WASHINGTON — This is the first in an occasional series of articles that wil examine President Clinton's record during his first term. WASHINGTON -- America is holding a presidential election in a year when it seems to be reeling from one horrific murder to the next, a shocking number of them committed by increasingly youthful killers, and in places -- schools and suburban malls -- once considered sanctuaries.
Paradoxically, President Clinton, citing FBI data, says violent crime is declining and that the policies pursued by his administration are responsible for safer streets.
Unwrapping this riddle may help determine the outcome of the )) 1996 presidential election -- for crime is a potent political issue. Several prominent law enforcement officials and criminologists interviewed about Mr. Clinton's claims say he exaggerates the effects of his policies -- and the drop in crime. They add, however, that they believe the president is pursuing solutions that will reap benefits eventually.
Even Mr. Clinton's critics agree that he has almost single-handedly brought the Democrats aboard on this issue, making them more open to crime-fighting -- and less susceptible to the historic accusation that they are "soft" on crime.
"He understood the political vulnerability to Democrats," says criminologist Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University. "He was a lot more of a hawk than the McGovern kind of traditional Democrat."
Michael S. Dukakis opposed capital punishment. Walter F. Mondale considered crime control to be a job for state and local government. Jimmy Carter conceded that he didn't know what to do about crime -- and insisted no one else did either.
But Mr. Clinton was different.
In 1992, as a candidate, he insisted crime was "a national problem that requires a tough national response." While reiterating traditional Democratic calls for curbs on handguns, he also proposed federal funding for 100,000 new police officers. He also defended the death penalty -- rare for a national Democrat -- going so far as to return to Arkansas to sign the order to execute a cop-killer.
In 1993, he introduced a sweeping anti-crime package with his new police officers and gun control. It included a number of conservative ideas, too, including limiting the number of federal appeals convicted killers can file in death penalty cases.
In 1994, the president shepherded his $33 billion crime bill
through Congress. It contained $8 billion for new police officers and tough measures such as longer incarcerations for drug dealers and habitual criminals and an expanded federal death penalty. But it also included other solutions, such as a ban on the manufacture of assault weapons and hundreds of millions of dollars for "preventive" measures, such as behind-bars drug treatment, midnight basketball leagues and gender sensitivity programs designed to reduce domestic violence.
In his basic stump speech, Mr. Clinton highlights three aspects of his record: gun control, 100,000 new police officers and support for "community policing," which is designed to make officers more visible and accessible.
"Talk to any major police officer in this country in any city, and they'll tell you that these police officers walking the streets are not only catching criminals quicker, they are preventing crime," Mr. Clinton says. "We were attacked for giving cities the money. But they were wrong, and we were right. And the crime rate is going down. We are saving lives."
The crime rate
Evaluating the accuracy of that claim is not easy. The first step is determining the true picture of crime in America today.
FBI crime figures covering the first six months of 1995 show that the murder rate declined by 12 percent over the same six-month period in 1994, the largest such reduction in almost 20 years. The president hailed this news -- and some of the nation's most prominent media outlets followed suit: A Time magazine cover proclaimed, "Finally, We're Winning the War Against Crime."
But a close look at the FBI data gives little reason for euphoria.
The dramatic drop-off occurred only in murder rates. Other violent crime remained about the same. The decline in the murder rate was due almost exclusively to drops in the largest cities, especially New York, which was responsible for 61 percent of the decline by itself. In most cities with more than 250,000 people, including Baltimore, there was no drop.
The figures were low partly because they followed years of unprecedented carnage. The murder rate was still higher than during the Reagan administration -- and nearly double what it was a generation ago. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh termed the decreases "modest," saying, "Violent crime remains at an intolerable level."
The statistics revealed a disturbing pattern involving youth crime that led one bi-partisan panel, the Council on Crime, to conclude that juvenile crime is a "ticking time bomb." In the past 10 years, the number of juvenile killers tripled.