[For an Indian, who does not normally see policemen except at traffic lights, American policemen are a revelation. They actually police the country. Once, when I was driving through the Colorado desert with Rakesh Mohan, a police car suddenly appeared, overtook us, stopped Rakesh, and gave him a ticket for speeding. I thought it was unfair since no vehicle was in sight for miles, but there it was. Rakesh was asked to come to court a week later. "But I am leaving for India day after tomorrow, Officer!" "Ah well! Throw the ticket in the sea then," was the answer. American policemen are active and conspicuous; but their effectiveness varies from city to city. This column was published in Business Standard of 4 April 2000.]
Getting value out of police
A year ago, four New York policemen were searching for drug dealers in Harlem, New York’s slum, when they saw a black youth in a first-floor window. The man was looking out and then withdrawing, repeatedly. Maybe he was scared; but the policemen thought his actions were suspicious. So they ran up the stairs, and the man fled. At some point the man, according to the policemen, started putting his hand into his trouser pocket; they thought he was about to take out a gun. The four policemen fired 44 shots at him, of which 19 hit him, and he died. All that was found in his pocket was his wallet. He was a young Senegalese; his name was Amadou Diallo.
The district attorney sued the policemen for murder. The policemen’s lawyers pleaded that they would not get justice in the district where they had shot Diallo, so the case was transferred to the court in a neighbouring district. It was tried by a jury of eight whites and four blacks. It was a tense trial; the policemen’s fellow-officers attended every day in strength, in their uniforms, and so did many African Americans who felt Diallo had been murdered by a racist police. There was only one witness, put up by the prosecution; she did not stand up well to the cross-examination. The judge took four hours instructing the jury. The jury acquitted the policemen.
The policemen’s trial cast a shadow on the Mayor of New York, Rudolf W Giuliani, who had won tremendous popularity by cleaning up New York. New York had one of the highest rates of crime before he took over in 1992. He and his police commissioner, William J Bratton, improved the recording of crimes, and made sure that the precinct commanders – the local equivalents of our station house officers – did not suppress minor crimes. They pushed down the responsibility of keeping down crime to the commanders; they were rewarded or punished on the basis of the crime record in their precincts. They increased the public presence and activity of the police: the police patrolled aggressively, frisked thousands of people for guns, and were severe on minor crimes like writing of graffiti. They tried community policing, but soon gave it up. New York’s murder rate fell from 29 per lakh people in 1991 to 9 in 1998; its robberies fell 13.4 to 5.4 per thousand people. New York became a much safer city; and the tactics that killed Diallo were amongst those that reduced crime.
Would it then be right to conclude that an iron fist is necessary to bring down crime? Fox Butterfield of The New York Times discovered that the record of New York was nothing exceptional. Between 1991 and 1998, San Diego brought down its murder rate from 15 to 3 per lakh, and its robbery rate from 4.7 to 1.8 per thousand. Boston brought down its murder rate from 20 to 6, and its robbery rate from 8.3 to 4.2. Even Detroit, one of America’s most dangerous cities, brought down its homicide rate from 59 to 43 and its robbery rate from 13.1 to 8.9. Overall, there seems to have been a declining trend in crime in the US; the average national murder rate came down from 10 to 6, and the robbery rate from 2.7 to 1.7. The nineties have been a time of unprecedented prosperity and low unemployment; gainfully employed people have less time and inclination to commit crimes.
Admittedly, New York’s crime reduction was far above average; but so was it in San Diego and Boston. San Diego did it by following practices very different from those of New York. It was already ahead of New York in statistical mapping of crime. It has only a third as many policemen per head of population as New York. Instead of recruiting more, it recruited 1200 volunteers. It gave them training, dressed them up in uniforms like those of the police and gave them vehicles. Their chief job was to watch and report. The city was divided into 99 precincts, each was assigned to a team of police, and they were told to get to know the people in their precinct and win their trust. Jerry Sanders, San Diego’s police commissioner, did not content himself with crime statistics. He ran an annual survey of public satisfaction; the last one, conducted by an outside consultant, showed an approval rate of 89 per cent.
As the Diallo case shows, crime and race get inextricably mixed up in the United States. Policemen, who are predominantly white despite attempts to recruit minorities, develop a stereotype about young blacks in the course of their work; and blacks predominantly regard the police as against them. The police also tend to concentrate on organized crime – on gangs of criminals or drug dealers – and these gangs tend to be uniracial, often black. This is where Boston’s experiment is interesting. It consulted David Kennedy of Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government; on his advice, the Boston police took the help of Federal agencies like FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and began to trace how guns fell into the hands of criminals. That way they identified the most serious offenders. They also began to call in hoodlums and warn them that they had to stop violence; otherwise they would go to jail.
The interesting thing is that Boston’s police commissioner who tried out these innovations was no other than James Bratton, whom Giuliani lured away to New York in 1993; there he adopted hardball tactics, quite different from those he used in Boston. He attributes the decision not to use soft approaches to Giuliani. But gang murders among young blacks are a serious problem all over the States, and Boston’s approach of weaning them off murder is being tried out in many cities.