Pubdate: April 28, 1999 Source: Wall Street Journal (NY) Copyright: 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Section: Business World Contact: http://www.wsj.com/ Author: Holman W. Jenkins Jr. WHAT HAPPENED WHEN NEW YORK GOT BUSINESSLIKE ABOUT CRIME Despite "reinventing government" and the ebb and flow of similar management slogans equating government with business, the twain are destined seldom to meet, as the Mayor of New York is discovering. Up until a few months ago, Rudy Giuliani might have been known to history as the one politician who took aim at a supposedly entrenched condition of modern life, urban crime, and actually did something about it. What a terrible precedent that would have been for politicians everywhere. When it comes to crime, a whole string of court decisions had accustomed them to the notion that police agencies were under no particular obligation to prevent crime--investigate yes, prevent no. The New York Police Department set out to do something outside the normal course of police work when it set out to lower the crime rate. It did so as a business would, "managing by objective," an axiom popularized by management consultant Peter Drucker. The results were stunning--crime dropped across the city's 76 precincts by 50% to 90% in three years. But this was stunning only because governmental problems are traditionally treated in such a way as to make them seem insoluble. Unfailingly governmental problems, unlike business problems, become the occasion for "solutions" whose purpose is to please a constituency not directly related to the problem. Thus crime has been an occasion for promoting gun control, welfare spending, education spending, public housing, and myriad other causes for which powerful constituencies clamor. That's how politics works. It's not how business works. "I'm trying to run the NYPD as you would a private corporation," said Mr. Guiliani's first police commissioner, William Bratton. He used words like "productivity" and made precinct captains directly answerable for crime rates. In any city a tiny fraction of the population, about 7%, commits most of the crime. An even smaller fraction, 1%, the hard-core psychopaths, commits several felonies per day per psychopath. Taking one of these people off the street earlier rather than later in his career can spare the public hundreds of crimes. That, in fact, makes crime an easy problem to get leverage over, if you care to do it. In New York, crime fell almost immediately. Mr. Bratton took special aim at those carrying illegal handguns, arguing that the Supreme Court gave cops plenty of room to operate. "One of the things we don't use effectively enough in New York is the constitutional rights given police officers going back to Terry v. Ohio--stop and frisk," he told a TV interviewer. The Street Crime Unit--now in trouble over the shooting of an innocent African immigrant, Amadou Diallo--had been around since the 1970s, and in the words of a ranking department official, "These guys have really developed an expertise in picking out people who are packing." Managing by objective, this handful of cops, though they accounted for barely 0.3% of the force, was soon confiscating 40% of the guns. Some now feel it was a mistake to triple the unit's size early in 1997, when crime had already fallen sharply. But protests by the black community, white liberals and the odd drop-in celebrity since the Diallo shooting greatly exaggerate how much damage 362 cops can inflict on community relations in a city of 7.5 million. The unit made 9,500 arrests in 45,000 stops in the last two years, a hit rate of 20%. From any realistic perspective, that's not a bad ratio. Narcotics cops do a great many more stops with fewer arrests. Nor should it be alarming that half the unit's felony gun busts are thrown out--those arrested were still carrying illegal guns. In a recent case, members in plainclothes followed three Mexican men for an hour and half, stopping them only when they were about to disappear into the subway. The haul included fake immigration documents and an illegal gun, but a judge objected because the cops couldn't point to a single suspicious circumstance sufficient for stopping the men. Yet the cops' instincts were obviously right, and criminals understand this. Murders are down 70%, though police have hardly made a dent in the city's one million or two million illegal guns. The city is safer because the guns are staying home. We're left with the complaint that 63% of those stopped in the last two years are blacks and this amounts to racial harassment, even though 68% of arrestees and 71% of the suspects identified by victims are also black. But, either way, this misses the point. One thing criminals and non-criminals have in common is that they don't like being stopped and frisked by the police. Cops could always stop and frisk more white people, more women, more shoppers on Madison Avenue, but it would hardly improve their popularity or make the practice more enjoyable for those subjected to it. Mr. Bratton once said criminals were his "competition," but he was wrong. In politics the competition is always other politicians. From day one, former Mayor David Dinkins made it his special cause to criticize the expanded use of stop-and-frisk. He and others (lately including failed mayoral candidate and arch-opportunist Al Sharpton) have worked hard to make sure blacks especially would see the procedure as an assault on their rights, rather than as a step aimed at their safety. In this, they play on the black community's exaggerated, baroque idea of "respect," itself a defense against the city's former chaos and lawlessness. But neither has the stop-and-frisk policy been uniformly popular with police, who have reasons for preferring to investigate crimes after they occur rather than confronting criminals on the street. Sotto voce, they have been attacking the street crime unit in anonymous comments to the press. And so the spheres are back in their normal orbits, with political logic displacing business logic. As a sop to the protestors, the street crime unit has been taken out of plainclothes, its work garb since the 70s, and put in uniform. This in no way addresses any real problem, but it does make sure criminals will be able to see the police coming. No longer are cops able to use their street smarts to shadow criminals until an opportunity presents itself to stop and frisk them. With that, undoubtedly, will disappear the fear criminals had about carrying guns or committing crimes. And the other winners? Politicians everywhere, who can go back to railing about life's intractable realities: crime, bad schools, high taxes, whatever--no longer haunted by an example suggesting that such problems may not be so intractable after all.