The Crisis of Public Order
by Adam Walinsky
Numbers are useful in politics, because they are more neutral than adjectival speech and because they express magnitude--that is, they can tell us not only that we confront a danger but also what the depth and direction of the danger are. The most important numbers in America deal with violence--not the occasional terrorist violence but the terror of everyday life as it is lived by millions of citizens today, and as it threatens to become for many more of us for the rest of this century and beyond.
During his campaign and since, President Bill Clinton has spoken of a sharp decline in the strength of the nation's police forces. In the 1960s the United States as a whole had 3.3 police officers for every violent crime reported per year. In 1993 it had 3.47 violent crimes reported for every police officer. In relation to the amount of violent crime, then, we have less than one tenth the effective police power of thirty years ago; or, in another formulation, each police officer today must deal with 11.45 times as many violent crimes as his predecessor of years gone by.
Title I of the 1994 crime bill intends to add 100,000 police officers nationally by the year 2000. (Most experts believe that far fewer new officers--perhaps 25,000--will actually be hired. For the purposes of this argument, though, let us assume the larger figure.) There are now some 554,000 officers serving on all state and local police forces; 100,000 more would be an increase of 18.4 percent. Rather than having 3.47 times as many violent crimes as police officers, we would have 2.94 times as many; or, each police officer would face not 11.45 times as many violent crimes as his predecessor but 9.7 times as many. All this assumes that the number of violent crimes will not increase over the next several years; if it does, the number of violent crimes relative to police officers will again increase.
If we wished to return to the ratio of police officers to violent crimes which gave many of us peace and security in the 1960s, we would have to add not 100,000 new police officers but about five million. When this number was mentioned to some Department of Justice staffers recently, they giggled; and it is understandable that the idea of such a national mobilization, such tremendous expenditures, should strike them as laughable. However, the American people are already paying out of their own pockets for an additional 1.5 million private police officers, to provide, at least in part, the protection that the public police are unable to furnish.
Private police guard office buildings, shopping malls, apartments. Businesses pay them to patrol certain downtown streets, such as those around New York's Grand Central Station and public library. And they patrol residential areas. Private patrol cars thread the streets of Los Angeles, and more than fifty applications are before the city council to close off streets so as to make those patrols more effective. Across the country much new housing is being built in gated communities, walled off and privately guarded. We are well on the way to having several million police officers, and the next decade will bring us much closer. If current trends continue, however, most of the new officers will be privately paid, available for the protection not of the citizenry as a whole--and certainly not of citizens living in the most violent ghettos and housing projects--but of the commercial and residential enclaves that can afford them. Between these enclaves there will be plenty of room to lose a country.
People hire police officers because they are afraid--above all of violence. Their fear is occasionally a source of puzzlement and mild disdain in the press, which cannot understand why so many Americans say that crime is the nation's most urgent problem and their own greatest fear. Indeed, all through 1993 official agencies claimed that crime was declining. The FBI said that violent crime in the first six months was down three percent overall, and down eight percent in the Northeast.
For crime to be down even eight percent would mean that a precinct that had had a hundred murders in 1992 had ninety-two in 1993. But nobody came around on New Year's Day of 1993 to give everyone's memory a rinse, obliterating the horrors of the previous year. The effect is not disjunctive but cumulative. By the end of 1993, ninety-two additional people had been murdered.
Many people can also remember years before 1992, in large cities and in small. In 1960, for example, six murders, four rapes, and sixteen robberies were reported in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1990 that city, with a population 14 percent smaller, had thirty-one murders, 168 rapes, and 1,784 robberies: robbery increased more than 100 times, or 10,000 percent, over thirty years. In this perspective a one-year decrease of seven percent would seem less than impressive.
New Haven is not unique. In Milwaukee in 1965 there were twenty-seven murders, thirty-three rapes, and 214 robberies, and in 1990, when the city was smaller, there were 165 murders, 598 rapes, and 4,472 robberies: robbery became twenty-one times as frequent in twenty-five years. New York City in 1951 had 244 murders; every year for more than a decade it has had nearly 2,000 murders. We experience the crime wave not as separate moments in time but as one long descending night. A loved one lost echoes in the heart for decades. Every working police officer knows the murder scene: the shocked family and neighbors, too numb yet to grieve; fear and desolation spreading to the street, the workplace, the school, the home, creating an invisible but indelible network of anguish and loss. We have experienced more than 20,000 such scenes every year for more than a decade, and few of them have been truly forgotten.
