Commentary Magazine

The War on the War on Crime

In the post-midnight hours of February 4, a young immigrant named Amadou Diallo from the African country of Guinea was about to enter his Bronx apartment building when he was approached by four plainclothes New York City police officers. The police were looking for a serial rapist who had assaulted some 40 women in minority neighborhoods in the Bronx and northern Manhattan. According to press accounts, the officers believed that Diallo bore a resemblance to sketch drawings of the rapist. What transpired next—whether the police identified themselves, whether Diallo understood them, whether his movements led them to conclude he was reaching for a weapon—has still not been made clear. There is no question, however, about the reaction of the police. All four drew their guns and fired a total of 41 shots. Nineteen bullets struck Diallo, killing him instantly.

This shooting has, in a few short months, had a profound effect on New York. It has raised fundamental questions about how the New York City Police Department (NYPD) carries out its work in minority communities. It has called into doubt the various innovative policing strategies that over the past decade have contributed greatly to the astonishing decline in crime in New York. And it has brought down a hailstorm of opprobrium on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, provoking the most serious race-relations crisis since the Crown Heights riots of 1991 and threatening a reversion to the political turmoil of an earlier day.



What happened on the night of February 4 and thereafter?

Within minutes, if not seconds, the four officers discovered they had made a terrible mistake. Diallo was unarmed; his pockets contained only keys and a beeper. A subsequent investigation would reveal that he had no police record. Although, in order to gain admission to the United States, he had falsely claimed to have been persecuted in Mauritania, he was otherwise an upstanding young man who worked long hours as a street vendor while studying to acquire the high-school credits to enroll in an American university.

It did not take long before angry reactions to the shooting were voiced by the mayor’s many critics. First and foremost among these was the Reverend Al Sharpton, a figure notorious to New Yorkers for his role in the 1987 hoax in which a young black girl named Tawana Brawley falsely accused a group of white men, including an upstate assistant district attorney, of having raped her. Now, almost immediately after the first reports of the Diallo shooting, Sharpton began to stage daily demonstrations in a variety of locales.

There were protests at the Bronx courthouse where a grand jury was investigating the conduct of the police; acts of civil disobedience at a Wall Street brokerage firm; and demonstrations at City Hall featuring speeches by “representatives” of violent youth gangs like the Crips, Bloods, and Latin Kings. For weeks, the city witnessed one staged event after another in a choreographed drive to show that black New York was in a state of outrage. The campaign reached its climax with a series of sit-ins in which dozens of minority politicians, including former Mayor David Dinkins, deliberately blocked the entranceway to the city’s central police headquarters and were arrested with television cameras in tow. They were quickly joined by other figures, black and white alike, from the city’s various constituencies of “conscience.”

To be sure, relations between Giuliani and New York’s minority political leadership had been uneasy ever since his election in 1993. A Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Giuliani had defeated the incumbent David Dinkins in a vote reflecting a city that had become polarized along racial lines. Once in office, moreover, Giuliani had infuriated many of the city’s black and Hispanic figures by refusing to play by the prevailing rules. In a pointed rebuke of the racial spoils system honored by previous administrations, he adopted the new slogan of “one city, one standard,” moved to cut back a number of city programs that operated according to a system of racial preferences, and shut down the office that had served as a liaison between the previous administration and the city’s ethnic constituency groups.

At the time, critics excoriated these steps as a sign of Giuliani’s insensitivity to matters racial. Giuliani, for his part, insisted that, to the contrary, his predecessor’s habit of catering to or appeasing extremist elements had itself contributed to the deterioration of intergroup relations in New York. Wherever the exact truth lay, the remarkable thing was that Giuliani’s new strategy paid off, and almost instantaneously. While a highly vocal group of minority political leaders never ceased attacking him, and while there were several charged racial incidents—including the 1995 torching of Freddy’s, a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem, that took the lives of seven people, and the brutalization of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, at the hands of the police in Brooklyn in 1997—up until the Diallo affair New York under Giuliani was largely spared the kind of bitter racial antagonism that had so traumatized the city under Dinkins’s tenure in office.

