Commentary Magazine


Cops, Crime, and the "New York Times"

Not terribly long ago, a staple feature of American journalism was the article about urban neighborhoods under siege. Especially as the crime wave took off in the 1970′s and 80′s, newspapers began to publish regular reports of inner-city residents living in terror of violent youth gangs, of black or Hispanic neighborhoods devastated by drugs, of racially mixed areas facing white flight because of escalating disorder and open trafficking in heroin or crack cocaine. In recent years, however, the “neighborhood under siege” article has all but disappeared, and for a simple reason: across the country, in city after city, crime rates have plunged, permitting economic revival and the return of normal civic life.

It was of more than passing interest, then, that the New York Times should have recently published yet another lengthy report about an urban neighborhood that is, if not exactly under assault, then at least in a state of serious turmoil. But the neighborhood in question, according to the Times, is besieged not by drug dealers or youth gangs—though it has its quotient of these—but by a different type of scourge entirely: namely, the police department of the City of New York (NYPD).

Entitled “Antidrug Tactics Exact a Price on Neighborhood, Many Say,” the April 1 article, featured prominently on the front page of the Times, describes the reaction in a residential area of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn to Operation Condor, an undercover police operation aimed at driving drug dealers off the streets. The “major sentiment on this two-block stretch of Rugby Road,” as gleaned from the “two dozen people” interviewed for the article, is reportedly that

the New York Police Department has in some fundamental way misunderstood what they expect from law enforcement. They describe a police precinct that mindlessly imposes the mores of Mayberry [the sleepy southern town depicted in the 1960's Andy Griffith television series] on what is a classic rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood—working-class, Democratic, ethnically dazzling, full of swaggering striving characters who are not greatly shocked by a little human vice.

They describe officers swooping into the neighborhood like urban warriors, watching residents from rooftops, circling in unmarked cars and surveillance vans, seemingly oblivious to the rhythms of the neighborhood: who just moved in, who is home from college, who has a bad temper. Residents say the police never seem to know. Yet at the same time, sometimes comically, every scarf is a gang color, every neighborhood scuffle a prelude to gang warfare, every neighborhood nickname a menacing gang moniker.

In short, a police operation run amok.

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This is, to be sure, hardly the first time the New York Times has raised doubts about the wisdom of the aggressive tactics employed by the NYPD under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In particular, and along with other New York media, the paper began putting the police under intense scrutiny after the 1997 torture of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in a Brooklyn precinct house, an incident of police violence that was followed by another in February 1999 when Amadou Diallo, an illegal immigrant from Africa, was mistakenly killed by four officers in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. Since then, the Times has emerged as one of the NYPD’s, and by extension, the mayor’s, most relentless critics.

In news article after news article, the paper has highlighted what it sees as the pitfalls of the city’s assertive policing strategy. It has pointed to overzealousness in the enforcement of “quality-of-life” offenses, and raised questions about the tactics of the NYPD’s famed street-crime unit. Its editorial page has followed suit, expressing doubts about antidrug efforts like Operation Condor and calling for greater “diversity” in the ranks of the police force, an end to anything resembling “racial profiling,” and more vigorous investigations of police brutality and misconduct.

Still, the April 1 article on Flatbush stood out, and precisely because of the neighborhood involved. For this is not a desperately poor, crime-ridden community but a middle-class, integrated one. If minority grievances with the police are an old story, now the Times appears to be suggesting that frustrations with the Giuliani administration’s law-enforcement policies are shared by New Yorkers of all races, nationalities, and income levels. And if this report is accurate, then a significant shift has indeed occurred in public attitudes, with the clear implication being that residents of New York, now enjoying safe streets and quiet neighborhoods, no longer want the police to employ the aggressive tactics that were so urgently needed a decade ago.

But is the report accurate? Eager to find out, I did a little digging on my own.

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The locale that is the subject of the article, described by its author, David Barstow, as the “neighborhood” around Rugby Road, is actually only a single atypical block-and-a-half-long stretch of somewhat dilapidated apartment buildings that sits amid a larger neighborhood of well-maintained, one- and two-family Victorian homes. Though the larger neighborhood is in fact middle-class, and quite “dazzling” in its diversity—children at the nearest public school come from families speaking no fewer than 28 languages—the strip Barstow chose to focus on is highly atypical: poorer, and largely black and Hispanic. The “swaggering, striving characters” he encountered there are, moreover, quite unrepresentative of the mixture of professionals, small businessmen, and recent immigrants, many of them from Pakistan, Haiti, and the former Soviet Union, who live in the area.

