NYPD BLUES: Fighting Crime in NYC

Wednesday, May 26, 1999

In New York city, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani created a special police unit to aggressively target street crimes. Their activities included stopping and searching thousands of "suspicious-looking" people on the street. Are these actions necessary to clean up the streets, or are they unnecessarily confrontational and even racist? Has Mayor Giuliani's zero-tolerance approach to street crime been responsible for the dramatic reductions in crime in the city, or have his policies done more harm than good? What lessons should the rest of the nation learn from New York?

Recorded on Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I’m Peter Robinson. Our show today, Cops. Specially we’ll be addressing the efforts of Mayor Rudolf Gulianni to fight crime in the Big Apple. Consider the traditional image of the cop, the cop on the beat, the one who knows everybody up and down the street. He may have applied a little muscle from time to time, but fundamentally he was a trusted member of the community.

Now that kind of policing may have worked until the 1960’s but at that point, the inner cities began to deteriorate and crime rates to soar. On taking office in 1994 Mayor Guiliani attempted to establish a new kind of police force for New York. He wanted his cops to be smart, aggressive and tough. The Mayor established a special Street Crimes Unit, one of its most important tactics, looking for illegal guns by stopping and searching thousands of citizens. Has it worked? Well, with us today two guests. John O’Sullivan editor of National News Magazine and a resident of New York believes Mayor Guiliani is directly responsible for the way in which crime in New York has plummeted. Joe McNamara, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and himself a former chief of police believes otherwise. Mayor Guiliani, Joe asserts is doing more harm than good.

Crime rates have dropped very sharply in New York. Across the city 76 districts, crime has fell by 50% to 90% during the first three years of Guiliani’s tenure alone. The question is this, does the credit belong to Mayor Rudolf Guiliani? John?

John O'Sullivan: Yes, I think it does. It does for two reasons. First of all, he instituted a policy of pro-active search for people carrying guns likely to use them in crime. He sent out a Street Crime Unit which was undercover operating high crime areas and they did stop and search people and make arrests. And the second thing he did was, he had a zero tolerance policy for the kind of actions that make an area appear likely to be a crime area. In other words, graffiti, guys who stop you--

Peter Robinson: The squeegee men--

John O'Sullivan: The squeegee men. In other words, all the things that make urban life seem a little risky dangerous uncertain, and therefore inviting the criminal.

Peter Robinson: Joe?

Joe McNamara: Well I’m not sure. For one reason, Guiliani won’t release any of his crime statistics and information that we could use to judge what police have done and what impact it has had. The news media has had to sue him for Freedom of Information Act--

Peter Robinson: What do you mean by that?

Joe McNamara: He’s very reluctant and makes one skeptical because--

Peter Robinson: But the FBI keeps statistics on New York.

Joe McNamara: Yeah, but if you have such a good thing going, why are you secretive about your own statistics? And when we look at police, we want to know, sure the police I think have done a good job in New York. I think the Mayor has done a good job in a number of ways. But the evidence is not overwhelming that this was because of what he did. Because as Professor Wilson pointed out, who wrote co-authored The Broken Windows theory of pollution way back in 1982--

Peter Robinson: Professor James Q. Wilson?

Joe McNamara: …Crime went down in Los Angeles also when the LA cops were doing nothing more than responding to calls. So crime is going down nationally. It started down in New York before Guiliani, it accelerated downward there. We’re all happy about that. But I don’t think the Mayor deserves as much credit as he claims--

Peter Robinson: You give him some but it’s a downward trend anyway. Now wait, you put a couple things on the table here. Professor Wilson is James Q. Wilson?

Joe McNamara: That’s right.

Peter Robinson: And The Broken Windows?

Joe McNamara: He and [George Kohan]--

Peter Robinson: Right.

Joe McNamara: In 1982 wrote an article suggesting what John has said, that you have a neighborhood that looks like it’s in decay, the police should crack down on every minor violation. I think it’s a wrong kind of--

Peter Robinson: Guess that’s where it got The Broken Windows name? Okay.