But now, in the wake of the Diallo shooting, the arrows began to fly once again—and from all sides. In addition to Sharpton and his immediate circle, members of the U.S. congressional black caucus, national civil-rights leaders, prominent civil libertarians, Hollywood stars, and radical left-wing activists all descended on New York to denounce the mayor as autocratic, out of touch, cruel, indifferent, and intemperate. Even George Pataki, the state’s Republican governor, chimed in, charging that the Giuliani administration was not “responding appropriately” to the matter.



The specific object of the protesters’ wrath was the New York City Police Department—and, by extension, the city’s criminal-justice system as a whole. Congressman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, called the city “way out in front in police brutality.” The Reverend Jesse Jackson compared the Diallo case to the lynching of Emmitt Till, a young black man whose death at the hands of a Mississippi mob in the 1950’s became an emblem of Southern racial injustice. The same analogy was employed by Ira Glasser, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who declared Amadou Diallo the victim of “Jim-Crow justice.”

The agent of this system of Jim-Crow justice was said to be New York’s much-publicized crackdown on “quality-of-life” offenses, a strategy largely put into place by Giuliani’s former police commissioner William Bratton. For several years now, this strategy has seen the daily arrest of hundreds of New Yorkers for drinking or smoking marijuana in public, subway-fare beating, reckless bicycle riding, and the like; it has also brought to light huge numbers of concealed and illegal weapons, often in the hands of people with outstanding warrants for more serious offenses. The most zealous prosecutors of the new policy have been the members of NYPD’s street-crime unit, an elite group of undercover officers deployed in high-crime neighborhoods. Given a broad mandate to take measures to stop crime before it occurs, officers in this unit (among their number were the four who shot Diallo) scour the streets seeking out those who prey on cab drivers, prostitutes, and small businessmen.

Here we approach the nub of the indictment. To Giuliani’s critics, the assertive tactics and high motivation of the street-crime unit—Howard Safir, the present police commissioner, has said he would like to bottle the unit’s enthusiasm and compel the rest of the force to drink it—are precisely the problem. A statistic they cite again and again is that while, in 1997 and 1998, the unit stopped and searched some 45,000 people, primarily in minority neighborhoods, arrests were made only in some 9,500 cases. To black and Hispanic politicians, these figures suggest that large numbers of innocent people are being singled out for random and arbitrary abuse. The name given to this abuse is “racial profiling,” i.e., deliberately targeting non-whites for stop-and-search encounters without reasonable grounds for suspicion.

If racial profiling is one sin, the NYPD is also under assault for failing to make its ranks representative of the city’s “gorgeous mosaic” (to use the phrase invoked frequently in his time by David Dinkins). Sixty-eight percent of the police force is white, say the critics, while 60 percent of the city is not. The New York Times has weighed in heavily on this issue, reporting that the city “lags” behind almost all other large municipalities in achieving “diversity” in its police force; among big cities, only such predominantly white urban centers as San Diego and Phoenix have a lower percentage of minority officers.

Given the array of charges being hurled in the air in the wake of the Diallo shooting, it is hardly surprising that demands began to be voiced for state and federal intervention. President Clinton devoted a nationwide radio address to the issue, declaring himself “deeply disturbed by recent allegations of serious police misconduct and continued reports of racial profiling.” Three separate investigations into New York policing practices soon got under way. One is on the state level, with New York’s newly elected attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, looking into the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies. On the federal level, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission plans to hold hearings and gather information on a wide range of policing issues, while the Justice Department is expanding its investigation of the Abner Louima incident into a broader city-wide inquiry. The aim of this last inquiry is to determine whether the police, and especially the street-crime unit, are guilty of systematically violating the rights of New York’s minority citizens.



Does New York City have a problem of police brutality? It would, if there were any truth at all to the glib comparisons of the Diallo case to the persecution of Southern blacks in the pre-civil-rights era, or, in another favorite trope, of Mayor Giuliani to Adolf Hitler. But the very opposite is the case: during the Giuliani years, right along with the precipitous drop in crime rates, there has been a decline in violence involving police and civilians. In 1998, the number of fatal police shootings was at its lowest level since 1985 and at less than half the level of 1990 when David Dinkins was in office. New York’s record is impressive not only in itself but as compared with other major cities. Miami’s rate of police shootings in 1998 was four times higher than New York’s; in Washington, D.C., which has a predominantly minority police force, the rate was six times higher.

