1970 a young New York policeman named Frank Serpico discovered that his departmental superiors had no desire whatever to act on his reports of widespread corruption. While a succession of chief inspectors and deputy commissioners grudgingly listened to “his story,” as did several of John Lindsay’s close aides, none of them made any moves. Hence Serpico’s recourse to the Knapp Commission hearings during the winter of 1971-1972, which put his name in the headlines and made a book inevitable. It is a forceful book, not least because of Serpico himself, who emerges as a man of rare stature and courage.

Yet there is more here than the wearisome recital of police corruption and cover-ups in a system as much committed to personal careerism as to public safety. What angered me about Serpico’s account was not the pay-offs but rather the cheating, corner-cutting, and laziness of his colleagues on the force. Not one of them seemed to give a damn about serving the citizens of New York City. Even before joining the department, Serpico was told the score by a veteran:

Kid, when you’re off duty, you’re off duty. Say you’re driving home some night late and you see this guy breaking into a place. Well, keep driving.

In his first precinct assignment he was warned about the form-filling that follows an automobile accident:

If you hear the sound of a crash on your post, the smartest thing you can do is run the other way.

While on radio-car duty in Brooklyn, a man rushed up to report that a house down the block was being broken into. But Serpico’s partner said, “Wait a minute. That side of the street isn’t our precinct.”

Here is Serpico’s description of the on-the-job life of plainclothesmen who drew pay and pension rights for protecting the householders of Melrose and Mott Haven in the South Bronx:

The men would sign in, check their mailboxes for any assignments or communications, then kill an hour or two in the coffee-room, and perhaps take in a movie in the afternoon. A number of them lived in nearby suburban counties; some had swimming pools, and in the spring and summer especially, they would often while away their afternoons at one house or another playing cards between dips…. Occasionally, someone would say, “Hey, anybody call the office? Better give them a ring.”

Clearly one argument for ending corruption is that the energy expended in arranging pay-offs might be directed to preventing crime and catching criminals. Similarly, if marijuana, prostitution, and gambling were “decriminalized” even more police would be free for street patrols and detective work. But all this presupposes that the average policeman is someone who will spontaneously dash to the scene when he thinks he can do some good. The major problem seems to be that all too many policemen truly dislike the cities and citizens whose security they are supposed to ensure. Frank Serpico does not articulate this conclusion, but it comes through on every page of his book. If we want better policing, someone will have to suggest how we go about discovering guardians who will show more dedication. (We should be somewhat hesitant about uttering homilies on “more people from the community.” The record of locally recruited school and hospital guards has not been a happy one.)

Earlier I suggested that we should be wary of attributing too many robberies to drug addicts. The suspicion arises that even if most addicts shook off their habits, many of them would steal for a living. Suppose that through methadone or some other treatment, an addict manages to kick his craving for drugs; even suppose he can get heroin legally and cheaply, as in England. He may then join the ranks of those who engage in robbery to get money for their food, rent, clothing, and other amenities. Certainly many former addicts have found jobs and stopped performing criminal acts. Drug programs justify themselves even if they lead only a handful of their participants out of the nether world of stalking their fellow citizens. Even so, the options for the young man who has gone off heroin are not much different from what they were before he got hooked. The jobs available to him still mostly involve washing other people’s dirty dishes, parking cars, mopping floors, or pushing handtrucks for a take-home wage of about $80 per week. In short, wearying and dead-end jobs. Most poor people take such positions. Crime results from those who prefer theft.

When I say that each American city now contains a criminal class, I refer to its citizens who have few misgivings, perhaps none at all, about stealing from other people. Their thefts differ from those of other dishonest persons in that they are prepared to scare the daylights out of their victims in face to face confrontations. (They can also be distinguished from organized killers, whose homicides are largely intramural.) The “crime problem,” as every city defines it, centers on the existence and exactions of this class, which consists chiefly of young men who are unwilling to work at the kinds of jobs our economy offers them. (Of course they are not the only ones unwilling to work at the minimum wage. But their middle-class counterparts have college as an option; and even in a tight market a BA can get you a selling job at Gimbels.) Above all else this is a violent class, its members ready to traumatize anyone from old women to people of their own background and economic standing.