Joe McNamara: Certainly police should stop people from breaking windows, but the idea that the police should use gas resources and really a harassment of citizens to litter or jay-walk is not good policing and in fact that’s what Guiliani has promoted the zero colony stuff.

Peter Robinson: Back to the Street Crimes Unit. They stopped people and frisked them? Tell us about that.

John O'Sullivan: Well they stopped them, they frisked them. About over a two year period, I think it was something like 45,000 people were stopped and frisked. Of which about 9,000 were found to be carrying guns illegally. Now the argument which is generally made against this is well that means between 30-45,000 people who were quite innocent were stopped. Well that’s true. But it also means that there are people in prison today who would be wandering around the streets with illegal guns and there are about 9,000 of them. Now I don’t mind if about 20,000 people, innocent people are embarrassed once a year in this way if we’re going to keep criminals behind bars. That seems to me as a calculus. A bit of embarrassment--

Peter Robinson: What’s the legal basis for frisking people on the street like this?

1997-1998 the Street Crimes Unit in New York stopped and frisked a little over 45,000 citizens in the City of New York. About 9,500 of them were found to be carrying illegal guns, which leaves you with 38-39,000 who got stopped for no reason? You were a former--you served as Chief of Police in San Jose, what do you think about this frisking?

Joe McNamara: Well, but more importantly I’m a retired NYPD cop who worked ten years in Harlem [soots]. Many people arrested, many people for guns.

Peter Robinson: You grew up where?

Joe McNamara: In the Bronx near the Yankee Stadium.

Peter Robinson: Your father’s job was?

Joe McNamara: He was a cop.

Peter Robinson: And you became one.

Joe McNamara: My brother was a copy, my uncle, my cousins, so I love cops.

Peter Robinson: So you speak with a certain authority yourself.

Joe McNamara: Yeah. Now the point is the police right to stop and frisk is established by a 1963 case called Terry vs. Ohio; which says that when a police officer sees someone who’s suspicious, they have a right to pack them down so that the cop doesn’t get killed, if the person has a weapon. That makes a lot of sense. But you can’t use that law to search. The decision is quite explicit that you’re not allowed to just go inside someone’s pocket because the 4th Amendment prohibits illegal searches. In reference to what John said, I certainly applaud the idea of getting illegal guns off the street and have been a champion of gun control among American police associations. But these statistics that we get from the NYPD and you have to be skeptical about them, because we don’t know how many people were stopped. We know how many people they say were stopped, we don’t know how many people went to jail. They say these were illegal guns but the cases may be thrown out of court because--

Peter Robinson: About half, they say about half the cases don’t get prosecuted. So you get 9,000 you pick up, you find with guns, and about 4,500 you prosecute. I don’t know the conviction rate, do you?

Joe McNamara: But suppose--but the police officers don’t always file reports and you may have twice as many stopped. Now the point is, you can’t just stop--

Peter Robinson: Okay, so let’s just say--

Joe McNamara: …everyone on the street with the idea that everyone is a criminal.

Peter Robinson: You suspect there are more than 45,000 who got stopped?

Joe McNamara: I’m sure there are more.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you this. Suppose the actual number were not 45,000 people stopped and frisked in 1997 and 1998 but 90,000 twice as many. Would you still think it was worthwhile?

John O'Sullivan: Absolutely. I would, myself, have no objections to being stopped and being frisked. Well it’s happened to me in London as a matter of fact. And it was slightly embarrassing obviously. But the fact is if that’s the price for social peace, if that’s the price for not being afraid to walk the streets, it’s a price well worth paying. Who are you more afraid of? You’re more afraid of the cop or are you more afraid of the criminal.

Peter Robinson: A price well worth paying.

Joe McNamara: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think you can allow the police to violate the law. And if they’re violating--

Peter Robinson: But surely the ACLU would have brought cases. Surely this has been tested in court and--

[cross talk]

John O'Sullivan: If they’re violating the law, I’d like to change the law to allow them to stop and frisk people whom they suspect of carrying guns.

Joe McNamara: Well you have to change the Bill of Rights, John.