As for the four officers in the Diallo case, who have been indicted by a grand jury on second-degree murder charges, no evidence has been put forward to support the repeated charge that they acted out of racism. It is true that all four are white, and that one of them had previously been involved in the shooting of a suspect but has since been cleared. Otherwise, there seems to be nothing unusual or incriminating in their backgrounds—no reports of racial prejudice, no charges of brutality, nothing to suggest that they have been anything but model officers. Indeed, eyewitnesses at the shooting scene described the four as dazed and anguished at discovering they had killed an unarmed man, and all of them were hospitalized for trauma on the night of the incident.

This is hardly to deny that New York, like all cities, continues to experience controversial instances of police shootings, or that such shootings often involve white officers and black or Hispanic youths. Given the disproportionate involvement of the latter groups in street crimes, however, that is as inevitable as it is unfortunate. Completely ignored in the post-Diallo furor was the fact that, while blacks make up 13 percent of the American population, they comprise over half the arrests for murder and robbery, over 40 percent of the arrests for rape and car theft, and over 30 percent for burglary. These are national figures; for New York, the figures are even higher.

By its very nature, effective law enforcement will always be concentrated in high-crime neighborhoods, which in a city like New York means minority neighborhoods. This in itself suggests the emptiness of the charge that the NYPD engages in systematic “racial profiling.” As Michael Hess, the city’s chief attorney, has frankly and truthfully put it, “If minority communities are to be properly protected, the stop-and-frisks must take place in those communities.”

It is a measure of today’s climate of political correctness that such a simple, commonsense observation can put one at risk of denunciation for racism. Indeed, just weeks after the Diallo incident, the New Jersey state police chief, Carl A. Williams, was forced from office for speaking in an interview about the link between certain ethnic groups and the drug trade. To New Jersey’s civil-rights leadership, his remarks were clear evidence of a racist mindset—“the tip of the iceberg,” in the words of one black state legislator, “of the apparent racist administration of the state police.” Governor Christine Todd Whitman dismissed Williams the day after the interview was published.

What had Williams said? Only that it was naive to think the police could effectively enforce laws against drug trafficking without taking into account the ethnicity of those who control the narcotics trade. “Two weeks ago the President of the United States went to Mexico to talk to the president of Mexico about drugs,” Williams noted. “He didn’t go to Ireland. He didn’t go to England.” Williams then provided an equal-opportunity list of the groups involved in this activity. Trade in methamphetamines, he said, was controlled by white motorcycle gangs; Jamaicans dominated heroin traffic; American blacks and certain Hispanic and Caribbean groups led in the smuggling of marijuana and cocaine.

Williams’s comments were not made on the basis of prejudice. His identification of particular ethnic groups with particular aspects of the drug trade was taken virtually verbatim from a study that had been compiled by the various federal agencies involved in the enforcement of drug laws and that was submitted by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to the White House in 1996, where it was received without a word of criticism. By the standards of today’s racial debate, the Clinton administration’s DEA report might itself be deemed a prime example of racial profiling. Of course, it is but a statement of fact.

Another consideration is relevant here, though it too has been sedulously ignored. This is that polling data show many black Americans inclined to see racism not only among the police but in virtually every aspect of American life. A disturbing percentage believes that the AIDS virus was invented to decimate the black population, that crack cocaine was introduced into the black community by a white conspiracy involving the Central Intelligence Agency, and that there is a white plot to destroy young black men. Even blacks who reject such paranoid fantasies often claim to see prejudice behind the casual phrase of a co-worker, a teacher’s body language, or a store owner’s abrupt manner.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that blacks should be convinced they are the targets of a pervasive form of police racism, and in particular that the stop-and frisk tactics employed by the street-crime unit have been designed to humiliate the innocent rather than to snare the criminal. Such sentiments are reinforced by the indiscriminate anti-police rhetoric voiced by Jesse Jackson and other black leaders. But they bear as little relation to reality as the idea that Rudolph Giuliani is the reincarnation of Hitler or Bull Connor.



