Crime & Punishment: A Tale of Two Cities
That's one murder for every 5,200 residents in Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, and one murder for every 19,000 residents in New York, a city of 8.1 million. This means that you're about four times more likely to end up in the morgue in the City of Brotherly Love than the Big Apple.Before I try to answer that, a few things need to be pointed out: Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, although I've drawn from the same source for the stats I use here to try to keep the playing field level. Murders tell only a part of any city's crime story, and crime overall in Philadelphia is lower than it was a decade ago. Finally, I worked as a journalist in Philadelphia for over two decades. During that time, I edited hundreds of crime stories, spoke with many police officers, criminologists and community leaders, went to crime scenes and have an intimate knowledge about the situation there. My heart also bleeds for a city that I love.
Why was New York -- which will end the year with about 550 murders, compared to 2,262 murders in 1990 -- named the safest big city in the U.S. last year by the FBI?
Why is Philadelphia -- which has had at least 300 murders a year every year but one since 1990, when 503 people were killed -- bucking the national trend of declining murder rates?
And considering that both cities have their share of big-city problems, not the least of which is poverty, why is there such an enormous difference in their murder rates?
All that said, I believe there are three differences between the two cities that go a long way toward explaining the yawning murder rate discrepancy.
* The proliferation of guns in Philadelphia.
* Innovative policing in New York City.
* A unimaginative and risk averse political and civic culture in Philadelphia.
Example: A sporting goods store in the Poconos region in Northeastern Pennsylvania was recently informed by the NYPD that a gun that it had sold a local man had been used in a crime in New York City. The store was warned that it might be prosecuted if other guns from the store turn up.
Philadelphia, by contrast, is awash in illegal guns and efforts to significantly toughen gun laws have been rebuffed by the Pennsylvania Legislature, most recently in a series of state House votes this week. State law forbids local jurisdictions from enacting their own gun laws, while guns can be purchased without a permit and do not have to be registered.As political strategist James Carville famously remarked, everything between Philadelphia in the eastern part of the state and Pittsburgh in the western part "is Alabama without black people." That's an exaggeration, but it makes an important point:
Most of Pennsylvania is rural and pro-gun. Many voters would not stand for anything smelling of gun control even if it is a life-and-death issue in Philadelphia, which as far as they're concerned, isn't worth the powder to blow it up with.A key to New York's success in getting guns off the street are aggressive "stop and frisk" tactics in which police officers stop and pat down people suspected of packing heat.
That isn't happening in Philadelphia and the police have only themselves to blame.History is not on the Philadelphia Police Department's side. It has been buffeted by brutality scandals for decades and the officially sanctioned thuggery when Frank Rizzo was police commissioner and later mayor is legendary. Black Philadelphians have long memories.
Even Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson has been quoted as saying more aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics would hurt police-community relations, which have been poor since forever because of a long-standing perception by blacks that they are singled out for harassment -- and worse.
Nor is history on the side of the citizenry. Efforts to overhaul the department have been largely unsuccessful, there is no civilian oversight worth a damn and it has mattered little that the last several police commissioners, like Johnson, are black and presumably more sensitive to the black community. Same goes for the current mayor, John Street. More about him later.
FIXING BROKEN WINDOWS
What happened? The largest and once the most dangerous city in America took a big bite out of crime by adopting an innovative zero-tolerance policing program called "Fixing Broken Windows."When Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, he named William Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton had success with zero-tolerance policing as head of the Transit Police, which cracked down on fare-dodging, speeded up arrest procedures and in a key move, did background checks on everyone who was arrested. This would turn up outstanding warrants and other reasons to hold the perpetrator and not merely send him back out onto the street where he often would ended up getting back into trouble.
In theory, when problems like windows broken by vandals and sidewalks littered by disrespectful citizens are dealt with when they are small and manageable, petty crime is discouraged. This, in turn, prevents major crime. In practice, this is pretty much what happened in New York in the 1990s.