The memory of a mugging may fade but does not vanish. Nine percent of those responding to a recent poll in New York Newsday said that they had been mugged or assaulted in the past year. This suggests an annual total for the city of more than 600,000 muggings and assaults (remember also that many people, in poor neighborhoods especially, are assaulted more than once). That would be four times as many robberies and assaults as are reported to the police department. The Department of Justice says that not three quarters but only half of all violent crimes go unreported: it may be that many report as having happened "last year" an incident from more than a year ago.
Nevertheless, these are stunning numbers, especially when some other common crimes are added in. Eight percent of those polled (implying 560,000 New Yorkers) said their houses or apartments had been broken into; 22 percent (1,540,000) said their cars had been broken into. In all, 42 percent (nearly three million New Yorkers)said they had been the victims of crime in 1993. And, of course, about 2,000 were murdered. This is what it means to say that crime in 1993 was down eight percent.
In October of 1994 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that violent crime had not, after all, declined in 1993 but had risen by 5.6 percent.
Several years ago the Department of Justice estimated that 83 percent of all Americans would be victims of violent crime at least once in their lives. About a quarter would be victims of three or more violent crimes. We are progressing steadily toward the fulfillment of that prediction.
Our greatest fear is of violence from a nameless, faceless stranger. Officials have always reassured citizens by stating that the great majority of murders, at any rate, are committed by a relative or an acquaintance of the victim's; a 1993 Department of Justice report said the figure for 1988 was eight out of ten.
Unfortunately, that report described only murders in which the killer was known to prosecutors and an arrest was made. It did not mention that more and more killers remain unknown and at liberty after a full police investigation; every year the police make arrests in a smaller proportion of murder cases. In our largest cities the police now make arrests in fewer than three out of five murder cases. In other words, two out of every five killers are completely untouched by the law.
When a killing is a family tragedy, or takes place between friends or acquaintances, the police make an arrest virtually every time. When the police make an arrest, they say that the crime has been "cleared"; the percentage of crimes for which they make arrests is referred to as the clearance rate. Because murder has historically been a matter principally among families and friends, the homicide clearance rate in the past was often greater than 95 percent, even in the largest cities. As late as 1965 the national homicide clearance rate was 91 percent. However, as crime has spread and changed its character over the past generation, clearance rates have steadily dropped. In the past two years the national homicide clearance rate averaged 65.5 percent. The rate in the sixty-two largest cities is 60.5 percent. In the very largest cities--those with populations over a million--the rate is 58.3 percent.
The missing killers are almost certainly not family members, friends, or neighbors. Rather, they are overwhelmingly strangers to their victims, and their acts are called "stranger murders." Here is the true arithmetic: The 40 percent of killings in which city police departments are unable to identify and arrest perpetrators must overwhelmingly be counted as stranger murders; let us assume that 90 percent of them are committed by killers unknown to the victims. That number is equivalent to 36 percent of the total of all city murders. We know that of the 60 percent of killers the police do succeed in arresting, 20 percent have murdered strangers. That is, they have committed 12 percent of all murders. As best we can count, then, at least 48 percent of city murders are now being committed by killers who are not relatives or acquaintances of the victims.
This simple arithmetic has been available to the government and its experts for years. However, the first government document to acknowledge these facts was the FBI's annual report on crime in the United States for 1993, which was released last December. The FBI now estimates that 53 percent of all homicides are being committed by strangers. For more than two decades, as homicide clearance rates have plummeted, law enforcement agencies have continued to assure the public that four fifths of all killings are the result of personal passions. Thus were we counseled to fear our loved ones above all, to regard the family hearth as the most dangerous place. Now that falsehood has been unmasked:the FBI tells us that actually 12 percent of all homicides take place within the family. Ihave heard no public official anywhere in the United States say a word about any of this.
