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The Blue Revolution

The continuing decline in the nation’s crime rate—in 1997, it fell for the sixth consecutive year—has helped to draw attention to a small group of police chiefs and crime experts who are widely believed to have brought it about. They include William Bratton, New York’s former police commissioner; Jack Maple, who served as Bratton’s deputy and who is now advising the New Orleans police department; the political scientist James Q. Wilson; George L. Kelling, coauthor of the recent book Fixing Broken Windows,1 and Herman Goldstein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of Problem-Oriented Policing.

Over the last decade, these crime experts have helped to revolutionize the practice of policing in America. In doing so, they have affected the way we think about crime. In police circles, they have routed advocates of the old school, with its emphasis on cops riding around in squad cars, responding to reports of crime. Among criminologists, they have silenced those who argue that the police can do little about crime as long as its root causes—poverty, unemployment, racism—go unaddressed. These police officers and writers have changed the very vocabulary of law enforcement, introducing such terms as “broken windows,” “quality-of-life enforcement,” “preventive policing,” and “community policing.” They have been the subject of profiles in The New Yorker and New York, have appeared on the cover of Time, and been featured on 60 Minutes. Most recently, in August, The New York Times ran a glowing article claiming that “James Q. Wilson has insights, like those on cutting crime, that tend to prove out.”

Are such notices deserved? Can changes in police theory and practice rightly take credit for the drop in crime occurring nationwide?

1.

Taking credit is one thing William Bratton is not shy about. In fact, he’s not shy about much of anything. In Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, he describes his rapid rise from rookie cop in Boston to chief of police in New York, and the tone is triumphalist throughout. In recounting his promotions, Bratton often sounds like a twelve-year-old telling his parents of his achievements at school. “When my name was announced as executive superintendent, jaws dropped,” he writes of one promotion. By his own description, Bratton is eager for publicity (“I admit it, I don’t mind seeing my name in the papers”) and intensely ambitious (“My whole career had been about making it to the top”). In Turnaround, he writes of his “leadership style” and compares himself to Lee Iacocca (for his turnaround of Chrysler), Frank Perdue (for promoting his company by promoting himself), and even Babe Ruth. Recalling his bold predictions of success upon taking over the NYPD, Bratton writes,

Like Babe Ruth pointing his bat to the bleachers indicating where his next home run would land, I was confidently predicting the future. I was a leader who had spent my whole professional life seeking out and turning around low-performing, dysfunctional police departments. Now I had been given the challenge of a lifetime—the NYPD.

Bratton’s Ruthian ego would ultimately prove his downfall, bringing him into conflict with the no-less-credit-hungry Rudolph Giuliani. Yet it must be said that Bratton delivered. On taking over the NYPD, he promised to reduce serious crime in the city in his first year by 10 percent; it fell by 12 percent. For the second year, he predicted a 15 percent decline; instead, crime fell by 17 percent. From these statistics, Bratton draws sweeping conclusions:

We had developed a method to reduce crime and disorder that would work in any city in America—indeed, in any city in the world…. The turnaround of the NYPD was the catalyst for the turnaround of New York City itself and offers a potential blueprint for the turnaround of the crime situation in the entire country.

Bratton expresses his irritation with criminologists who question how much the NYPD itself was responsible for the drop in crime. “I made a conscious decision to take on the academics, to challenge conventional wisdom about crime in America and prove that effective policing can make a substantial impact on social change…,” he writes. “We lined up their alternate reasons like ducks in a row and shot them all down.” Bratton is curtly dismissive, for instance, of the argument that the improvement in New York simply reflected national trends. “According to FBI figures,” he writes, “in the first six months of 1995, serious crime throughout the country went down by 1 percent, or about 67,000 crimes. In New York in that same period, there were 41,000 fewer crimes, a 16 percent drop. We were two-thirds of the national decline in reported crime.”

As anyone who works with crime statistics knows, it’s often possible to prove a point by picking the right period. Here, Bratton has limited himself to one six-month period in 1995. The picture changes if we consider a broader period, extending from 1992, when crime nationwide first began to drop, to 1997. Table 1 compares New York’s performance with that of several other large cities. It shows the change both in the overall number of serious crimes (as tallied by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports) as well as in the most serious crime, murder.

Table 1

Clearly, most of these large cities had substantial declines in both overall crime and murders. And while the police in some of the cities adopted reforms similar to those introduced in New York, others did not. In Washington, for instance, the police department has long been regarded as a sinkhole of corruption and mismanagement, yet the number of murders in the city in 1997 fell to 300 from 397 the year before. In short, the drop in crime seems to reflect trends in the nation at large.

One possible factor at work has been the booming economy. With national unemployment at its lowest level since 1973, would-be hoodlums have had more opportunities to earn money through legitimate means. In New York City, the jobless rate remains high at 7.5 percent, but even this represents a drop from 11.6 percent six years ago. While the research on the link between economic growth and crime is sparse, it’s hard to believe that an economic upturn of this size would not have put some downward pressure on crime rates.

