Pubdate: April 28, 1999
Source: Wall Street Journal (NY)
Copyright: 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Section: Business World
Author: Holman W. Jenkins Jr.


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

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.