John O'Sullivan: Well, I doubt that. Because I think that for more of American history police have done that kind of thing without it being considering a constitutional invasion. I mean, I think the ACLU view of the constitution is one thing. The constitution is another one. But having said that, let’s go on to think, wouldn’t we rather a situation in which if a police officer has a reasonable suspicion that someone is carrying a gun that he should be able to stop him? The result of which would be that fewer people carry guns, fewer people are shot with guns.

Joe McNamara: But that is the law. If a police officer can say I saw this person doing this, this and this and that made me suspicious so I went up and frisked him, that’s perfectly legal. The police officer looks out a window of his car and he sees someone who’s black or brown and he says anyone walking out there has probably got a gun and indiscriminately frisking people, that’s wrong. We no longer live in a free society.

Peter Robinson: The police officer sees someone who’s black or brown, Joe McNamara brings us to the issue or race.

45,000 or so stopped and frisked 1997-1998, the overwhelming majority by the NYPD’s own statistics, Hispanics or Blacks, indeed the portion of blacks were 63% and critics have charged the New York Police Dept. with racial profiling which is against the law. Something else that’s against the law. John, defend them.

John O'Sullivan: Well, certainly. As you know, most of these searches were conducted in high crime areas. They were conducted in those areas partly because the residents of those areas were terrified and wanted police protection. Now, as one of the policemen said in this case, he said, "Look, in those areas you’d be hard put to find a white guy," so naturally there’s going to be a slight--without racial profiling or anything else. If you search in those areas you’re going to hit mainly minority people. I agree with that.

Now, let’s look at racial profiling. Of course I’m against anyone being stopped because they’re Black or because they’re Hispanic or anything else, but at the same time a certain common sense comes into this. I think you’d agree if you were looking for drug suspects, you would not be looking for elderly white women. There might be an elderly white women who’s a drug kink I suppose somewhere, but in general, you wouldn’t go out looking for someone who fit that profile. So you have to sort of say to yourself, it’s mainly young men who commit crime, not women and not old men and not old women. So you’re looking at that--

Peter Robinson: And mainly young Black men in certain neighborhoods. Will you go that far?

John O'Sullivan: Well, certainly in certain neighborhoods, absolutely the case. And in general as we know, young Black men are more involved in crime than young White men. Now, that doesn’t justified looking for blacks and stopping blacks, of course, but it does mean that if you’re looking for people who like to commit crime, they’re going to be more often young Black men than old Black men, or young white men.

Joe McNamara: Well, that’s not true. Statistically whites commit more crime than blacks, but blacks tend to be arrested more now. Having said that, let me say--

John O'Sullivan: ..they’re proportionately more--we must come back to that.

Peter Robinson: Hold on. Let’s just deal with that one right now. Because this is a short show and there’s no coming back.

John O'Sullivan: Well, I mean, whites are 80% of the community. They commit more crimes than blacks who are 12%. But blacks commit disproportionately more crime than whites. In other words, they don’t commit 12% of crime, they commit depending on the crime, a third--

Joe McNamara: That’s certainly not true in the drug area and by the way, probably this widespread violation of drug laws by middle-age whites. It’s just that the police are not interested in enforcing that.

Peter Robinson: 63% of the people who were stopped were black. 58% of those arrested were black and 71% of those identified by victims were also black. So doesn’t that speak to John’s point?

Joe McNamara: Per se the statistics can be misread into police prejudice. However, when you look at the New Jersey Turnpike where 85% of the drivers are white but 80% of the people stopped and interrogated in search by the police are people of color, racial profiling is something that the minority community is justifiably upset about and it’s something that’s terrible. Any police officer that stops someone based on the color of their skin is in violation of its oath to obey the constitution.

Peter Robinson: And you think under Guiliani that’s been encouraged or tacitly permitted?

