The Breakfast Table

Policing and the Crack Epidemic

Dear George,

It’s too bad that life’s daily routine has to interrupt our correspondence. I am sure that by the time we get the rhythm our week will have ended! While I have read some of your work and even used it in classes, clearly I should have got to know you before this week.

One of the most disturbing trends in public policy has been the distortion of social-science research to support an ideological agenda. As you point out, this abuse has been practiced on the left and the right. Criminal-justice policy and urban policy have been two big targets of the ideological wars in American politics. I don’t know if you saw the article in Dissent in which Michael Tomasky maintained that “liberals” disagreed with your “broken windows” theory and that the policies of liberal mayors caused the increase in crime in America’s cities between 1960 and 1990. I had a piece in the same issue that pointed out that your theory was not ideologically based. You mentioned that you were asked to help reduce subway crime in New York during the 1980s. While the MTA runs the subways in New York, the mayor, Ed Koch a progressive Democract, was directly involved in funding and implementing your strategy. Also, it was Mayor David Dinkins who found the money to hire 3,000 more police officers in New York under his “Safe Streets Safe Cities” program. In fact, most people who give Giuliani all the credit for New York’s declining crime rate don’t know that crime started to drop during the last two years of the Dinkins administration. Moreover, as you know, crime has been declining in every major city in the country. While Giuliani’s policies may have provided “value added” for New York, its hard to argue causation for local policies when there is a national trend at work.

This actually brings me to an article on the front page of Sunday’s (September 19) New York Times. The article is about crack use in poor communities in the inner city. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is cited by the Times. The study found that diminished gang warfare related to crack has been the major reason for the sharp drop in violent crime nationwide. At the same time, the annual survey of drug use by the National Institute for Justice shows a change in attitude by the young. They are simply not using crack, even when they are using other drugs. I cite all this evidence because I can’t help but take social science seriously. The conclusion of the article is that the decline in urban crime is primarily due to the decline in crack use and not changes in policing. It always struck me as strange that in the period when crime was increasing in cities, politicians blamed the problem on the pathologies in the inner-city communities. However, once crime declined it was the police who got all the credit. No one bothered to check, until now, whether something might have changed in these communities. I know this is your terrain. What do you think?

Warmest regards,