Concocting a Crime-Ageddon to Promote Police Power
The New York Post, the notorious right-wing tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, inspired a media stampede of stories highlighting increases in New York City’s crime statistics. The hysterical headline “You’re 45% More Likely to Be Murdered in de Blasio’s Manhattan” (5/26/15) served as a springboard for other local media outlets to question if the city was suddenly a crime-ridden hellhole under Mayor Bill de Blasio–presented by the Post as a liberal on policing.
The Post‘s story reported that there had been 16 murders so far this year in Manhattan, one of New York City’s five boroughs, versus 11 during the same time period in 2014 (when, the Post failed to note, de Blasio was also mayor—he took office on January 1, 2014). An increase of 45 percent naturally sounds much more alarming than the flat numerical increase: five more.
These homicide figures are actually so low historically in the city that you’d have to go back to the 1960s for comparable numbers. For a city that once had upwards of 1,000 and sometime 2,000 murders a year, a time from the 1970s into the ’90s often referred to as “the bad old days,” 16 in Manhattan in five months is remarkably low.
If instead of comparing de Blasio’s second year in office to his first year, the Post had compared the rate of killing so far this year to the 102 Manhattan homicides (not counting 9/11) in 2001–the last full year of the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, celebrated by the Post for his crime-fighting triumphs–the headline would have had to read, “You’re 63% Less Likely to Be Murdered in de Blasio’s Manhattan Than in Giuliani’s”–but that’s a framing that you’re never going to see in the New York Post.
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Instead, the short but effective story, quoting unnamed police sources (of course) clamoring for more cops and more “stop & frisks“–arbitrary police searches, mainly of young men of color–was followed a few days later by a front-page story (5/31/15). The cover featured a shooting victim’s uncle with the caption “Bring Back Stop & Frisk,” rehashing a debate over a policing tactic found to be mostly unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2013. The decrease in the documented use of stop & frisk, which began to be dramatically scaled back in the last year of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is now attributed by the Post to de Blasio and blamed for the supposed spike in crime.
The Daily News, smelling blood in the water, jumped on the opportunity to flesh out the developing mayor-soft-on-crime theme with a story (6/5/15) reporting an increase in subway assaults. Citing some of the mayor’s supposedly crime-inducing police “reforms,” like “the decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession” (which was actually decriminalized in 1977), the story piled onto de Blasio–who, like other Democrats, is actually much more a supporter than reformer of police. (“When police give instruction, you follow the instruction,” he remarked in response to complaints about cops’ brutal response to protests against police violence–New York Observer, 4/30/15.)
Of course, the media-driven conversation on policing and public safety begins with the simplistic premise that the amount and aggressiveness of policing solely determines the crime rate. A Wall Street Journal story in May demonstrated that the only proof reporters need to confirm the notion that de Blasio is dangerously soft on crime are opinion polls showing New Yorkers are worried about crime (FAIR Blog, 5/15/15). But opinion polling shows that public perceptions of crime have little to do with actual crime rates, as a majority of respondents nearly always tell Gallup that crime is rising, even as crime rates have fallen dramatically over the past 20 years. Commenting on this phenomenon, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Oliver Roeder of the Brennan Center (Huffington Post, 3/16/15) suggest that “sensationalist coverage of isolated crimes has contributed to the public misperception that crime is increasing.”
The media’s never-ending push for ever-lower crime stats, continually raising expectations, is likely politically driven. Somehow exempt from the criticism of de Blasio’s supposed soft-on-crime sins is NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, the man actually in charge of policing in New York City—a favorite of conservatives who is regarded as an international champion of aggressive policing.
In a fawning column in the Post (6/6/15), Michael Goodwin heaps praise on Bratton and complains that de Blasio (described as some sort of flaming communist) won’t “let Bratton be Bratton”—finally declaring, “It’s time to turn Bill Bratton loose.” This Frankenstein-like description of Bratton is perhaps appropriate, but suggests spikes in crime simply require more unchecked policing in urban neighborhoods.
Again, the underlying truth that media take for granted is that more police = less crime. But is that true? As even Bratton himself has been forced to admit, all sorts of serious crime was much higher when stop & frisk was at its peak in 2011 (at nearly 700,000 stops) than this year (which probably won’t crack 50,000 recorded stops). The tactic’s correlation with crime would suggest, if anything, an inverse relationship—the opposite of what the front page of the Post would have its readers believe.
The same is true for the number of uniformed police officers. As the size of the NYPD has dropped from an all-time high of about 41,000 cops in 2001 to just under 35,000 today, crime has also dropped—dramatically. Again, if the popular notion is that more cops make us safer, then the reality, it seems, is counterintuitive.
Bernard Harcourt, who wrote influential books and authored studies debunking the famous Broken Windows theory of policing (the debated idea that focusing on low-level “urban disorder” will curtail serious crime), recently pointed out (Guardian, 6/6/15) that the “crime wave” politics being carried by right-wing and corporate centrist media outlets are a classic response to a political movement that takes on racist policing in America:
The point of the “Ferguson effect,” though, is not to be accurate. It is instead to distract us from the growing evidence about the magnitude and extent of police use of lethal violence in the United States—as powerfully documented just this week by the Guardian and the Washington Post—and to besmirch the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
It’s a strategy that Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater inaugurated in his campaign in 1964, almost single-handedly turning crime into a political weapon against the civil rights movement.
Harcourt was debunking a Wall Street Journal op-ed (5/29/15) by Heather MacDonald, a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute, which has promoted Broken Windows policing for years. MacDonald had made the claim that the “crime wave” is a national trend made possible by protests.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially the same logic New York City police union boss Pat Lynch used to pin the shootings of two NYPD officers last December on both demonstrators and Mayor de Blasio (Huffington Post, 12/21/14). As law-and-order pundits often do, MacDonald argues that the “Ferguson Effect” isn’t only leading to more crime, but that the urban poor will pay the bloody price if the police aren’t allowed to continue their usual shenanigans.
While Bratton and de Blasio may be forced to rebuff some of the media’s hysteria, they both stand behind the Broken Windows theory that was popularized in the ’90s under New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a younger Bratton. The theory, a target of protesters from Ferguson to New York, is a fundamental cornerstone of policing in America. Its success is self-evident, as politicians and media pundits tell it.
But as Harcourt and others have pointed out, its supposed causal relationship with diminishing crime simply isn’t supported by research. Other social factors (economic shifts, the end of the crack era, etc.) that seem to explain an international phenomenon of declining crime that began in the ’90s, and occurred in cities whether or not they subscribed to the Broken Windows theory, are seldom mentioned when media tackles the issue of crime.
That more complicated picture, of course, will likely never make for a good front page.