London, Paris, and America’s large cities have all contained such a class in the past. We have heard of the men who would as soon slit your throat for a shilling, of neighborhoods where policemen walked only in pairs or not at all. But that was supposed to be the history, now past, of slums and stews which reduced men to little better than beasts. Indeed by 1900 that period had passed in most cities. For the first five or six decades of this century America’s cities were remarkably orderly, with little violent crime and safe streets in most lower-class neighborhoods. These were the generations in which most adult Americans were raised, and their memory is one of relative tranquility. In fact that half-century or so now emerges as exceptional in urban history. Its placidity depended chiefly on the modest ambitions and self-estimates of the poorer citizens. European immigrants and arrivals from our own rural areas displayed the duty and deference of an urban peasantry. Those were the good old days.

When I speak of a criminal class they need not be lifetime criminals. I have had good students who, in earlier incarnations, held up shopkeepers and taxicab drivers. And there is a continual supply of recruits. Has anyone ever wondered from what source fifteen-year-olds in the slums are supposed to obtain their spending money? If their fathers are poorly paid or their mothers are on welfare, they must raise their own cash for clothing, records, and other entertainments. Not all do so by delivering groceries. Despite all the research into delinquency, no one can say why one brother turns to mugging and the other labors in a laundry. All we know is that more choose the first today than in the recent past, and there are enough of them to terrorize whole cities.

Certainly upswings and downswings of the economy no longer show a significant relation to crime rates. For this reason some skepticism should be directed at those asserting that we must create more “job opportunities” if we are to deal with crime in a serious way. It would be well to wonder what kinds of jobs might induce the average hoodlum to abandon his current occupation. If he rejects a stupefying job at $80 a week, will the offer of $125 move him to give up robbery? Or will it take closer to $175, which raises the question of the kind of work he could do that would merit such a stipend. None of these questions is meant invidiously, but only to suggest that robbery is one way some Americans assert that they deserve better than the economy has offered them.

Nowadays members of the criminal class blend into the general population. (They probably always did. Bill Sikes must have looked much like an average London laborer.) It is likely that some of the young men we pass on the street or see in the subway held up someone the night before. But which ones should we fear? Without knowing for sure, many of us fear them all. A student of mine told me that when he is on an elevator others about to enter often draw back on seeing him there. Some finally enter and, according to his account, he can almost hear their hearts pounding until they alight. Interestingly, one police method operates on the premise that the city contains a quota of persons who can be counted on to commit crimes. To discover who they are, plainclothes policemen dress up as old men and shamble down slum streets on the expectation that they will eventually be jumped. Fairly soon they usually are, at which point backup men dash in to help with the arrest.

Is this in fact provoking a crime that would not otherwise have occurred? The obvious reply is that had the decoy not been there, his assaulter would have attacked a real old man later that evening; thus the trap saved an actual citizen from a mugging, and also put a criminal behind bars, sparing the rest of us from his depredations for a while. Still, buying this argument shows how desperate we have become for we have blotted from our minds the possibility that dangling a decoy may tempt some teenagers who would not otherwise have considered committing a crime. The case is obviously different from putting a box of dollar bills outside a store and then pouncing on anyone who helps himself. Even so, provocation of any sort is a risky business.

If “law and order” has served as a code phrase for racism, then proposals that we unleash the police have a somewhat more specific result in mind. Both black and white robbery victims would probably settle for protection from the black part of the criminal population. In other words, both would be willing to take their chances on encountering a white criminal. Orde Coombs, a Harlem writer, is saying as much when he agonizes that “we stand menaced by our kith and kin.”4 Crimes by blacks against blacks have become so debilitating that Coombs will support any hard line. (“If the liberals cry about constitutional rights, chase them back to Scarsdale….”) Needless to say, many whites join him in this sentiment. So let’s get it out in the open.