Joe McNamara: I think under Guiliani there’s been a policy of look we’re not going to ask questions of what you do, it’s dangerous out there--I attended NYPD conference with the brass and the commissioner himself was present. And he was saying our cops look out there and we see someone riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, zoom, we get him, take him into the station, we fingerprint him and find out he’s wanted for murder. And I said, "My God! I spent my whole career as police chief saying to the cops, look the overwhelming majority of people are law abiding. They’re on your side. Don’t think everyone is a criminal," and that’s what you need to do to balance the police--you think, cops can easily think the whole world is made up of cops and bad people.

Peter Robinson: And that mentality has fostered under Rudolf Guiliani--

Joe McNamara: Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it.

Peter Robinson: Was it that mentality that was responsible for one recent tragedy in New York?

This brings us to the case of [Ahmad du Dialo]. John, would you explain the events?

John O'Sullivan: Yes. The cops were looking for a rapist, serial rapist. They were given a profile of what he was like. They saw this young man who seemed, at a distance, to fit the profile--

Peter Robinson: This was taken place in the Bronx--

John O'Sullivan: Taken place in the Bronx. They came across him in the lobby and he seemed to them, I mean as far as one can restructure happened, he seemed to them to be reaching for something. They thought a gun, they shot him, I think, they fired 44 bullets, all in about, I think about three seconds. And of course he was found--

Peter Robinson: They fired 41 and hit him 19 times.

John O'Sullivan: And he was found to be carrying no weapon, in fact, reaching I think for a cell phone or something like that.

Peter Robinson: He was what color?

John O'Sullivan: He was black. He was an immigrant from Africa.

Peter Robinson: And the four cops involved were?

John O'Sullivan: They were white. But of course these things have happened before with cops who were not white. I mean it’s important to make that point. And in this case however, what do we think happened? Well, I don’t know and you’re probably better equipped than I am to say. But it looks to me as though they made an honest mistake, panicked. The first shot was fired and then trigger fingers did the rest.

Peter Robinson: And the controversy that is ensued in the City of New York?

John O'Sullivan: As a result of this, it’s--there was an attempt to blame this on Guiliani’s policing methods. As there has been a previous attempt to blame the assault upon another man who was taken into custody and sodomized and brutally beaten on Guiliani and in fact, the victim in that case, I mean he was a victim, there’s no doubt about that; was encouraged to lie about it; and to say that the cops when brutalizing him had said it’s Guiliani time. We now know he’s withdrawn that. We now know he was encouraged to say that by people intent on bringing Guiliani down. Some of those people are trying to bring Guiliani down in over the case of Ahmad du Dialo as well.

Peter Robinson: All right. So John suspects. We don’t know the facts, but John suspects that the Ahmad du Dialo incident was a tragedy. Mayor Guiliani’s accusers say it was a crime and that Guiliani is at least indirectly to blame. How do you read it?

Joe McNamara: The four police officers have been indicted for murder, which I think is terribly unfair. I’d be inclined to agree with John that they panicked. But you have to understand, police departments have their own culture. Their own climate. And the climate that’s been created by Guiliani is one of exaggerated suspicion of ordinary people walking the streets. Now if there were only two atrocities such as John described, I would be the first one to say, well, these are exceptions. But there have been any number of cases, a boy was choked to death by the police playing touch football in front of his parent’s house when the football bounced off a police car and you see a series of things. The Mayor’s job is too reduce conflict in the city. Instead he has created more racial animosity unnecessarily because we can bring crime down without doing that. We did in San Jose. We became the safest large city in the country. A very aggressive police force. We stop. We search. We run sting operations. But we did it with the support of the minority community.

Peter Robinson: I want to get to what you did in a moment.

Let me try one new statistic on Joe. Shootings by police in New York are actually going down.

In the last three years, the number of police shootings in the City of New York has fallen. From 344 to 249. Fatal shootings have fallen from 30 to 19. Now doesn’t that suggest that what happened in the case of Ahmad du Dialo was a tragedy but an aberration, not an illustration of a trend under Guiliani.

Joe McNamara: Well I think you have to take this in context of what’s been going on in the United States. There’s been a decline of crime nationally for seven years. In that decline of crime, the police nationally have been firing and shooting less. So it’s great that the police are shooting less. It’s great that less people are being killed by the police. But the statistics alone don’t tell the whole story and it’s hardly a consolation to the family of Mr. Dialo who was killed in his own hallway trying to probably escape four men that he thought were dangerous, and indeed they were.