On that single troubled stretch, the police, as Barstow reports, have indeed made an “unusually large number of heroin arrests” over the last year. Some of the swaggering characters who complained to him about overly aggressive policing turn out to be active criminals themselves, though Barstow does his best to call this fact into doubt. One of them, wanted by the police as a dangerous gang leader called Nightwing, is transformed in Barstow’s account into a “gregarious” young black man by the name of Michael McDonald who is particularly fond of children. In introducing him, Barstow describes a scene in which a white woman and her two-year-old son pass McDonald on the street and the boy, exchanging a smile, playfully squeezes the tire of McDonald’s bicycle.

Another of Barstow’s subjects is José Sierra, who lives in the building where much of the neighborhood’s drug trade is concentrated. Though Sierra has been arrested recently for possession of heroin—police found twelve bags in his apartment—and is under suspicion for having sold the drug in glassine packets from the lobby of his building, he, too, appears in the Times story less as the “career criminal” the police make him out to be and more the solid family man. True, he acknowledges having “struggled with drug use”; but he denies being a dealer. The police, he says, planted drugs in the apartment that he shares with his wife and three children, and he desires readers of the Times to know that he is fed up with their harassment. “I don’t want my kids raised in this chaos,” he says.

To supplement this entertaining and benign tableau, Barstow also. interviewed a number of black and Hispanic teenagers on the same troubled block, as well as two white residents of an adjacent street. The teenagers “howl in laughter as they recite, in perfect unison, the phrase they hear all too often from police officers—‘You fit the description’ ”—and tell of being “ticketed for spitting, for riding bicycles on the sidewalk.” One of the two whites says she is troubled by the harassment to which the sons of her black neighbors may be subjected: “I’m glad I’m not a 20-year-old African-American.” The other white woman, who moved to the area only a few months earlier, pronounces it perfectly safe; the problem, according to her, lies with the city’s mayor: “Giuliani, he’s out of control.”

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Truly, Barstow chose well. For had he not opted to focus overwhelmingly on the individuals he did, and painted them in the colors he selected, he would have had to render a very different picture of the area around Rugby Road. And had he troubled himself to look into the history of the neighborhood over the past decade or so, his picture would have been more different still. But it would surely not have made the front page of the New York Times.

For a professional journalist, Barstow’s lack of curiosity is striking. Although he reports, for example, that building owners on Rugby Road have, ominously, given the police permission to “roam the properties and arrest anyone who does not live there for trespassing,” he appears not to have interviewed a single landlord who might explain why such police access was thought necessary. And while his readers are told of the police’s claim that “business owners and residents were fed up with the heroin dealing,” actual business owners or residents who might lend credence to this claim are similarly absent from his story. Most egregiously, easily available crime statistics that cast a fascinating light on the impact of aggressive policing on safety in the neighborhood go altogether unmentioned.

The truth, as I was able to learn easily enough, is this. A mere decade ago, the entire area surrounding Rugby Road was rapidly becoming a “neighborhood under siege.” Crack-cocaine vials were regularly found in local school playgrounds, houses were routinely burglarized, and drain pipes were removed by addicts for the marketable copper they might yield. In an adjacent neighborhood, there was a serious outbreak of racial hostility when black militants established a gauntlet in front of a Korean-owned convenience store, shouting anti-Asian epithets at employees and harassing customers as they entered. The passivity of then-Mayor David Dink-ins during this episode contributed to the feeling that racial relations in the area, as in the city as a whole, were spinning out of all control.

Residents began to notice a change in the conditions only after several years of the new policing policies ushered in by the Giuliani administration. One of the many key facts Barstow neglects to report is that these policies were introduced not over the heads of the “community” but with the explicit cooperation of local civic leaders, who struck an informal partnership with the nearby precinct to discuss police plans for maintaining safety in the schools, for identifying and bringing order to high-crime zones, and, most crucially, for stamping out the burgeoning drug trade. In this light, Barstow’s assertion that the neighborhood is populated by rough-and-tumble types who are “not greatly shocked by a little human vice”—the vice in question being the sale and use of heroin and cocaine—tells us far more about attitudes toward drug abuse at the New York Times than it does about any discernible reality on the ground.

