Last month, the police commissioner of New York, Bill Bratton, was quizzed at a conference by Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for The New Yorker. Bratton had been the police chief in Boston and Los Angeles, as well as New York’s once before, and he is a well-known champion of what is known as the “broken windows” school of policing. Toobin asked him what could account for the precipitous drop in crime in New York City. Bratton responded in a flash: The cops.
From the audience came laughter. I was in the back of the auditorium at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and so I cannot tell you if many people laughed or just some people laughed, but I had no doubt that Bratton had given what many considered the wrong answer. Crime had fallen because crime had fallen. The cops had nothing to do with it.
Bratton was not pleased by the response. “You can laugh,” he said — and then he provided the crime statistics to back up his answer. Maybe some people didn’t like what he was saying, but it was the truth, he insisted. Maybe so. (In fact, definitely so.) But it seems to be the case that liberal New York is in a distinctly anti-cop mood. The sense of the conference was that too many people are being locked up, often for trivial, non-violent crimes and their lives are being ruined as a result.
With much of this I am in agreement. The United States has an absolutely staggering number of people behind bars, an estimated 2.4 million. The government also says around 4.8 million adults are on probation or parole. And to these mind-boggling figures, Monday’s Wall Street Journal contributed this: “Nearly one of every three American adults [is] on file in the FBI’s master criminal database.”
When it comes to the rest of the world, the cliche is right: We are No. 1.
Something has to be done, and already things are. Possession and even sale of marijuana are being decriminalized in many places. But the United States is not, as with other countries, a single criminal-justice jurisdiction. Most crimes are a state matter, and the states often go their own way. Traditionally liberal New York state, for instance, once implemented the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which stocked the prisons with a class of criminals who had been given drug-related sentences comparable to those of second-degree murderers. Reforms are finally on their way.
No doubt too many people are behind bars. No doubt too many people are behind bars for the wrong — or trivial — reasons. No doubt, too many lives have been ruined and, in short, no doubt that society overreacted to the crime waves of years gone by. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was typical. His drug laws were both wrongheaded and cruel. But when his earlier reforms did little to abate the drug problem, he threw out all reason — or compassion — and moved to salvage his political career. As a liberal Republican, he could not afford to be called soft on crime.
Now, though, the pendulum is swinging the other way. New York City has vitiated its controversial stop-and-frisk program and Bratton’s baby, the broken-windows approach in which minor crimes can be prosecuted, is also under attack. Stop-and-frisk was clearly overdone and was being scaled back, and broken windows is getting a bad rap as an anti-minorities program: supposedly racist to the core.
Therein lies a problem. A reasonable takeaway from the various demonstrations regarding what happened in Ferguson, Mo., is that many people think an innocent man was murdered for being black. This is anti-cop sentiment taken to an extreme, and it is likely not shared by a majority of Americans. They don’t know exactly what happened, but polls suggest that most Americans have not concluded that a police officer simply executed an innocent man. They might have been appalled at what happened to Michael Brown, but they were also appalled by the reaction — violence, looting, etc.
I am reminded of the Vietnam era, when America recoiled from anti-war demonstrations and re-elected Richard Nixon in a landslide — a lesson for liberals. As with opposition to the Vietnam War, the cause of applying common sense to America’s rampant anti-crime crusade is right, but the methods of some would-be reformers — and their sometimes loose use of the epithet “racist” — is wrong. If this continues, a window for reform will shut hard and the trivially jailed will not only stay precisely where they are but will be joined by countless others.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.