John O'Sullivan: There’s another element in all of this as well. And that is that the media, and I think Washington, is always very interested in crimes committed by white cops. In other words, the Rodney King case is a dream for the media because it expresses--

Peter Robinson: Rodney King in Los Angeles several years ago--white cops beat up a black motorist.

John O'Sullivan: That’s right. Who was resisting arrest, although this didn’t seem to be clear from the video tape that everybody saw. Now, this justifies the media’s view that all whites are really racist underneath. That cops are particularly racists and that there’s a kind of undeclared war against the Black community by cops. And so it was played up. Now, I think that a lot of cops must walk around with the knowledge in their head that if they take a step over the wrong side, they’ll become like the cops in the Rodney King case. They’ll not only be charged but if acquitted, they’ll be charged again. If found guilty, the Justice Department will demand even stiffer sentences than they were given and so on and so forth.

Joe McNamara: You’re quite right and someone who was police chief for 18 years, I can tell you I got furious at the media many times for misreporting and creating terrible racial tensions that were unnecessary.

Peter Robinson: You served as a cop on the beat in New York for 10 years. You were chief of police in Kansas City for how many years?

Joe McNamara: 3 years.

Peter Robinson: And then you were chief of police in San Jose?

Joe McNamara: 15 years.

Peter Robinson: 15 years, okay.

Joe McNamara: And often the media does create terrible problems by misreporting and starts with their bias. But I don’t think we can lay this all on the media.

Peter Robinson: Let’s get back to Rudy Guiliani. I grew up in upstate New York. And from about the age where I became conscience of politics and social situations and so forth, I was aware that crime was a terrible problem in the City of New York. I last lived in New York in 1990 under Mayor [Dinkens], America was doing well. We had an economic expansion, Wall Street was doing well. Nobody I knew thought New York City was doing well. It was a dirty dangerous place and everybody expected the downward trend to continue. So for 20 years, at least 20 years, crime--

Joe McNamara: Well let me--

Peter Robinson: No, no. Let me finish. Crime and dirt in New York City were considered simply a fact of life. Rudy Guiliani got elected and it'’ a rare instance among politicians within a few years, he took intractable problems and did something about them and so why isn’t Rudy Guiliani a hero?

Joe McNamara: Well, let me say this Mayor Dinkens, after his election interviewed me for the police commissioner’s job and I told him that he had to do something, the police were paralyzed and that they could not effectively do their job if they wouldn’t talk to citizens. They were so paralyzed, so fearful, they wouldn’t even talk to me, a retired cop from a police family. And I think we went from paralysis of the police to--

Peter Robinson: Hyperactivity?

Joe McNamara: Hyperactivity. The middle ground is what we followed in San Jose where we had--

Peter Robinson: Joe has told us what the Mayor of New York shouldn’t have done. What would Joe have done to bring down crime in the Big Apple?

It’s 1994, you just got elected Mayor of New York instead of Rudy Guiliani. You’re facing the problems we outlined. At least 20 years when crime rates, very high crime rates had been just viewed as an intractable problem you had to live with, what are you going to do about it? Wait for the economy to improve? What do you do?

Joe McNamara: I demand an immediate recount of the election. [Laughter]

Peter Robinson: What do you do that Rudy didn’t--

Joe McNamara: Every precinct working with community groups and the precinct organizing, helping people work together, put those cops on the beat where they get the older people--

Peter Robinson: Community outreach?

Joe McNamara: No, a community partnership. I mean, the police are civil servants. They’re not an occupation Army that’s going to lock you up if you drop some litter, if you jaywalk. They are people who work for the public and have to work with the public and we know that when most crime is reported--

Peter Robinson: You really believe that Mayor McNamara with community partnership would get crime rates down by 50%-90% the way Rudy Guiliani did? Community partnership?

Don’t forget how high they were.