There is another important aspect to the arithmetic: the odds facing a robber or holdup man as he decides whether to let his victim live. Again, at least 48 percent of city homicides are stranger murders, but only 12 percent of city homicides result in arrest. That is, the odds that a holdup man who kills a stranger will be arrested appear to be one in four. The Department of Justice tells us that of all those who are arrested for murder, 73 percent will be convicted of some crime; and when convicted, the killers of strangers tend to get the heaviest penalties. Nevertheless, the cumulative chances of getting clean away with the murder of a stranger are greater than 80 percent. Street thugs may be smarter than they are usually given credit for being. They do not consult government reports, but they appear to know the facts. New York bodega workers have experienced an increasing incidence of holdups ending in murder even when they have offered no resistance. Killing eliminates the possibility of witness identification.
Murder is the most frightening crime, but is the least common. Much more frequent are robbery and assault. Robbery, the forcible taking of property from the person of the victim, is the crime most likely to be committed by a stranger; 75 percent of victims are robbed by strangers. Aggravated assault, the use of a weapon or other major force with the intention of causing serious bodily harm, is the most common violent crime; 58 percent of aggravated assaults are committed by strangers.
Attacks across racial lines are a special case of crimes by strangers. Most crimes, including 80 percent of violent crimes, are committed by persons of the same race as their victims. However, the experiences of blacks and whites diverge in some respects. In cases involving a lone offender, 56 percent of white and Hispanic robbery victims report that their assailant was white or Hispanic and 40 percent that he was black. When two or more robbers commit the crime, white and Hispanic victims 38 percent of the time report them to be white or Hispanic, 46 percent of the time black, and 10 percent of the time mixed. About eight percent of black victims, in contrast, are robbed by whites or Hispanics, and more than 85 percent by blacks, whether the offenders are alone or in groups. Blacks and whites are robbed equally--75 percent of the time--by strangers, but as these figures indicate, whites are far more likely to be robbed by strangers of a different race.
This result occurs because there are many more white people and many more white victims: 87 percent of all violent crimes are committed against whites and Hispanics. In robberies lone white offenders select white victims 96 percent of the time, and lone black offenders select white victims 62 percent of the time. White rapists select white victims 97 percent of the time; black rapists select white victims 48 percent of the time. Whites committing aggravated assault attack blacks in three percent of cases; blacks commit about half their assaults against whites.
When all violent crimes are taken together, 58 percent of white victims and 54 percent of black victims report that their assailant was a stranger. Citizens of all races who are fearful of random violence have good reason for their concern. Storekeepers, utility workers, police officers, and ordinary citizens out for a carton of milk or a family dinner are all increasingly at risk.
In 1990 federal, state, and local governments combined spent about $8,921 per person. According to the Department of Justice, these governments spent $299 per person--about 3.3 percent of total public expenditures--on all civil- and criminal-justice activities, including $128 per person on domestic police protection. On national defense and international relations they spent $1,383 per person.
Spending on the Armed Forces has historically risen to meet perceived threats from hostile nations, or in case of rebellion. Sharply rising crime rates have not brought equivalent increases in police forces. From 1971 to 1990, as the rates of homicide and other violent crimes soared, per person expenditures (in constant dollars) on state and local police forces increased by only 12 percent. Spending did increase on prisons--by more than 150 percent. In 1992 state and federal prisons held 883,656 inmates (local jails held another 444,584). Out of every 100,000 residents of the United States, 344 were in prison (another 174 were in jail). Prison populations increased another seven percent in 1993, by which year 2.9 times as many people were incarcerated as had been in 1980.
The overwhelming majority of prison inmates are male. Of the 789,700 male inmates in 1992, 51 percent, or 401,700, were black, and nearly all the remaining 388,000 white. (Here Hispanics are included in both categories; according to the Department of Justice, 93 percent of Hispanic prisoners describe themselves as white and seven percent as black. Asians and Native Americans make up at most 2.5 percent of all prisoners.) Rates of imprisonment by race are therefore very different. In 1992, of every 100,000 white and Hispanic male residents, 372 were prisoners. Of every 100,000 black male residents, 2,678 were prisoners.
The heaviest rates of imprisonment affect men aged twenty to forty. Although the overall imprisonment rate for black men is 2,678 per 100,000, it reaches 7,210 for every 100,000 aged twenty-five to twenty nine, and 6,299 for those aged thirty to thirty-four. At any one time six to seven percent of black men at these critical ages are in state and federal prisons.