According to the 1970 census, New York City has 187,146 black men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. The only way to make a dent in street crime (and by this I simply mean getting the criminals off the streets) is by withdrawing the constitutional presumption of innocence from these 187,146 citizens. Within their number lurk most of the city’s criminals. The entire stratum will have to endure harsh and humiliating treatment if the dangerous members are to be ferreted out. That is what is being said, or as least whispered, with increasing stridency.

Take, for example, the matter of weapons. Most robbers carry a gun or at least a knife that seems somewhat sharper than needed to cut string. Every patrolman now has the authority to stop and frisk any citizen he has cause to believe may be carrying a felonious item. However the courts have ruled that the officer must be able to give an explicit reason for conducting that frisking. Simply stating that the individual looked “suspicious” is not enough. Many city-dwellers would like nothing better than for the police to stop various persons, as a matter of routine, and pat them down. Perhaps several times a day. Those who harbor such daydreams do not extend them to businessmen’s attaché cases being opened or housewives’ handbags being subjected to scrutiny. Rather the target would be those 187, 146 young men who are statistically most suspect.

Such a procedure might well round up a major share of the city’s illegal weapons and also provide an excuse for putting their bearers behind bars. Still, these round-ups would have to be sweeping and indiscriminate. Black muggers and murderers seldom dress in rags. Most of them are quite indistinguishable from black Columbia students and Chase Manhattan trainees, so that those subject to fairly frequent friskings would include people like Percy Sutton and Nigerian UN delegates, along with black ministers, shoe shiners, schoolteachers, and writers. Would Orde Coombs show that added patience and put up with public humiliation so that his criminally inclined brothers might be more readily apprehended?

I doubt it, and for a good reason, the one which makes residents of even the most vulnerable black neighborhoods show little enthusiasm for Governor Rockefeller’s plan to jail pushers for life. Middle-aged slum-dwellers may live in terror of local muggers, but they also have sons of their own, who they realize would be subject to roundups were the police truly unleashed. Black wives, mothers, and sisters have no great confidence in the ability of the police to distinguish a string-cutting knife from one intended for throats. Nor are any criminals currently being “coddled.” The most one can say is that some of those arrested are given a chance to show that the police caught the wrong man. Certainly, once caught in the criminal justice system not a few innocent persons have pleaded guilty on reduced charges as the only way of ever getting home.

To put it very simply, the tougher the police the closer we get to imposing martial law on those 187, 146 citizens. Most of those young men are as law-abiding as the rest of us. But all would be treated as presumptive criminals, and some would end up in detention because they were wrongly identified or someone was suspicious of them. All of this should be obvious and in no need of reiteration. But apparently code-talk about crime needs continual deciphering, particularly when that talk comes from circles that should know better. If people have something in mind other than round-ups based on race, they ought to say so.

The “street crime” problem should be understood chiefly as one created by a criminal class of young men, a class that we are going to be living with for a long time. The major cause of street crime is not heroin, as we shall discover once we get every addict either unhooked or onto a substitute. (In fact, someone who is not half-incapacitated by hard drugs should make a more efficient mugger.) My own considered—and by no means capricious—view is that we ought to count ourselves fortunate that so small a part of our population has taken to thievery. That so many Americans remain honest, while being treated so shabbily, has never ceased to amaze me.

  1. 3

    Morton Hunt’s The Mugging (Atheneum, 1972) tells the story of a Bronx man’s murder by some young Puerto Ricans. The full panoply of detective work that Hunt describes clearly resulted from the fact that this was a homicide. His account, excellent in its own right, still tells of an untypical case; police seldom make a real search for perpetrators if the victim escapes alive.

  2. 4

    Fear and Trembling in Black Streets,” New York Magazine, November 20, 1972.

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