If the critics’ diagnosis of the NYPD problems is without merit, so too are the remedies on offer. One such remedy, advanced by Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx, is mandatory ethnic sensitivity training for all members of the police force. This idea, perhaps harmless in itself, is also nonsensical. New York is home to over 100 ethnic and immigrant groups. Amadou Diallo’s native Guinea has its own cultural traditions, distinct from those of other West African societies, let alone from those of American blacks. Just as no course in sensitivity training could hope to acquaint police officers with the wildly disparate styles they are likely to encounter in the course of a week’s patrol, there is little chance that sensitivity training would be of any use whatsoever in crisis situations requiring a split-second decision to shoot or not to shoot.

A more serious proposal is to step up affirmative-action programs within the NYPD itself, with the aim of recruiting more officers from minority communities. Another, reflecting the same impulse, is to require police officers to live in the city they serve. “There’s a great possibility that people who not only live in the city but live in a particular neighborhood will understand the particular people in that neighborhood,” asserts Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and one of Giuliani’s most vociferous critics.

Other things being equal, it is no doubt desirable that a police force broadly reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community it patrols. But there is no evidence at all that affirmative action actually improves the quality of police work; that minority police officers are less prone to misconduct than white officers; or that police who live in the city or the neighborhood they patrol are more effective than police who live in the suburbs. The New York Civilian Complaint Review Board has received proportionately the same number of complaints filed by minority citizens against minority officers as by minority citizens against white officers. Worse still, cities like Detroit and Washington, D.C., that have undertaken highly aggressive affirmative-action programs have experienced problems with misconduct and incompetence as standards have been lowered to bring minority officers into the ranks.

This, however, is another of today’s taboo subjects—which is why one would be hard put to name a single instance in which the killing or beating of innocent black civilians by black officers has been made an object of press scrutiny or organized protest. Several years ago, a black officer shot and killed a young boy while patrolling a Brooklyn housing project. Residents described the officer as nervous and quick to draw his gun, but the story died after a few days with no demands for a grand-jury investigation or—needless to say—Justice Department intervention, and no demonstrations of outrage led by the likes of Al Sharpton. Nor was anger voiced when, more recently, a group of black off-duty officers chased and severely beat a busboy after a night of heavy drinking at a Brooklyn nightclub. Fleeing the officers in terror, the man perished after falling or jumping beneath a subway train.



What all this suggests is that something is going on in the current tumult in New York besides a concern over alleged police brutality. In fact, while the protesters have demanded more “dialogue” between city authorities and minority communities, there is reason to doubt that more openness is what they really want. Some seem determined simply to embarrass and discredit Giuliani, whose approval ratings until the Diallo incident had been remarkably high for a second-term mayor. For such people, even a conciliatory Giuliani is a Giuliani they cannot abide. When, toward the end of March, the mayor made several overtures to black politicians and public figures who had been among his most bitter adversaries, his good faith was immediately questioned and his motives denounced.

Others have found in the Diallo case a golden opportunity to advance their own faltering personal fortunes. It was only a year ago, after all, that Sharpton lost the civil suit brought against him in the Tawana Brawley hoax. Even before the facts were definitively established in court, his reputation had suffered grievously, not only on account of his part in encouraging Brawley to hold to her patently false account but on account of the (literally) incendiary role he had played in organizing protests against Freddy’s discount store in 1995. With his defeat in court, it seemed that Sharpton might at last be down for the count. Instead, by skillfully exploiting the Diallo case, he has managed to stage a comeback, and is now treated with deference by mainstream members of the civil-rights community and centrist elected officials alike.

Yet Sharpton’s agenda in the current campaign is, if anything, even more insidious than during the Brawley controversy. In the narrowest terms, he sees the protests as a vehicle through which to inject an element of racial intimidation into the legal proceedings against the four officers who were involved in the shooting. From the outset, when he loudly demanded their dismissal and arrest even before the grand jury was empaneled, he has attempted to create an environment in which failure to convict the officers will be interpreted as a miscarriage of justice that will surely lead to dire consequences for the city—i.e., race riots. That respectable politicians like former mayors Edward I. Koch and David Dinkins should have allied themselves with this ugly campaign is one of the most disturbing aspects of the entire affair.