(Most arrests, and most new prison sentences, are not for violent crimes. In 1992 only 28.5 percent of offenders sentenced to state prisons had been convicted of violent offenses; 31.2 percent had been convicted of property offenses, and 30.5 percent of drug offenses. These numbers represent a major change in just over a decade: in 1980, 48.2 percent of newly sentenced offenders had been convicted of violent offenses, and only 6.8 percent of drug offenses. The Department of Justice has argued that many people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes have also committed violent offenses. But there can be no question that the police are making more drug arrests and relatively fewer arrests for violent crimes. For the past five years drug arrests have averaged one million a year, and arrests for all violent crimes combined about 600,000.)
A study was made of black men aged eighteen to thirty-four in the District of Columbia. On any given day in 1991, 15 percent of the men were in prison, 21 percent were on probation or parole, and six percent were being sought by the police or were on bond awaiting trial. The total thus involved with the criminal-justice system was 42 percent. The study estimated that 70 percent of black men in the District of Columbia would be arrested before the age of thirty-five, and that 85 percent would be arrested at some point in their lives. There have been no studies of the effects of such high imprisonment rates on the wider black society--for example, on the children of prisoners. No government or private agency has suggested any way to lighten the influence of paternal and sibling imprisonment on children, or how to balance the potential value of such an effort against the need to suppress violent crimes. Although the crime bill will substantially expand prison space, no one has asked how much further we can go--whether it is possible, practically, socially, or morally, to imprison some larger proportion of the black male population at any one time.
In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that a growing proportion of black children were being born to single mothers. When such large numbers of children were abandoned by their fathers and brought up by single mothers, he said, the result was sure to be wild violence and social chaos. He was excoriated as a racist and the subject was abandoned. The national rate of illegitimacy among blacks that year was 26 percent.
It took just over a decade for the black illegitimacy rate to reach 50 percent. And in 1990, twenty-five years after Moynihan's warning, two thirds of black children were born to single mothers, many of them teenagers. Only a third of black children lived with both parents even in the first three years of their lives. Seven percent of all black children and five percent of black children under the age of three were living with neither a father nor a mother in the house. The rate of illegitimacy more than doubled in one generation.
Social disorder--in its many varieties, and with the assistance of government policies--can perhaps be said to have caused the sudden collapse of family institutions and social bonds that had survived three centuries of slavery and oppression. It is at any rate certain that hundreds of thousands of the children so abandoned have become in their turn a major cause of instability. Most notably they have tended to commit crimes, especially violent crimes, out of all proportion to their numbers. Of all juveniles confined for violent offenses today, less than 30 percent grew up with both parents.
How many killers are there, and who are they? In 1990 a total of 24,932 homicides were reported. Of all killers identified by the nation's police forces and reported to the Department of Justice for that year, 43.7 percent were white and Hispanic and 54.7 percent were black. Whites made up 83.9 percent of the population that year, and blacks 12.3 percent. The rate of homicide committed by whites was thus 5.2 per 100,000, and by blacks 44.7 per 100,000--or about eight times as great. In the large counties analyzed by the Department of Justice, 62 percent of identified killers were black. This is equivalent to a black homicide rate of 50.7 per 100,000--close to ten times the rate among other citizens.
Serial killers and mass murderers, however, are overwhelmingly white.
Of the urban killers identified by the Department of Justice in 1988, 90 percent were male. Virtually none were aged fourteen or younger, but 16 percent were aged fifteen to nineteen, 24 percent were twenty to twenty four, and 20 percent were twenty-five to twenty-nine.
The white and black populations each suffered about 12,000 homicides in 1990. But the black population base is smaller, and the rate at which blacks fall victim is much higher. The victimization rate for white males was 9.0 per 100,000, and for white females 2.8 per 100,000. For black males it was an astonishing 69.2, and for black females it was 13.5. According to the Department of Justice, one out of every twenty-one black men can expect to be murdered. This is a death rate double that of American servicemen in the Second World War. Prospects for the future are apparent in the facts known about children already born. This is what Senator Moynihan means when he says the next thirty years are "already spoken for."
