Aggressive policing

September 11, 1997|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani insists that the shocking case of Abner Louima is isolated. The mayor is in deep denial, which only encourages more abuses.

Mr. Louima, a 30-year-old Haitian immigrant and part-time security guard, was gravely injured inside a New York police station Aug. 9. Police officers sodomized him with a stick reported to be a toilet-plunger handle. Then the stick was jammed into his mouth, breaking his teeth.

There is a lesson here for the rest of the nation. In response to the national uproar, the mayor took admirable steps, including a full investigation and town-hall meetings between local residents and every one of the city's police officers. But if the mayor had paid more attention to the systemic nature of the problem, he might not now find himself searching for systemic solutions.

Until Mr. Louima, Mayor Giuliani dismissed calls to crack down on complaints of police misconduct. He argued that the complaints are the result of more arrests and his more assertive ''zero-tolerance'' assault on quality-of-life offenses.

His pride was showing. The mayor is the nation's most prominent advocate of the ''broken windows'' approach to preventive policing. The nickname comes from a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, ''Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,'' by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.

Its basic tenets are increased physical presence of police on the streets and a reduced tolerance for vagrants, graffiti, broken windows and turnstile jumping.

When left unfixed, these early signs of incivility lead to more serious social decay.

Such aggressive policing has helped crime drop to 30-year lows in New York during the three Giuliani years -- a drop that former Mayor David N. Dinkins is quick to point out began during his administration in 1992.

But Big Apple glee has come at a cost to civil rights and liberties. Civilian complaints against police for excessive force rose by 61.9 percent in 1995, compared to 1993. Abuse-of-authority allegations went up by 86.2 percent. Allegations of illegal searches soared by 135 percent.

Mr. Dinkins, writing in the Village Voice, argues that Mayor Giuliani has taken aggressive policing too far. Most of the complaints ''come from people who were not only not arrested, but not even ticketed,'' he writes. ''Complainants are largely innocent bystanders who get caught up in illegal police behavior.''

Mr. Louima claimed that one of the police officers shouted, ''It's Giuliani time, not Dinkins time'' while attacking him. With that, the story became deeply partisan and political. Many believed the alleged statement to refer to Mayor Giuliani's get-tough attitude toward crime, compared to his predecessor, who outraged many cops by forming a civilian review board for police-misconduct complaints.

Is there a middle ground between out-of-control criminals and out-of-control police? There is, but too often it is ignored in the heat of talk-show arguments and political disputes.

Polarization

Sensational brutality cases like Mr. Louima's unfortunately polarize the issue between middle-class suburbanites who are angry and frightened of crime and low-income urban residents who catch most of the bad end of police behaving like occupying troops.

That's tragic, because poor people are most often the victims of crime and have the greatest reason to cooperate with police in crime-fighting efforts.

That's what Mr. Kelling, the Rutgers University professor who helped develop the ''broken windows'' idea, knows.

''Zero tolerance and 'sweeps' are not part of my vocabulary,'' he said. Rather, he said, his concept should be carried out in the context of a larger strategy of community policing, in which cops are encouraged to get out of their squad cars and involve themselves with community problems.

That comprehensive approach -- getting in touch, not just getting tough -- has worked to reduce crime, along with police-misconduct complaints, in cities across the country. Los Angeles, whose aggressive policing became notorious during the Rodney King beating case, revamped its training and found that, lo and behold, crime went down.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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