According to Barstow, “the aggressive tactics used against [José] Sierra—and others—have . . . too often increased tensions in the neighborhood, too often left them feeling as if police officers had no sense of proportion.” How many residents of the neighborhood actually have the feelings ascribed to them by Barstow is impossible to determine. What cannot be disputed, however, is the actual effect on the neighborhood of the Giuliani administration’s policing methods—an effect that can be ascertained not only from local residents, businessmen, and civic leaders but also by a glance at crime statistics over the past decade. The transformation revealed by these statistics, which seem to be unknown to Barstow, is nothing short of amazing.

From 1990, the first year of the Dinkins administration, to 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available, crime in the area Barstow was covering has been brought down dramatically in every category. Thus, the number of murders in this period fell from 45 to eight; robberies from 2,482 to 273; rapes from 56 to fourteen; and assaults from 878 to 134. And if those are the figures for violent offenses, for crimes against property the statistics are even more impressive: over the course of the same decade, burglaries declined from 3,369 to 394, auto theft from 3,298 to 233.

Nor are these statistics unique to Flatbush. They are reflected, in similar degree, in every part of New York, including in neighborhoods where violent crime had completely destroyed the fabric of civic and economic life. If few readers of the Times are aware of the full dimensions of this phenomenon, it is because the Times (and not the Times alone), while hardly disavowing the facts, has buried them in a barrage of stories about police misconduct.

To judge by the Times, indeed, a reader might well conclude that with each passing year, police in New York have grown more abusive, more violent, and more racist; that police shootings of unarmed and innocent New Yorkers are a routine occurrence; and that the only thing achieved by the NYPD’s aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics or by programs like Operation Condor is a worsening of relations between minorities and law-enforcement authorities. But this, too, is untrue—and dramatically so. In practically every measurable category, the police in New York emerge as more restrained and less prone to violence today than at any time since statistics of this kind were first compiled nearly 30 years ago.

In 1999, for example, the year of the Diallo shooting, there were eleven instances in which civilians were killed by police in New York, the lowest number since 1973 (the year statistical summaries were first published) and well below the figure of 41 deaths in 1990. There were 50-percent fewer shooting incidents in 1999 than in 1993, the last year of the Dinkins administration. Also at its lowest level ever was the ratio of fatal shootings per 1,000 officers—the ratio in such cities as Miami, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Dallas being much higher. As for complaints filed with the civilian review board—which is the other major index of police misconduct—the decline has been steady since 1994; from 1998 to 1999 alone, overall complaints dropped by 13 percent.

Rather than trigger-happy bigots, New York City’s police are, for the most part, serious professionals who do an effective job fighting crime and who respect the rights of civilians. Moreover, the crime-fighting strategies they have developed have paid handsome dividends throughout the neighborhoods of New York. The real question, then, is not how to curb an overly aggressive force but whether its hard-won achievements can be sustained.

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To that question there is no easy or comforting answer. For some time now, the war against crime has itself been subjected to a counterassault—a counterassault not just by the New York Times but, more broadly, by the liberal and ethnic interest groups whose views the Times faithfully champions. This “war on the war on crime,” as I have called it,1 has intensified as this year’s election season has gotten seriously under way, and it may be that it is beginning to have a tangible and baleful effect on the police department itself. Coming under ever more acute criticism, the department has curtailed some of its most innovative law-enforcement techniques—like the deployment of special units that attempt to stop guns from being carried on city streets. The result is that already this year there has been a noticeable resurgence in certain categories of crime.

One clear sign of trouble has been the epidemic of holdups and shootings of livery cab drivers. Another is that the murder rate itself has begun to edge upward. While the latest statistics for the Rugby Road area are not yet available, residents there report that crime, including muggings, assaults, and a brisk drug trade, remains a serious problem. Much of the illegal activity is centered on the blocks where the police stand accused by the Times of “mindlessly imposing the mores of May-berry” on a neighborhood that allegedly neither wants nor needs an active police presence at all.

Whether the current rise in crime presages a return to truly grim days in New York remains to be seen. It goes without saying that a great deal hinges on how the police go about doing their job. There will always be a certain measure of friction between civilians and law-enforcement agents, and there will always be incidents in which the police make mistakes or, worse, commit misdeeds and crimes of their own. But if the police are discouraged, or actively hindered, in the performance of their primary task, as they were for so long during the decades when the city tottered on the edge of a real breakdown in order, then we may all be plunged once again into the anarchy from which we have only recently, and thankfully, emerged.

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Footnotes

1 See my article under that title in the May 1999 COMMENTARY.

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About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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