Politics & Policy

Cops Matter, Too

On patrol in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty)
They are the key to livable cities.

The cold-blooded murder of two of New York’s finest on Saturday carries no deeper meaning or lessons, we will be told by elite opinion-makers in coming days. This was the work of an isolated, deranged individual.

We will be instructed that the assassin’s vow on social media that he would be “Putting Wings on Pigs Today,” and his recommendation that “They Take 1 of Ours . . . Let’s Take 2 of Theirs” simply reflected his unhinged state rather than a poisonous anti-cop ideology that has flourished in the aftermath of the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York.

Okay, let’s buy that narrative for the moment. It is indeed risky to try to make sense of the actions of those who commit murder-suicide; the assassin in this case, Ismaaiyl Abdulah Brinsley, shot himself after he gunned down NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn. For lessons about the true state of law enforcement in these contentious times, however, all we need to do is go back to a case in Baltimore a week earlier, in which Officer Andrew Groman took a bullet for us in the ordinary conduct of his duties.

On Sunday, December 14, the three-year veteran of Baltimore’s force was responding to a call from another officer who, while staked out at a gas station near a local state college, had caught the scent of marijuana wafting from a silver Cadillac. According to the Baltimore Sun, Groman and his partner pulled the Caddy over a few blocks away; they were soon joined by the officer from the gas station and two campus cops. The driver complied with an order to exit the vehicle, but a passenger in the back seat did not. Groman ordered the passenger to show his hands, which were in his jacket pocket and waistband. Again, no compliance.

Groman then warned the passenger he would be Tased if he didn’t show his hands. As the officer drew his Taser, the passenger pulled a revolver and fired three rounds, one of which hit Groman in the abdomen, just below his bulletproof vest.

The good news is that the alleged shooter was apprehended after a brief chase on foot and, according to police, confessed. The better news is that Officer Groman survived his wound and the emergency surgery it necessitated.

One might think that all this is cause for hosannas throughout Baltimore. The 19-year-old accused perp, after all, had been arrested three times before on gun charges; he was out on the street only because of a paperwork snafu at a prior bail hearing. Surely the heroism of Officer Groman and his colleagues will highlight the absurdity of characterizing police as an occupying army populated by psychopaths and sociopaths, as one Baltimore minister described cops at a recent rally organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Well, not so fast. At the very least, some on the left will surely use the circumstances of this traffic stop as part of their campaign against the evils of “broken windows” policing. Following Garner’s death while in custody for selling cigarettes illegally on the street, for example, many argued that such petty crimes should simply not be enforced. What’s more, this episode could kick off a new ideological offensive against law enforcement — one that invokes a self-defense argument on behalf of those who resist arrest or engage in violence against police.

Since the 1960s, left-leaning intellectuals have built support for the Leviathan state by arguing that all social problems are best treated via more generous funding of redistributive programs and public-sector monopolies. Crime, in this view, is not a problem in itself but a symptom of deeper, systemic failures; it originates in poverty and “savage inequalities” in education finance. Relentlessly pointing to such root causes of America’s soaring crime rates during this period blunted counterattacks by law-and-order types and even some fiscal conservatives: The welfare state, in short, would make us all safer.

As part of this narrative, police were not so much decried as villains as simply dismissed as irrelevant. In 1990, two eminent criminology profs summarized academic sentiment: “No evidence exists that augmentation of police forces or equipment, differential patrol strategies or differential intensities of surveillance have any effect on crime rates.”

In some cases, even the police bought that storyline. After one much-discussed murder in New Orleans, for example, in which a 17-year-old had been given a gun by his mother and told to exact revenge against a boy who’d punched him, that city’s police chief opined that “to correct this, we have to look at the root of the problem. The root of the problem is our education system.”

Fortunately, though, not all academics and law-enforcement officials were content to wait for schoolteachers to clean up America’s mean streets. Sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing in The Public Interest, argued that symptoms of public disorder such as graffiti signal the presence of predators in a neighborhood and both repel the law-abiding and invite more misbehavior.

Political scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling built on Glazer’s insights with an article in The Atlantic titled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” They cited evidence from the experiments of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who found that when there are signs that no one cares about a particular setting — say, a broken window left unrepaired — disorder escalates to crime, in a “developmental sequence.” To dampen crime rates, then, cops need to target behaviors at the beginning of that cycle rather than simply react to the inevitably bigger problems at its end.

Famously, in the 1990s, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, put the theories of Wilson and Kelling (who served as a consultant to the NYPD) into practice. Combined with Bratton’s energetic use of technology to allocate policing resources where they were most needed (via the “​CompStat” database), and his and Giuliani’s determination to put more cops on the streets and hold them accountable for results, the effects were breathtaking.