We first notice the children of the ghetto when they grow muscles--at about the age of fifteen. The children born in 1965 reached their fifteenth year in 1980, and 1980 and 1981 set new records for criminal violence in the United States, as teenage and young adult blacks ripped at the fabric of life in the black inner city. Nevertheless, of all the black children who reached physical maturity in those years, three quarters had been born to a married mother and father. Not until 1991 did we experience the arrival in their mid-teens of the first group of black youths fully half of whom had been born to single mothers--the cohort born in 1976. Criminal violence particularly associated with young men and boys reached new peaks of destruction in black communities in 1990 and 1991.
In the year 2000 the black youths born in 1985 will turn fifteen. Three fifths of them were born to single mothers, many of whom were drug addicted; one in fourteen will have been raised with neither parent at home; unprecedented numbers will have been subjected to beatings and other abuse; and most will have grown up amid the utter chaos pervading black city neighborhoods. It is supremely necessary to change the conditions that are producing such cohorts. But no matter what efforts we now undertake, we have already assured the creation of more very violent young men than any reasonable society can tolerate, and their numbers will grow inexorably for every one of the next twenty years.
In absolute numbers the teenage and young adult population aged fifteen to twenty-four stagnated or actually declined over the past decade. Crime has been rising because this smaller population has grown disproportionately more violent. Now it is about to get larger in size. James Fox, a dean at Northeastern University, in Boston, has shown that from 1965 to 1985 the national homicide rate tracked almost exactly the proportion of the population aged eighteen to twenty-four. Suddenly, in 1985, the two curves diverged sharply. The number of young adults as a proportion of the population declined; but the overall homicide rate went up, because among this smaller group the homicide rate increased by 65 percent in just eight years. Among those aged fourteen to seventeen, the next group of young adults, the homicide rate more than doubled. What we experienced from 1985 on was a conjunction of two terrible arrivals. One train carried the legacy of the 1970s, the children of the explosion of illegitimacy and paternal abandonment. Crack arrived on the same timetable, and unloaded at the same station.
Fox shows further that by the year 2005 the population aged fourteen to seventeen will have increased by a remarkable 23 percent. Professor John DeIulio, of Princeton University, predicts that the number of homicides may soon rise to 35,000 or 40,000 a year, with other violent offenses rising proportionally. Fox calls what we are about to witness an "epidemic" of teenage crime. He does not give a name to our present condition.
It is a commonplace that many crimes are committed with guns, particularly handguns. In 1993, 69.6 percent of all homicides were committed by gun, four fifths of these by handgun. Guns were also used in 42.4 percent of all robberies and 25.1 percent of aggravated assaults. The total of such gun felonies reported to the police was about 571,000.
As long as surveys have asked the question, about half of all American households have answered that they own at least one gun. Patterns of ownership, however, have changed. In the 1960s weapons used primarily for sport--rifles and shotguns--made up 80 percent of the approximately 80 million guns in private hands. About 12 percent of the population reported owning one or more handguns. By 1976, with the great postwar crime wave under way, more than 21 percent of the population reported owning handguns--an increase of 75 percent. The largest increases were among nonwhites (by 99 percent), college graduates (by 147 percent), and Jews (by 679 percent, to a total of 14.8 percent reporting handgun ownership, which left them well behind Protestants but ahead of Catholics). By 1978 the estimate of total number of guns owned had increased to roughly 120 million.
In every year since, at least four million new guns have been manufactured or imported. In 1993 there were 5.1 million guns manufactured and another 2.9 million imported. Of the eight million new guns in 1993, half--3.9 million--were handguns. The current estimate is that more than 200 million guns are in private hands.
Twenty states allow any law-abiding citizen to carry a gun concealed on his or her person, and fourteen more states are actively considering such laws. In some of the states where the laws have passed, about two percent (Oregon and Florida) or three percent (Pennsylvania)of the state's population have applied for and received a permit to carry a concealed handgun at all times. There is evidence that many people own and carry handguns without permits. One 1991 survey reported that a third of all Americans own handguns, another that seven percent carry them outside the home. A quarter of small business establishments may keep firearms for protection.
Last year The New York Times said that the city's bodegas had become "Islands Under Siege," in which fifty store workers were killed in a year. It reported on Omar Rosario, the manager of a grocery store whose previous owner was killed in a holdup. Rosario prepares for work by donning a bulletproof vest and sliding a nine-millimeter semi-automatic into his waistband. When a young man with one arm hidden inside his coat enters the store, "Mr. Rosario takes out his pistol and eases it halfway into the pocket of his pants, his finger on the trigger. He faces the man and lets him see the gun in his hand. He wants to make it clear that if the young man pulls a gun, he will be killed."
