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Safety Last

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, by 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. The result, according to Wilson, was:

No substantial differences among the three areas were observed in criminal activity, amount of reported crime, rate of victimization,…level of citizen fear, or degree of citizen satisfaction with the police. For all practical purposes, the changes in the level of preventive patrol made no difference at all.

Nor does it help having more officers on foot. The chance of apprehending a robber happens perhaps once in a policeman’s career.1 Plainclothes policemen make many more felony arrests. But beefing up such details means even fewer glimpses of a uniform for an already insecure public. Wilson is also skeptical about more scientific modes of detection. (“Police ability to solve crimes may have very little effect on how many crimes are committed.”) Nor does he favor additional schooling. (“Patrolmen with a college education display a high degree of cynicism and a greater sense of deprivation.”) All told, Wilson can’t think of innovations that would do much to undercut crime. He takes the familiar conservative position that the kind of crime we have reflects the erosion of community life. When neighborhoods were more cohesive, with shared traditions, their built-in systems of controls ensured obedience to authority. Citizens kept watch on one another, doing much of the work of the police. As it happens, conservatives are not alone in this position, which was one of the main themes of Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities.^2

The “police function” has only partly to do with crime. In fact most calls involve rushing people to hospitals, quieting noisy parties, or telling shopkeepers to clean up their sidewalks. (An academic friend of mine dialed 911 when a pipe burst in his kitchen.) On such occasions citizens look for prompt, attentive service, and feel aggrieved if it isn’t forthcoming. We use the police as an all-purpose agency, when we can’t think of anyone else. How many of us would know whom to call if a swarm of bees landed on our window? The police themselves think up work to do if they want to show they are on the job, periodically rounding up prostitutes, numbers runners, etc.

Cities differ in their experiences with the police. All start with similar pools of recruits. Some bring out the best in their people; others have less happy results. New York’s force, which was once the model for the nation—“The Finest”—has become a sullen and mutinous army. Nor did the public protest when, during the recent budget crisis, the city decided to cut the police equally with other agencies. The firemen call themselves “firefighters” and remain the most popular department. New York’s police know better than to promote themselves as “crimefighters.”

Nicholas Alex says he spent “two years in the field with a tape recorder” listening to forty-two New York City policemen. The book might easily have been titled “Griping.” What we get is an unbuttoned catalogue of laments, from men thoroughly unhappy with their jobs. They see betrayal at every turning: from judges, politicians, their superiors. Reports of brutality and corruption mislead an unappreciative public. Rules and regulations make arrests all but impossible. (“It’s a pain in the ass to make a collar. The only guys that want to make a collar today are the guys who are looking for the overtime.”) At no point do they speak of services they have performed for the public. No one alludes to challenging assignments, or methods they have personally worked out for themselves. They are counting the days to their pensions. At least as Nicholas Alex records their views.

What emerges from his book is that these policemen feel no affinity with the city that employs them or the people they are paid to protect. (During New York’s recent blackout looting, as many as 10,000 off-duty officers who were not on vacation or sick leave ignored their commissioner’s order to report to their precincts.) Half commute by car from the suburbs, and when off-duty stay away from the city. The rest live mainly in secluded sections of outer boroughs, far from the precincts they patrol. Coming to work is like entering a foreign country, where the natives cannot be trusted, especially if they are poor and black or Hispanic. But even middle-class New Yorkers become the objects of the hostility in their replies.

Police: Streetcorner Politicians provides a very different picture. William Muir spent a year living and talking with twenty-eight young officers in “Laconia,” a midwestern city of 500,000. What comes across is how well these men know the people on their beats. They speak hardly at all of personal grievances, and give much thought to their jobs. Sometimes they seem too good to be true. Muir’s opening sounds like the “voice-over” for a Blue Knight special. A policeman, he says, “has to grasp the nature of human suffering, achieving a tragic sense and a moral calm under threatening circumstances.” This may sound rather demanding for men still in their twenties. But listen to “Jay Justice,” not yet thirty and with less than three years on the force:

I’ll tell you what I try to do generally. I always try to preserve the guy’s dignity. I leave him an out. I make it so that it’s his idea to sign the ticket. Especially in a crowd situation. I leave him his dignity.

Of course smaller cities are different. Police officers are less apt to commute from a distance, or to regard the city as a restive colony. Many went to high school with people they see on the streets. Class divisions tend to be muted: the police manage to make contact, even overcome racial barriers. Here is how “Joe Wilkes” deals with family quarrels, a frequent call in his territory. “My own personality is to talk. We talk about his possibilities. About everything he has possibilities for.” Muir, who uses his eyes as well as his tape recorder, watched Wilkes at one of these set-tos:

He looked for anything that indicated what had once been important to the marriage—a car that was well taken care of, a valuable domino set, a good-smelling soup on the stove, a spotless kitchen—anything which indicated the locus of former concerns, anything which had been beloved, any basis for hopefulness.

Still, police work can be morally enervating. Even in a midsized midwestern city, too many cases seem beyond hope or remedy. Muir’s policemen are young. After ten years on the street, cynicism starts seeping in. Yet one point is worth mentioning. New York policemen still ride two to a car, even in the city’s outer reaches. “Laconia” has mostly one-man patrols, allowing each officer a better opportunity to strike up acquaintances with the people on his beat. He can stop to chat without having to consult a carmate, and talk in a way that is much more relaxed than when citizens meet two patrolmen at once. In New York, even if one officer is willing to gossip, his partner will signal his impatience. This may be why so many New Yorkers have never had a conversation with a policeman.

According to his publisher, Leon Radzinowicz of Cambridge University is “a frequent adviser on crime and penal policy to governments all over the world.” The Growth of Crime, written in collaboration with Joan King, tells us almost everything that is known on this subject, if by knowledge we mean the findings of studies. I am sure that Radzinowicz has toured precincts from Bombay to Sao Paulo. If so, he excludes these recollections from the book, relying instead on reports, monographs, and dissertations. A fact is not a fact unless it can be coupled to a footnote. Here is what he has to say on the class origins of the police:

Whilst one American researcher has contended that they come mainly from the working class and have therefore a penchant for tough language, physical force, and prejudice against minorities, another has categorized them as essentially of the lower middle class, preoccupied with order, cleanliness, thrift, punctuality, and conventionality of behaviour and dress.

  1. 1

    The male gender remains appropriate for present purposes. While sex ratios are changing, policewomen still play peripheral roles in departments.

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