The Breakfast Table

The End of Crime and the Last Squeegee Man

Dear Ester:

You, of course, raise the issue that has split criminal justice and criminology right down the middle in your last note–why has crime gone down? And you are right on the mark regarding the role that ideology has played in this debate. Moreover, New York City (media center, etc.) has become the focus of this debate. The arguments against Giuliani (and Bratton and Safir), simplified, are along the lines you suggest: changing drug patterns, changing economic conditions, and changing drug-use patterns. Even many who concede that police practices were central argue that the crime reductions came at an unacceptable cost in terms of police brutality.

My own position is considerably different than claims on either side. Again, trying to put forth a complex argument in a short note is difficult, however, let me try. As you know, long before the New York and “crime reduction” stories, I was an advocate of community policing. By that, I did not mean that police should be “nicer” or that they should do, in effect, community relations. I argued that to deal with crime, police had to be involved with citizens, organizations, institutions, etc., and that communities had to reclaim public spaces and control and nurture youth. To use New York City as an example, that is exactly what happened. Think of the activities of citizen groups, business improvement districts, the transportation authority in removing graffiti and reclaiming the subway, the restoration of Central and Bryant Parks, the creation of the Midtown Community Court, etc., etc. In other words, New York City had been reclaiming itself for at least 15 years. And you were right, Dinkins and Lee Brown (his police commissioner) did substantially increase the number of police. Moreover, by the end of the second Dinkins-Giuliani mayoral race, both candidates were running against “squeegee men.” Also, although Giuliani and Bratton got credit for eliminating squeegeeing, it was Ray Kelly, Dinkins’ last police commissioner, who brought me in to lead the problem-solving exercise that figured out how to do it.

The police, however, provided the “tipping point” that accelerated a process that you properly note: Crime had been slowly dropping for some period of time. The steepness of the drop after Giuliani and Bratton was largely unprecedented in American history. (A large part of the dramatic nature of the drops has to do with police practices in New York City. As I am certain that you are aware, since the 1970s, NYC police have been so preoccupied with preventing corruption that “staying out of trouble by doing nothing” became a unique NYC art for police. This Bratton and Giuliani changed.)

The fact that this is a national trend and that the stories are different in most cities I find both not surprising and comforting. Each city has begun to find ways to reclaim public spaces and control and nurture its youth on its own terms–Boston, San Diego, Fort Worth, etc. There is no one story, because of the uniqueness of each city.

But, in closing for now, I went to a fascinating discussion put on last night by the Manhattan Institute in NYC. It was a discussion by Francis Fukuyama (of George Mason University) and Alan Wolfe (of Boston College) about Fukuyama’s new book, The Great Disruption. The most interesting part of the discussion focused on “why the disruption?” For Fukuyama, it was largely the women’s movement and the pill; for Wolfe, it was the addition of “moral freedom” to economic and political freedom; and, for Norman Podhoretz, who offered some comments, it was the power of a set of ideas that changed things overnight.

And, finally, yes it would have been fun to have met before this “conversation.” But, I must be off to my guest teaching. I will write again later. Have a good breakfast.

George Kelling