Police and Poetry

New York's crime drop; T. S. Eliot's dark days
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In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, New Yorkers lived in intense, growing—and entirely reasonable—fear of being robbed, raped, or killed. But in less than a generation, their city has undergone the largest and longest decline in street crime that any major metropolis has ever experienced. Rates of homicide, stranger assault, robbery, and burglary have fallen 80 percent or more—an accomplishment that experts would have thought impossible 30 years ago. In a feat of clear-eyed analysis, Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at Berkeley, assesses the causes of this unprecedented public-safety achievement. He unpacks his evidence meticulously, synthesizes disparate and difficult materials economically, and addresses counterarguments methodically—and in the process explodes myths and shibboleths embraced by both the left and the right.

Piecing together the demographic data, Zimring shows that the city became safer, but not because of any shift in the ethnicity or income level of its population. In fact, New York’s racial and ethnic profile changed in ways that would normally point to an increase in crime. Moreover, although he’s a political liberal, Zimring demolishes the proposition that a drop in crime depends on an improvement of underlying social and economic conditions. New York’s sustained, broad, and deep drop in violent crime occurred despite the city’s glaring economic inequality, its stubbornly unyielding poverty, educational deficiencies, number of “fatherless high-risk youth,” and the “social isolation” of its underclass.

But if Zimring’s assessment will vex knee-jerk progressives, it will equally irk law-and-order types. Violent crime dropped precipitously in New York, even as the sale and use of illegal drugs remained stable. The city is winning the war on crime without scoring the smallest victory in the war on drugs. And New York achieved its stunning success even as it let a relatively large number of criminals run free on the streets: the rate at which the city filled its jails and the state’s prisons is well below the national pattern.

Policing, it turns out, is the crucial factor in the city’s crime decline—but why, exactly? Zimring can’t put his finger on which specific techniques, strategies, and programs worked. Almost certainly the NYPD’s growth, management reforms, and use of statistical analysis (the so-called Compstat program) helped. Incontrovertibly, Zimring says, the NYPD’s focus on pacifying “hot spots”—areas with long and deep histories of violent crime—and eradicating open-air drug markets stanched crime. But these tactics involve very aggressive street policing, which is a broader strategy entailing a lavish number of “stop and frisks” and misdemeanor arrests. Although New York’s police made half a million such stops and 200,000 such arrests in 2009, Zimring, a scrupulous scholar, is willing to go only as far as the evidence will take him—and he has stated cautiously that this strategy “is the biggest and most costly police change with an unknown impact.” I infer that Zimring suspects that these aggressive street stops were in fact a decisive weapon in the NYPD’s arsenal—and that he’s troubled by that suspicion.

Let’s not pussyfoot: the line between aggressive policing and bullying is very fine, and regardless of the sensitivity of the police and the forbearance of the citizenry, it’s a line that’s perforce crossed daily. Another term for the misdemeanor arrests that Zimring discusses is pretextual arrest. Policing is at best a blunt instrument, and those on the receiving end of police aggressiveness are almost always those with the least recourse to protect their rights and their dignity.

But just as the costs of aggressive crime control are disproportionately borne by the disadvantaged, so too have been the benefits: the reduction in crime is one of the few public goods in New York—that global center of capitalism red in tooth and claw—that is truly progressive, benefiting disproportionately the poor and vulnerable, who need it most.

The American publisher of these massive volumes—1,832 pages in all—calls them “highly anticipated.” For once, publicists understate. The first volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters initially appeared in 1988. The editor of that volume, Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, wrote in the introduction that she’d intended to include correspondence up to 1926, but there was too much material, so she promised a second volume “next year.” It’s been one of those decades-spanning years, and the wait has meant that Eliot scholarship has long been arrested.

Volume 1 (now revised to include some 200 letters unearthed since the first edition) sped along with an almost dizzying momentum, covering Eliot’s youth, the creation of a good chunk of the modernist poetic canon with the publication of Prufrock in 1917 and The Waste Land in 1922, and, with The Sacred Wood in 1920, Eliot’s establishment as one of the 20th century’s major literary critics.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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