Are more police the solution to crime?

May 7, 2008

Phil Gasper examines a campaign promise made by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

IN RECENT weeks, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pledged that, if elected, they will seek funding to put more police on the streets.

Echoing a promise her husband made in 1992, Clinton told an audience in Philadelphia last month that she would add 100,000 cops to police forces around the country and cut the murder rate in major cities in half.

Obama also wants to hire more police. He told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Additional police improves public safety. New York has seen a huge drop in crime over the last decade, more than even other cities, and part of it is they've got more cops than anybody else per capita."

But almost every one of Obama's claims is false. First, there is no correlation between the number of police in a city and its crime rate. Second, the crime rate has indeed fallen significantly in New York City over the past 17 years (although it has recently started to creep up again), but it has not dropped faster than many other cities. Third, New York doesn't have the highest number of police per capita. And, fourth, the number of police doesn't explain the drop in crime.

The NYPD is using federal funds to form heavily armed police units to patrol subways
The NYPD is using federal funds to form heavily armed police units to patrol subways (Zuma)

Washington, D.C., has more police per square foot than any other city in the world (including New York), but it still has one of the highest murder rates in the country. Dallas and San Diego have about the same number of people, but the Dallas crime rate is more than twice as high, despite the fact that it has almost 50 percent more police.

According to the sociologist Richard Moran, the police detect only 2.5 percent of crimes in progress. If a patrol car followed the same route every day, it would encounter a crime in progress once every 14 years.

In fact, more police on the street often means more crime. In New York, in the early 1990s, over 30 cops were arrested for theft, drug distribution, brutality and related charges, and an inquiry concluded that police corruption is "pervasive" and "from the top down." In New Orleans, dozens of officers have been charged with armed robbery, kidnapping, battery, bribery, extortion, rape and even murder. Corruption in Philadelphia is so bad that the Justice Department actually filed charges against the city police.

According to Amnesty International, "[I]ndependent inquiries have uncovered systematic abuses in some of the country's largest city police departments, revealing a serious nationwide problem. In each case, the authorities had ignored longstanding and routine police brutality in high-crime districts. Many of these cities have had histories of police brutality and corruption."

In New York City, the number of police increased from 25,000 to 40,000 between 1990 and 1995, and by the end of the decade, violent crime rates had fallen to a 30-year low.

Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the NYPD, of course, claimed that the drop was due to the additional police, and in particular, to their policy of "zero tolerance"--dealing harshly with minor public offenses, such as panhandling. But a 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there was little evidence for such claims.

As one criminologist points out, "most [U.S.] cities have enjoyed comparable reductions in major crimes without any of the changes that the NYPD made. San Diego, for example, also experienced a return to the levels of crime of the 1960s, with...only one-third the police/population ratio, and no aggressive zero-tolerance policy."

In New York and elsewhere, zero-tolerance policing has become an excuse to harass minority youth, the poor, the homeless and others, resulting in widespread violations in civil rights.

What really accounts for the drop in violent crime is a decline in the use of crack cocaine in the early 1990s, with a consequent reduction in deadly turf wars, coupled with economic growth in the second half of the decade, which reduced rates of youth unemployment. Conversely, the recent increase in violence in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago has everything to do with the deteriorating state of the economy, state and local budget cuts, and the growing number of people living in poverty.

POLITICIANS LIKE Clinton and Obama like to portray themselves as defenders of the victims of crime. But if they took this role seriously, they would be targeting the corporate and white-collar criminals whose actions are far more harmful than those committed by so-called street criminals.

Many more people are killed and injured by the negligent and reckless behavior of employers than are murdered or assaulted. Up to 100,000 U.S. workers die each year as a result of hazardous working conditions, and another 30,000 are killed by defective or unsafe merchandise, compared to about 16,000 people who are murdered.

Similarly, the costs of white-collar crimes (such as fraud, anti-trust violations and serious tax evasion) are over $400 billion a year--much more than the total of all street crimes.

None of this is to say that street crime is not also a serious problem, but the best way of tackling it would be massive spending on programs to reduce poverty and inequality--and ending the war on drugs and the U.S.'s massive imprisonment binge, both of which increase the level of violent crime.

Forty years ago, in response to a militant civil rights movement and ghetto rebellions around the country, the Democratic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, responded to the law-and-order rhetoric of Richard Nixon, by saying, "For every jail Mr. Nixon wants to build, I'd like to build a house for a family. And for every policeman he wants to hire, I'd like to hire another good teacher."

Today, by contrast, the Democratic candidates have borrowed the Republicans' clothes.

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