New York's Mean Streets Keep Growing Meaner

George F. Will

February 14, 1991|By George F. Will

NEW YORK — New York. In 1945, this city's movie censor banned ''Scarlet Street,'' starring Edward G. Robinson, because the ending was so shocking: a murderer remained at large.

Today, in New York's enlightenment, there is no censorship. You can see any movie you can make it to through the mean streets.

In 1945, there were 292 homicides here. In 1990, there were about 2,200. In 1945, there were 1,417 armed robberies reported. In 1990, there were about 100,000, one every five minutes, and today robbery is under-reported by citizens accustomed to mayhem (such as 390 car thefts a day) as a commonplace of urban life.

A 1945 poll revealed that 90 percent of New Yorkers considered themselves happy. Today, 60 percent say they plan to be living elsewhere in five years, and crime is the primary cause of flight.

Such numbers trickle across the aircraft-carrier-sized desk of Police Commissioner Lee P. Brown. Long ago that desk belonged to a peripatetic commissioner who rarely sat still behind it:

Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt's midnight rambles on the city's wild side made him a rising star. Commissioner Brown, a large black man with three advanced degrees, is both praised and faulted for his phlegmatic manner.

He came here from Houston, a city with l.7 million people spread over 600 square miles. New York has 8 million in 3l9 square miles.

New York's per-capita crime statistics are not the nation's worst (for example, Washington's homicide rate is two-and-a-half times that of New York), but crime seems worse here because the density gives this city the nation's highest irritability quotient. Many New Yorkers are quick on the trigger, literally.

In 1960, handguns were used in 19 percent of homicides. Today, they are used in approximately 70 percent. Until 1969, more killings were by knives.

For more than a generation, the fundamental act of American fun -- watching television -- has involved, for the average viewer, seeing 150 acts of violence and 15 murders a week.

Is it really amazing that life seems to have been cheapened? Commissioner Brown is not amazed.

On the other hand, it has been plausibly argued that Americans are not so much more violent than other people; they are only more armed.

The argument is that you are more apt to see a fight in a British pub than in an American bar, but the British fight culminates in punches, the American fight in gunfire.

Commissioner Brown is both proud of and appalled by the confiscation of 17,000 guns in 1990. But he is bailing an ocean -- the tide of guns coming north from states (particularly Virginia, Texas, Georgia and Florida) where gun restrictions are derisory.

In 1989, 80 percent of those arrested for serious crimes had drugs in their systems. Drug disputes help generate this fact: The typical homicide victim is a young black male killed by a young black male he knew. (Only about l0 percent of homicide victims are non-Hispanic whites.)

Drugs, like guns, are a tide against which no single city or state can erect a dike.

But Mr. Brown, the calm at the eye of this city's storm about crime, does know what he can do: He can deploy more cops more usefully than in the recent past.

In medicine, much sophisticated research has resulted in proving that grandmother was right. The key to health is rest, exercise and nutrition. So, too, police science has lumbered laboriously to the conclusion that grandfather's generation knew thing or two.

The newfangled notion of ''community policing'' is essentially the oldfangled notion that more police should get out of their cars and back on a beat. There, they can deal not just reactively with crime, but proactively with the disorders -- loitering, poorly parented children, panhandling, anxiety that drives people indoors. These are early indices of neighborhood decay.

All that stands between the theory and the practice of such sensible policing is the residue of 1960s and 1970s liberalism, which considers it fascist for police to buttress bourgeois society's norms of good behavior.

Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt went prowling in the wee small hours with Jacob Riis, the journalist who wrote ''How the Other Half Lives.''

Like the patrician Roosevelt, Lee Brown, the product of a blue-collar family, is concerned with the social incubation of crime. When Commissioner Brown was a boy, the family dinner table was where his parents ''looked me in the eye to see if I had done something wrong.'' Now, he says, if many young men eat with their families at all, it is cafeteria style.

Brown knows that the key to fighting crime -- primarily a product of young men -- is in things that grandmother and grandfather took for granted.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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