By 1996, New York’s homicide rate was half what it had been the year before Giuliani’s election. Initially, this meant putting more bad guys behind bars, but over time, as more efficient policing deterred criminal activity, crime and imprisonment rates fell in tandem. By 2008, the city’s homicide rate had fallen to mid-’60s levels, and its per capita incarceration rate had declined 28 percent — while the nation’s rose by two-thirds. Had New York’s murder tally stayed at its 1990 peak, over 30,000 additional lives would have been lost in the years since.

It is clear that this dramatic improvement in public safety was accomplished without any miraculous programs that cured crime’s “root causes.” Rather, cops matter. And because blacks are disproportionately the victims of urban crime, they have benefited enormously from broken-windows policing. To assert that our men and women in law enforcement commonly act as if black lives don’t matter is not just insulting — it is simply wrong.

Which is not to say that cops are perfect, or that Wilson and Kelling’s ideas have been implemented correctly in all cities. Yes, officers occasionally go rogue, and even the best of them can make tragic mistakes in the heat of a dangerous moment. But the evidence is clear that the trends on police interactions with the public are favorable.

Since 1994, the Justice Department has issued periodic reports based not on police-collected data but on direct surveys of citizens. Incidents involving the threat or use of force by police fell 14 percent overall and 25 percent for blacks between 2002 and 2008, according to a 2011 report (the last available on the topic). And since 2000, when Congress passed the Death in Custody Act and funded data collection, average mortality in local jails has fallen 19 percent overall and 30 percent for blacks, according to a 2013 report. Remarkably, the average annual homicide rate in local jails (which includes “homicides committed by other inmates, homicides incidental to the staff use of force, and homicides resulting from assaults sustained prior to incarceration”) over that period is a mere three per 100,000 inmates — one-tenth the rate on Baltimore’s streets this year.

Of course, police might do even better. Part of the problem is that the broken-windows approach is too often equated with “zero-tolerance” or “aggressive” policing. Kelling has argued forcefully that properly implementing broken windows involves “a negotiated sense of order in a community, in which you negotiate with residents about what is appropriate behavior in an area. If you tell your cops ‘we are going to go in and practice zero tolerance for all minor crimes,’ you are inviting a mess of trouble.” In short, the citizenry must define its standards of law-abiding behavior and then support its local police as they enforce these standards.

And right now, we face two manifest dangers: that the current hysteria about the tragedies in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City will lead to new standards that will make broken-windows policing difficult or impossible, and that the demonization of police will modify their conduct in unwholesome ways, encouraging retreat from the locales and situations where they are most needed — or the exit of the best cops from the profession. Both would have terrible consequences for public safety.

Commentary in the aftermath of Officer Groman’s shooting, for example, includes the usual qualms about enforcing marijuana laws. While many believe that toking up in your mom’s basement is a victimless crime (the carnage resulting from suppliers’ violent competition for market share inside and outside our borders notwithstanding), do we really want cops to turn a blind eye to those who are cruising while stoned, as well?

More troubling, some consider the shooter in the Groman case to be a victim, too. Minority males, we are told, are so regularly and unfairly targeted that they see cops as a threat. It is therefore completely understandable for them not to comply with lawful orders — and perhaps required for their self-defense. Indeed, the accused’s attorney went so far as to say that his client’s “survival instincts” kicked in. Stay tuned to see whether this line of argument catches on in the mainstream media or the courts.

In any case, the shrill and regular denunciations of police may already be having a chilling effect on their conduct. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, notes that cops have told her “they don’t want to be the next Darren Wilson” and “they feel at greater risk.” So might we all.

In the short run, as we invent new rules of engagement between police and suspected perps in an atmosphere of anger and unguided by accurate data, will some cops simply turn away from all risks — which is to say, from the jobs we need them to do? And in the long run, might people like Officer Groman — by all accounts a model cop who also serves as a volunteer firefighter in his off hours — increasingly decline to don uniforms in the service of a public that stereotypes them as brutes, if not sociopaths and psychopaths?

Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who is trying to reverse six decades of population flight from Baltimore, knows her job will be immeasurably harder if these questions are answered in the affirmative. She is both old enough to remember how the exodus from cities accelerated when crime rates surged in the ’80s and early ’90s, and wise enough to know that can happen again if we return to the bad old days of reactive policing and progressives’ favored “root causes” approach to crime. Alas, many of the activists on the anti-cop barricades these days are probably neither.

— Stephen J. K. Walters is the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream (Stanford University Press, 2014) and a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland.


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