How N.Y. tamed crime

January 09, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- Whenever Republicans in Washington become dejected about their poor poll ratings, they take heart from the case of Gov. John Engler (R-Mich.), who pushed through equally controversial reforms in Michigan and who suffered even more grievous poll numbers at the start of his first term.

In time, however, the wisdom of his course recommended itself to the voters, and he was resoundingly re-elected four years later.

Can national Republicans hope for the same fate? Maybe. Part of the reason Mr. Engler and other trend-setting state-level Republicans have done so well is that it is easier to make changes the voters actually feel at the local level.

Take crime. New York City's new Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, can take pride in a quite unexpected phenomenon in the Big Apple: Serious crime is down substantially.

The overall murder rate is lower than at any time since the early 1970s. Robbery and burglary have declined to levels unseen since the 1960s. In fact, all major felonies have shown double-digit declines since Mr. Giuliani took office, a decrease // such as New York has not seen since World War II.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of falling crime rates in a city like New York. Many sociologists have become convinced that crime, rather than resulting from poverty, actually causes it. Businesses are afraid to locate in inner cities and hire residents because the fear of robbery or murder keeps them away.

Crime also drives out the taxpaying middle class contributing to the polarization of cities. If the middle class is frightened away, the only people who remain in America's large cities are the very poor, who have no other choice, and the very wealthy, who can afford to insulate themselves from crime behind security gates and armed guards.

How did New York do it? The dropping crime rate in New York is probably not due to long-term population trends though we are, temporarily, in a demographic dip with smaller numbers of teen-agers and young adults, the prime crime perpetrators. But demographic changes take years to show up in crime statistics, and when they do, their effects are gradual. The drop in New York's crime rate has been abrupt and dramatic enough to beg for other explanations.

They are not hard to find. Under the leadership of Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, New York's police force and in a sense, New York itself has changed its approach to all forms of deviancy. As Mr. Bratton told the New York Times, "We are showing that police can change behavior. We were probably the most permissive and tolerant city in America for social deviancy. Now we're one of the least tolerant cities when it comes to the abuse of public space."

For the past two years, police in New York have been dealing aggressively with so-called "quality of life" crimes like drunkenness, public urination and turnstile jumping in the subway. James Q. Wilson wrote at least a decade ago about the "broken window" phenomenon. If a broken window remains unrepaired in a building, the rest of the windows will soon be broken as well. The one unrepaired window showed that no one cared.

Quality-of-life crimes contributed to a feeling of lawlessness in New York, to a sense that no one, the police included, cared. Now that has changed.

The police have also arrested and pursued many more petty criminals and confiscated a great many illegal handguns. For this, they have been excoriated by self-described "civil libertarians," but the handgun murder rate is down 40 percent.

Some of this good news may be vitiated by the coming wave of 40 million teen-agers in the next decade who are, in criminologist John DiIulio's phrase, "fatherless, Godless and jobless." But it does demonstrate just how readily the application of common sense more aggressive police, tougher prison sentences, zero tolerance for petty lawlessness can yield results.

What does all of this mean for national Republicans? It means that most people's lives are untouched by changes in Washington except in one area: taxes. If government makes changes that people can actually feel, the governors will be rewarded.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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