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The Force Of Better Policing
By George F. Will
Washington Post, Sunday, September 28, 2003; Page B07
LOS ANGELES -- "Progressives" will flinch at the thought, but, judging by the standards they favor, perhaps the most successful public official of the last decade wears a dark blue uniform and carries a gun. He is this city's police chief, William Bratton.
No aspect of contemporary governance -- the delivery of education, medical care, housing or even welfare services -- has achieved progressive successes as dramatic as has policing. These successes have been progressive in that their benefits have accrued disproportionately to persons particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable to injury, including deprivation of liberty, property and life on account of crime.
Between 1991 and 1999, more professional policing, with an assist from demography (fewer young males), reduced violent crime nationally more than 25 percent. In New York City between 1993 and 2001, thanks largely to measures instituted while Bratton was Mayor Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner between 1994 and 1996, crime was reduced 64 percent -- including a 75 percent decrease in gun homicides.
This change, of a magnitude that social science rarely records, primarily benefited low-income minorities living in neighborhoods infested with predators -- mostly minority predators preying on minorities. The facts of crime refute the "progressive" myth of the equal susceptibility, at any time, of all social groups to antisocial behavior.
But successful policing, which led to "disparate" arrest patterns, produced complaints about police. Complainers cited the disparities as prima facie proof of racial profiling. But the racial profile of the beneficiaries of better policing is mostly minorities released from imprisonment in their homes, free to venture into the streets of revitalized neighborhoods.
For a trenchant appraisal of Bratton's achievement and more, read Heather Mac Donald's book "Are Cops Racist? How the War Against the Police Harms Black Americans," in which she demolishes the myth of pervasive racial profiling. She warns: "If the police are now to be accused of racism every time they go where the crime is, that's the end of public safety." And of the urban renaissance that owes much to more intelligent policing.
New York was not large enough for two personalities as assertive as Bratton's and Giuliani's. The mayor's decision to fire Bratton probably had something to do with Bratton's appearance, by himself, on a Time magazine cover celebrating progress against crime.
Last October Bratton came west, and he is "amazed at how much goes on out here." This is the most lightly policed of America's major cities -- 470 square miles policed by 9,309 officers. To match New York City's ratio of police to population, LAPD would need 18,000 officers. Divide LAPD's uniformed force into shifts, allow for administrative duties, vacations and sick leave, and only 500 to 600 officers, and fewer than 170 patrol cars, are on the streets of this horizontal metropolis at a typical moment. Hence the always two and often three police helicopters constantly in the air, coordinating ground patrols.
Counterterrorism responsibilities consume up to 30 percent of Bratton's time as he helps police a region that has some of the tallest buildings west of the Mississippi and two ports -- Los Angeles and Long Beach -- through which pass, virtually uninspected, about half of the 6 million shipping containers that enter America each year. And this city is a simmering stew of ethnicities, which gives rise to gangs that have 100,000 members in Los Angeles County.
Of the 100,000, Bratton estimates that 3 percent are "sociopathic." That is 3,000 people of whom Bratton says, "They'll kill you in a second."
Bratton of course believes in incarceration, but says, "When you send people to jail, you're really sending them to finishing school." The Mexican Mafia is largely controlled from prison. In prison, even more than in neighborhoods, gangs offer members at least the hope of protection. In neighborhoods, gangs are one way children navigate what an LAPD study describes, in an inexpressibly sad phrase, as "the gantlet of childhood."
Bratton cannot produce the change -- two-parent families, which are rarities in parts of this city -- that would do more than anything else to reduce crime. But he can campaign for a "critical mass" of officers to give law enforcement the key to tipping a city against crime: consistency.
If progressives are discomfited by the fact that a cop has done more than their usual pinups have done for the disadvantaged, conservatives too may be discomfited, by this: Their law-and-order agenda requires throwing money at the problem of disorder.
"Give me 3,000 more cops," Bratton says, "and I'll make this the safest city in America in two years."
With annual pay and benefits amounting to roughly $100,000 per officer, the annual bill would be $300 million. Given the billions wasted on "urban renewal," $300 million is a modest price for an urban renaissance.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company