Professor Gary Kleck, of Florida State University, has made a close examination of citizens' use of firearms for self-defense, including in "civilian legal defensive homicides." Self-defense is not a crime, and most defensive uses of firearms, even when criminals are killed, are not routinely reported to the FBI. On the basis of local studies Kleck estimates that at least 1,500 citizens used guns to kill criminals in 1980. This is nearly three times the number of criminals killed by the police. The Department of Justice thinks these numbers may be too high. Nevertheless, it is evident that Omar Rosario is not the only citizen with his finger on the trigger.
For more than twenty years the children of the ghetto have witnessed violent death as an almost routine occurrence. They have seen it on their streets, in their schools, in their families, and on TV. They have lived with constant fear. Many have come to believe that they will not live to see twenty-five. These are often children whose older brothers, friends, and uncles have taught them that only the strong and the ruthless survive. Prison does not frighten them--it is a rite of passage that a majority of their peers may have experienced. Too many have learned to kill without remorse, for a drug territory or for an insult, because of a look or a bump on the sidewalk, or just to do it: why not?
These young people have been raised in the glare of ceaseless media violence and incitement to every depravity of act and spirit. Movies may feature scores of killings in two hours' time, vying to show methods ever more horrific; many are quickly imitated on the street. Television commercials teach that a young man requires a new pair of $120 sneakers each week. Major corporations make and sell records exhorting their listeners to brutalize Koreans, rob store owners, rape women, kill the police. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, elite opinion often encourages even hoodlums to carry a sense of entitlement and grievance against society and its institutions.
These lessons are being taught to millions of children as I write and you read. They have already been taught to the age groups that will reach physical maturity during the rest of this century.
The worst lesson we have taught these benighted children I have saved for last, because it is a lesson we have also taught ourselves: We will do almost anything not to have to act to defend ourselves, our country, or our character as people of decency and strength. We have fled from our cities, virtually abandoning great institutions such as the public schools. We have permitted the spread within our country of wastelands ruled not by the Constitution and lawful authority but by the anarchic force of merciless killers. We have muted our dialogue and hidden our thoughts. We have abandoned millions of our fellow citizens--people of decency and honor trying desperately to raise their children in love and hope--to every danger and degraded assault. We have become isolated from one another, dispirited about any possibility of collective or political action to meet this menace. We shrink in fear of teenage thugs on every street. More important, we shrink even from contemplating the forceful collective action we know is required. We abandon our self-respect and our responsibility to ourselves and our posterity.
How to change all this, how to recover heart and spirit, how to save the lives and souls of millions of children, and how to save ourselves from this scourge of violent anarchy--in short, how to deal with things as they are, how to respond to the implacable and undeniable numbers: this will be the real measure and test of our political system. But more than that, it will be the measure of our own days and work, the test of our own lives and heritage.
In the past decade 200,000 of our citizens have been killed and millions wounded. If we assume, with the FBI, that 47 percent of them were killed by friends and family members, that leaves 106,000 dead at the hands of strangers. Ten years of war in Vietnam killed 58,000 Americans. Over an equal period we have had almost the exact equivalent of two Vietnam Wars right here at home. Whether fighting the war or fighting against the war, participants and opponents alike engaged Vietnam with fury and passion and a desperate energy. Were we to find such energy, such passion, now, how might we use it? Where would we start? I suggest simplicity. If your territory and your citizens are under constant deadly assault, the first thing you do is protect them.
To do this we need forces. We need a very large number of additional police officers: at least half a million in the next five years, and perhaps more thereafter. We do not need more private police, who protect only the circumscribed property of better-off citizens who can afford to pay; we need public police, whose mission is the protection of all citizens, and who are available for work in the ghettos and housing projects where most of the dying is taking place.
If we as a society expect black citizens to construct reasonable lives, we cannot continue to abandon so many of them and their children to criminal depredation. If we expect children to respect law and the rights of others, it would seem elementary that we must respect the law and their rights enough to keep them from getting murdered.