While Bratton put the zero-tolerance concept into play in the 35,000-officer NYPD, the city hired 5,000 new and better-educated police officers, the second major increase in the size of the force in five years. (Taxes also were increased.)
Meanwhile, there was a citywide crackdown on public drinking and urinating and other so-called nuisance crimes. Bratton pushed decision-making down to the precinct level where local commanders who knew their neighborhoods could better react to and deal with crime trends, which were noted with relentless efficiency by CompStat, a real-time police intelligence computer system. CompStat was integrated into the department and the statistics it endlessly cranks out were are public. (Go here and have a look for yourself.)
It took a few years for the zero-tolerance policy to begin to pay off, and some civil libertarians were and remain unhappy, but New York was well on its way to earning that safest big city moniker.
Using the history of the two cities, the University of Pennsylvania sociology prof (and WASP) argued that the "Boston Brahmin" elites formed a strong upper class that positively influenced every aspect of urban life from politics to the arts. In contrast, "Proper Philadelphians," while a tolerant bunch, abandoned the city early on, which became the worst run in America.That began to change with the election of Richardson Dilworth, a liberal reformer, who in 1956 became the first Democratic mayor since the late 19th century. Dilworth pushed through the adoption of a modern city charter that consolidated city and county offices, introduced civil service examinations to replace a patronage-heavy system and launched an extensive urban renewal program. He also left the police department pretty much alone.
While Dilworth was the right mayor at the right time, the same cannot be said of most of his successors. James Tate was a mediocrity, Frank Rizzo was a disaster, and W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's first black mayor and the first to drop a bomb on his own city, was incompetent.
In 1991, Philadelphians elected Ed Rendell, a former district attorney, who used the city's first (modest) economic boom in decades as a springboard to shake up the moribund tourist industry. He was less visionary when it came to the police department, which continued to bump along from scandal to scandal.Rendell was succeeded by John Street, a onetime outsider who became an insider -- first as a city councilman from a grindingly poor North Philadelphia neighborhood and then as City Council president.
I admired Street as a rabble rousing community activist in the early 1980s who was determined to shake things up. But he has become a poster child for the concept of being part of the solution and then becoming part of the problem. He has been a terrible disappointment as mayor.Then there's that leadership vacuum that Baltzell wrote about. Philadelphia does not lack for do-good citizen groups, and most high-ranking executives of the major corporations with offices in the city end up serving on one ineffective board or another of one ineffective group or another.
A major component of "the problem" continues to be a reform allergic police department with a weak commissioner that is endlessly struggling to modernize and has found that making peace with a minority community roiled by that out-of-control murder rate is a bridge too far.
An exception may be Zachary Stalberg (and I'm not writing this because he used to be my boss.) Stalberg bailed from the editorship of the Philadelphia Daily News to head up the Committee of 70, a good government group traditionally more concerned with little stuff like election day polling irregularities than big stuff like awakening Philadelphia from its long slumber. Stalberg has vowed to change that, and if anyone can, it's probably him.
Then there's the black community, which has been much too tolerant of incompetents like Mayor Goode (who was reelected after the bomb dropped at his direction burned down a West Philadelphia neighborhood), mediocrities like Police Commissioner Johnson, or officials soft on corruption like John Street because . . . well, you know, because they're black.
Additionally, the black community is less a community than a bunch of special interests that seldom speaks with one voice, and then often because the naughty white-run news media has said or written something unpleasant about a black person.
The slogan "If It Bleeds It Leads" applies to the newscasts on local TV stations and, regrettably, the Daily News, as well. I recently asked former colleagues at the News and The Philadelphia Inquirer to suggest hard-hitting stories in their papers about the underlying reasons for the murder epidemic that might help to me in researching this piece.
Both drew blanks. Ahem.
Like I said, I love Philadelphia. But it is weighed down with problems beyond its control, problems that it allowed to get out of control and problems it does not have the political and civic willpower to bring under control.
In the meantime, its citizens continue to kill each other at an appalling rate.(Photograph (c) 2006 Jim MacMillan)