John O'Sullivan: How are you going to deal with those areas in which the ordinary peaceful law abiding citizen is frightened of the criminals. In other words--

Joe McNamara: Just the way I dealt with them in San Jose. We work with them, the police, and those people became partners. We did aggressive police work. We did stop and frisk people. But we understood what the people wanted and they understood that we were not the enemy.

John O'Sullivan: I understand that--

Joe McNamara: And they supported good enforcement.

John O'Sullivan: But I’m saying that when the criminals control the areas, the community leaders are not real community leaders. They’re representing the criminals.

Joe McNamara: There is no way--there is no way that you should allow criminals to control any area. That was my message to Mayor Dinkens. And the police have to do something about crime.

Peter Robinson: You don’t go after the squeegee men--

Joe McNamara: But you do it with a partnership with the community. New York PD is doing it all on computers, regardless, it’s sort of their messages, look, we’re doing what’s good for you, don’t bother us, you’re getting in our way. The old stupidity of policing the myth that police themselves control crime when in fact, most crime is prevented because of the way people bring up their kids. And the police have to be part of that.

John O'Sullivan: Of course it’s true that the most important policeman is the policeman in our own heads, which stops you and me committing crime. That’s true. But the fact is a lot of people don’t have that policeman. And when they don’t have it, you have to have a real one. Now he has to arrest people. He has to sort of make--use his judgment that this man is carrying a gun, he’s a threat to the community, I’m going to stop and frisk him. And I’m saying, what’s your objection to that? Your objection is not apparently that it’s done, but it’s sometimes done in a way that might look racially discriminating.

Joe McNamara: That’s right. I was a policeman. I think my partner and I was good. We always felt we were better than the other policeman, but let me tell you something John. I don’t care how good any policeman is. There’s no way he looks at someone and says that person is carrying a gun, or that person is carrying gloves. And it takes a lot of other things to build up--[cross talk]

Peter Robinson: …you put the Street Crimes Unit. The Street Crimes Unit was in plain clothes so they could follow guys and that’s a pattern of suspicion--

Joe McNamara: …it didn’t matter whether they wore uniforms or not, as soon as those plain clothesmen hit a neighborhood, all of the criminals knew. In fact if you look at the cars they drive, they might as well have the police dome red lights on it. They are spotted immediately. They didn’t have to be in plain clothes.

Peter Robinson: Mayor McNamara does not establish the Street Crimes Unit. He doesn’t have guys frisk people on the street.

Joe McNamara: No. I didn’t say that. Why would you say that?

Peter Robinson: No, I’m asking you. I’m asking you. What would you do--what would you then do or did do?

Joe McNamara: I would do a whole variety of things, but one thing I would do is hammer home a message to the police over and over. If the public can’t tell the good guys, the cops from the bad guys, we lose our most important weapon in preventing crime, the legitimacy of society. If the many people in the community think the cops are just as bad as criminals, then we’re going to have more crime.

Peter Robinson: I want to close with two questions to put to each of you. It’s ten years from today. John made the point that Rudy Guiliani has taken strong action. Crime has dropped in New York City and that he runs the risk of becoming despised for it. I want to know ten years from today, as people look back on the mayorship of Rudolf Guiliani, is it esteemed or despised? John?

John O'Sullivan: Oh I think once he’s gone, people will be immediately extremely nostalgic for him. He’d be regarded as the good old days.

Peter Robinson: Joe?

Joe McNamara: I think it may well be because if we have an increase in demographics of the young men and if we have a decline in economy, crime will increase in some time and Guiliani will get credit that he doesn’t deserve, which I think he’s getting now.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So he’ll be esteemed but for the wrong reasons. Now this is the closing question. I want one adjective from each of you to describe Mayor Guiliani’s policing effort. John, what is it going to be?

John O'Sullivan: Brave.

Peter Robinson: Joe?

Joe McNamara: Tragic.

Peter Robinson: Joe McNamara, John O’Sullivan, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: Brave or tragic. However you view Mayor Guiliani’s tactics, statistics indicate that they have indeed succeeded in taking a bite out of crime. I’m Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.