We need a larger police force not to imprison more of our fellow citizens but to liberate them. The police need not function as the intake valve of a criminal-justice system devoted to the production of more prison inmates, of whom we already have more than is healthy; their true role is to suppress violence and criminal activity, to protect public space that now serves as the playground and possession of the violent. The role of the police is to guard schools and homes, neighborhoods and commerce, and to protect life; they should represent the basic codes and agreements by which we live with one another. Today's vastly undermanned police forces, whose officers race from call to call, taking endless reports of crimes they were not around to prevent, do not control the streets. They do not exercise and cannot embody the authority for which we look to government. Rather, it is the most violent young men of the street who set the tone and filter the light in which the children of the city are growing. That is what we need at least half a million new officers just to begin to change.
Some will ask how we are to afford the $30 billion or so a year that this would cost. The question has a ready answer. We have a gross domestic product of more than $6 trillion, and a federal budget of more than $1.6 trillion. President Clinton has requested $261.4 billion for defense against foreign enemies who killed fewer than a hundred Americans in all of last year. It would be silly to suggest that the federal government should not or cannot spend an eighth as much--two percent of even a shrunken federal budget--to defend the nation against domestic enemies who killed more than 10,000 people who were strangers to them in 1994, and who will surely kill more in every year that lies ahead.
This is not a complete program, because this is not the time for a complete program. We have to stop the killing. Beyond doubt we must reform welfare, minimize illegitimacy, change the schools, strengthen employment opportunities, end racism. In the midst of this war, while the killing continues, all that is just talk. And dishonest talk besides: there can be no truth to our public discussions while whites are filled with fear of black violence, and blacks live every day with the fear and bitter knowledge that they and their children have been abandoned to the rule of criminals. If some foreign enemy had invaded New England, slaughtering its people and plundering its wealth, would we be debating agricultural subsidies and the future of Medicaid while complaining that the deficit prevented us from enlarging the Army or buying more ammunition? Would the budget really force us to abandon New Hampshire? Why is this case different?
Some people will say that I propose an army of occupation. But all too many black citizens already live in territories occupied by hostile bands of brigands. How can these citizens be freed except by forces devoted to their liberation?
It is true that the police, especially in the ghettos of older cities, have often been corrupt, brutal, and ineffective, although they are almost always better than most of their critics. The remedy for bad policing is for good people to join the police force and make it better: that is why the one truly promising feature of the 1994 crime bill is the creation of a prototype Police Corps, a police ROTC that will offer four-year college scholarships to the best and most committed of our young people in return for four years of police service following their graduation. Now and for many years into the future the opportunity to give the greatest service to one's fellow citizens will be as a member of a police force --the one truly indispensable agency of a free and civil government.
Others will say--not openly, because this kind of thing is never said openly--that it's hopeless, and that the best we can hope for is that the killers will kill one another and leave the rest of us alone. Indeed, a visitor from another planet might well conclude that only such a belief could explain our society's otherwise inexplicable passivity. History should save us from such vile and horrible thoughts. Despite all vicissitudes, within two generations of Emancipation black families had achieved levels of stability and nurture comparable or superior to those of many immigrant groups. The long history of black people in America has not been one of violent or cruel conduct beyond the national norm. Rather, it is a story of great heroism and dignity, of a steady upward course from slavery to just the other day.
The collapse of the black lower class is a creation not of history but of this generation. It has been a deliberate if misguided act of government to create a welfare system that began the destruction of black family life. It was the dominant culture that desanctified morality, celebrated license, and glorified fecklessness; as the columnist Joe Klein has observed, it is in moral conduct above all that the rich catch cold and the poor get pneumonia. It was stupidity and cowardice, along with a purposeful impulse toward justice, that led the entire governmental apparatus, the system of law enforcement and social control, to cede the black ghettos to self-rule and virtual anarchy in the 1960s and 1970s, and to abandon them entirely since. It is the evident policy of the entertainment industry to seek profit by exploiting the most degraded aspects of human and social character. None of this is necessary. All of it can be changed.
I have spoken of the need to change conditions among blacks, because they are experiencing the greatest suffering and the gravest danger today. But let none of us pretend that the bell tolls only for blacks; there is no salvation for one race alone, no hope for separate survival. At stake for all of us is the future of American cities, the promise of the American nation, and the survival of our Constitution and of American democracy itself.
Copyright 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1995; The Crisis of Public Order; Volume 276, No. 1; pages 39-54.