The rehabilitation of Al Sharpton and the ease with which he is pursuing a racial shakedown policy in New York are troubling enough. But in the movement sparked by the Diallo affair, a larger agenda is being advanced as well, one that threatens to have the most baneful consequences not only for the city in general but for its minority inhabitants in particular. Pushing this agenda are liberals unhappy with the direction of law enforcement under Giuliani and convinced, against a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that the way to fight crime is to direct one’s energies not at crime itself but at its alleged “root causes” in poverty and racism.

Over the past decade or so, root-cause liberals, to borrow the term of the criminologist George L. Kelling, have been on the defensive. New techniques of policing, techniques that they opposed at every turn, have proved wonderfully effective in reducing urban violent crime. Now, with the Diallo affair, root-cause liberals see a chance to press for a reversal of current policies and simultaneously to destroy the elected official most closely identified with them.

Among the most active and influential bodies in this regard is the New York Civil Liberties Union under Norman Siegel. The NYCLU has repeatedly attacked the city’s new policing strategies as a threat to basic constitutional rights, reserving its harshest comments for the zero-tolerance approach toward minor, quality-of-life offenses. In its evocations of life in New York under Mayor Giuliani one cannot help hearing the word “fascism” lurking, all but unspoken, in the background. As one civil-liberties attorney, Richard Emery, has conjured up the supposed threat to ordinary citizens, “Zero tolerance means that only obsequious people, people willing to be searched and manhandled, can walk the streets.”

This vision of New York as a kind of mini-police state is itself a throwback to an earlier age when such talk was common—and when the assault on institutional authority really did lead to a breakdown of order. In the 1960’s and 70’s, black radicals and their white liberal sympathizers, aided by a series of Supreme Court decisions significantly broadening the legal rights of criminal defendants, successfully intimidated any politicians who dared raise concerns about street crime. In this atmosphere, law-enforcement authorities themselves began to express defeatist attitudes, to believe and even to act as if the war on crime could never be won.

A legal and cultural transformation was required before the results of this breakdown could at last begin to be undone. But it was not until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, thanks in large part to the election of a new breed of urban mayors, that a change came to be registered in the ever-climbing rates of murders, assaults, rapes, and other violent offenses devastating America’s cities. Although the tale has been told often enough, perhaps the most important consequence of the new and more assertive war on crime championed by Giuliani and others is still not sufficiently appreciated: namely, the massive decrease in violent crime in minority neighborhoods.

This is again a national phenomenon, but again New York led the way. If murders committed with a firearm in New York City dropped from an all-time high of 1,605 in 1991 to 375 in 1998—a decline of 77 percent—in the precinct where Amadou Diallo lived, murders were down by a stunning 81 percent. Similar figures have been recorded in other neighborhoods whose very names were once synonymous with violent crime. Although one would hardly know it from the avalanche of condemnation it has evoked in the wake of the Diallo affair, the NYPD street-crime unit played a central role in this drastic reduction.



Around the time of the Diallo shooting, it was announced that, for the first time in years, all five boroughs of New York City were experiencing an increase in population. This development, attributable in large measure to the civility and order that have been restored to the city’s streets during Giuliani’s tenure, is a vivid reminder of the high stakes involved in the current debate over race and law enforcement. In the avalanche of anti-police invective, it is easy to forget that today, for the first time in decades, law-abiding minority citizens can go shopping, visit friends, or conduct business in an environment of relative security. The measure of order now prevailing in Harlem, the South Bronx, and other neighborhoods that not long ago were completely written off has laid a foundation for the economic revival they are now experiencing.

If those who believe that the police, not the criminals, pose the major threat in New York are permitted to succeed in their campaign to undo what has been accomplished over the last years, all New Yorkers will pay a price, but black and Hispanic neighborhoods will pay the highest price of all. Already in the month of March, as the street-crime unit backed off its assertive tactics in the wake of the post-Diallo protests, crime and murder rates in minority neighborhoods shot up again. This and much worse is what awaits unless those determined to drag us back into the anarchy of the past are firmly repudiated.


About the Author

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

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.