Live From New York

Opening Soon In New York: Higher Crime Rates?

Scott Stringer's vision for a dystopian mayoralty.

By 5.9.12

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The latest effort from French filmmaker Luc Besson, Lockout, is an unmemorable and derivative science fiction flick set in the distant year of 2079. The action takes place on a space station orbiting Earth where violent criminals are held in suspended animation until -- surprise, surprise -- something goes horribly wrong. The hardened anti-hero is left with no choice but to use his dry wits and his fists to rescue the president's daughter from rampaging space prisoners. I had seen it all before a hundred times, as has any fan of schlocky action films. But one moment in this otherwise tepid movie made me take pause.

In an expository scene, the hardened anti-hero is chased through the streets of New York City by various law enforcement agencies. He runs into a subway station to make his escape, but his pursuers get the better of him. As a New Yorker, I drew two observations from the scene. First, I doubt the already strapped Metropolitan Transit Authority will be fiscally solvent enough to run trains by 2079. Oh, they will certainly find some way to collect fares and increase them every year or two. But to assume that there will still be subway service in 2079 -- a bleak, dystopian 2079, no less -- is quite a leap of faith on Besson's part. But with even greater interest, I noticed that the train cars of 2079 were covered with graffiti, something that would not be alien in the New York of 1979.

Such sorry tin cans were accurately depicted in films of the '70s and '80s like Weekend at Bernie's, The Warriors, and Deathwish. Graffiti artists were known to compete by seeing how many train cars bearing their "tags" would pass by in a given amount of time, and proudly took photos to document their elaborate murals. That was then. The subway cars of present day Gotham are gleaming, graffiti free visions in stainless steel, far removed from the griminess of the bad old days.

This turnaround stemmed from a drastic policy shift. Reasoning that subterranean Picassos would have little incentive to "tag" trains if few would ever see their masterpieces, the MTA began dispatching crews to clean vandalized trains. It took several years to scrub all of the rolling stock clean. Once the MTA caught up with the mess, they began to remove newly defaced cars from the system at first opportunity.

The subway stations, too, underwent a makeover. Fare dodgers, public urinators, and other petty "quality of life" criminals -- including vandals -- were aggressively targeted under a new order called the Broken Windows theory of policing, introduced by George Kelling and the recently departed and deeply missed James Q. Wilson in a 1982 article in the Atlantic.

Nip minor criminal behaviors in the bud early, went their line of thinking, and you will not only curb van dalism, fare evasion, and littering -- you'll also restore a sense of order and lower the rate of major crimes. Kelling has been known to say of the New York City Transit system that not all people who jump turnstiles are major criminals, but most major criminals tend to jump turnstiles.

William Bratton, former chief of the New York City Transit Police and intellectual devotee of Kelling, was made police commissioner when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took the reins in the early 1990s. Bratton and those who followed him such as current Commissioner Ray Kelly brought to scale policing practices tested in the "lab" of the transit system. Crime dropped precipitously, the city once thought ungovernable became a more desirable place to live, work, and play, and tales of being accosted by streetwalkers in Times Square or being mugged in Central Park fell mostly into the wheelhouse of grizzled veteran residents. 

But the NYPD's effective policing tactics have been called to question in a recent flurry of negative press. The Associated Press garnered a Pulitzer Prize for attacking the aggressive intelligence gathering operation that has uncovered numerous terrorist plots in the years since 9/11, an intelligence program that has earned praise from the top Obama counterterrorism official for balancing civil liberties and security. Whistleblowers have alleged that beat cops have been encouraged by the brass to under-report certain crimes to keep statistics low. And most notably, organizations such as the NYCLU, hand-in-hand with old guard members of the racial industrial complex like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have challenged the practice of stop-and-frisk, in which officers may briefly detain a person upon reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime without probable cause. Their gripe is that the practice must be unfair because the majority of those stopped are men of color.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a presumed mayoral candidate, recently wrote an incredibly disingenuous piece in the Nation that was doubtless an attempt to score points with these peddlers of racial disharmony. Stringer pegs his article, entitled "Beyond Stop-And-Frisk: Toward Policing That Works," to the controversial shooting of Trayvon Martin, the apparently innocent Florida teen who was shot by community watch leader George Zimmerman. Stringer advances the prejudicial notion -- favored by guilty white liberals and race baiters alike -- that Zimmerman shot Trayvon for the crime of being a black teen wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

A remarkable Reuters piece clearly establishes a chain of events in which Zimmerman -- himself a person of mixed race -- likely based his tragic decision on the fact that someone who resembled the criminals he had witnessed terrorizing his neighborhood beat the tar out of him when questioned for erratic behavior.  This sympathetic and balanced portrayal -- which apparently has gone woefully unread by the liberal establishment -- is from Reuters, an outlet that usually receives the rubber stamp of approval from the left.

Stringer's spurious assumption about the Martin case is an apt segue into his flawed thinking about New York's policing. He assumes that cops are simply looking for black and Hispanic kids to stop. Actually, they are looking for people who fit the profiles of crimes committed according to victim identification. Stringer laments that 87 percent of stop-and-frisks were of blacks and Hispanics last year, despite these groups making up only 54 percent of the population. 

While these numbers are scandalous on face, Stringer selectively ignores some equally important stats. Over 91 percent of murder suspects last year were black and Hispanic, according to readily available NYPD stats. Notably, 88 percent of murder victims were also black and Hispanic. Oh, and 83 percent of rape suspects, 76 percent of victims. 95 percent of robbery suspects, 68 percent of victims. The pattern holds across the board. That's the real story that Stringer should be focusing on; the perpetrators and victims of crimes in New York City -- ranging from misdemeanors to murder -- are overwhelmingly people of color.

It could be reasonably argued that no one benefits from stop-and-frisk and other aggressive policing practices more than people of color, who are inundated by crime within their own communities. But you'd never gather as much from Stringer's contorted logic. And you certainly won't hear that truth from the lips of activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. But then, it would be naive to expect such honesty from the men who gave us Tawana Brawley and who wax poetic on Greek "homos," Korean grocers, and the "hymies" of New York.

Sensible New Yorkers know that the NYPD's tactics are working. According to a Daily News poll, almost half support stop-and-frisk as "legitimate police work," while a whopping 57 percent support the surveillance program maligned by the AP. This despite Stringer's bizarre contention that stop-and-frisk is "not working."

What is Stringer's proposed alternative method of policing, by the way? According to his article, he favors community policing initiatives such as one in which neighborhood leaders "call in" gang leaders and other malcontents for a meeting and give them a stern talking to. Pondering what New York of 2079 will look like might be a moot point after a Stringer administration.

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About the Author

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.