The effects of economic growth have been magnified by the ebbing of the crack epidemic. In the early 1980s, before the introduction of crack, the rate of serious crime in the United States was falling. In 1985, however, the rate began to rise dramatically, and it continued to climb until 1991; violent crime rose especially sharply, increasing by 40 percent in seven years. (See Figure 1.) This increase was caused by wars among crack dealers as they battled for turf, as well as by violence among users as they sought to feed their habit. Then, in the early 1990s, crack use began to decline. While many inner-city adults continued to use the drug, their children and younger brothers and sisters—seeing the damage crack caused—began to shun it. In many large cities, the percentage of young arrestees testing positive for cocaine dropped sharply—a sign of crack’s growing unpopularity among those most prone to commit crimes.2

Figure 1

The result has been a significant fall-off in crack-related crime in the nation’s largest cities. Conversely, some smaller cities, hit later by crack, have experienced an upsurge in violence; in Indianapolis, for instance, the number of murders rose from 88 in 1992 to 146 in 1997. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report, in a cover story analyzing the possible causes of the national crime drop, cited the receding of the crack epidemic as the “prime suspect.”3

In the light of all this, William Bratton’s one-paragraph brushoff of national trends seems misleading. Still, the New York experience is in many ways unique. As Table 1 shows, the declines there have outstripped those in every other major city; what’s more, crime in New York has dropped to levels well below those prevailing before crack’s arrival. One has to go back to 1967 to find a year in which fewer murders were recorded in the city than the 770 of last year. (See Figure 2)

Figure 1

Such figures lend weight to Bratton’s claims about the importance of his reforms in New York. Certainly most New Yorkers are grateful for the new sense of peace on their streets. To them, the “police revolution” seems real enough.

Like most revolutions, however, this one has had some unintended consequences. What’s more, the nature of the revolution has been misrepresented, giving rise to public misconceptions that have obscured its long-term costs.

2.

In January 1996, William Bratton appeared on the cover of Time. “Finally, We’re Winning the War Against Crime,” the headline said. “Here’s Why.” Bratton, pictured in trench coat and tie, was identified as “New York Commissioner William Bratton, a leading advocate of community policing.” Inside, Time described the “potential new synergy between cops and residents.” To illustrate the point, the article featured a photograph of two cops playing basketball with a group of black children outside a New Orleans housing project, and another of a cop smiling at a baby in a crib in Brooklyn. Such images sum up the popular view of community policing—amiable cops on the beat befriending local youths, dropping in on store owners, working with neighborhood leaders to address local problems. It is policing with a human face.

William Bratton’s book itself is full of anodyne prose about the importance of cooperation between the cops and the community. Of his early days in Boston, he writes, “The beat cop was coming back through neighborhood policing. We could bring down crime by developing a partnership between the population and the police.” Describing his arrival in New York, he writes, “With its emphasis on treating people respectfully and as partners, on interacting with responsible community and religious leaders, and on understanding that even in the toughest neighborhoods most citizens are good and law-abiding, community policing offered the best hope for the department and for the city.”

The idea of cooperation between the police and local communities is undeniably appealing, but it doesn’t remotely describe what happened in New York under Bratton, or what is now happening under his successor, Howard Safir. While Bratton transferred officers from squad cars to the street, he did not encourage officers to establish close relations with local leaders or residents.

Bratton’s inspiration was not the concept of community policing but that of “broken windows,” which he first encountered in the late 1980s, when he was attending an executive seminar on policing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.4 Among the speakers was George Kelling, who had, in 1982, teamed up with James Q. Wilson to write a highly influential article for The Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows.” The police, Kelling and Wilson argued, had become so concentrated on solving major offenses like homicides and robberies that they were overlooking smaller ones like panhandling, prostitution, and public drunkenness. Such offenses, in their view, created a climate of disorder in which more serious crimes could flourish. If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, Wilson and Kelling wrote, others would soon follow; similarly, if the police ignored small-time violators, more serious offenses would result.

  1. 1

    George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Colis, Fixing Broken Windows:Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (Martin Kessler Books/ Free Press, 1996). See James Lardner’s review, The New York Review, August 14, 1997, pp. 54-58.

  2. 2

    See my article “Crime and Drugs: The New Myths,” The New York Review, February 1, 1996, pp. 16-20.

  3. 3

    Gordon Witkin, “The Crime Bust,” May 25, 1998.

  4. 4

    In fact Fixing Broken Windows has a section on “keeping the community involved” which argues that residents and community organizers “will need to work with criminal justice officials and take to the streets with them.” But that was not the point Bratton extracted from Kelling’s work when he took it as a guide to the policies he would follow.

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