Crime: Winning the Battle, but Not the War
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For a reaction to the latest crime figures, we turn to three top law enforcement officials. Sam Nuchia, chief of police in Houston, Texas; Howard Safir, police commissioner of New York City; and Darrel Stephens, police chief in St. Petersburg, Florida, and from 1986 to 1992 director of a forum of police chiefs from around the country working to encourage new policing techniques. Thank you all for being with us. Commissioner Safir, New York’s numbers look good. How do you explain the 25 percent drop in murders and the overall drop of 14.5 percent in serious crimes?
HOWARD SAFIR, Police Commissioner, New York City: (New York) Well, I think there’s a number of factors. The first factor is that the NYPD has been managing its crime by holding precinct commanders accountable, using our computerized statistic program each week, to make sure that each precinct is paying attention to its most serious crimes and to minor crimes. The whole idea is based on the broken windows theory, which is that a society that lets people break windows is going to be faced with more serious crime. We have spent a lot of time paying attention to routine street crime like squeegee crime, panhandlers, vandals, squeegee crime, and giving the message that no crime is acceptable in this city.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By squeegee crime you mean?
COMMISSIONER SAFIR: Those people who would harass people by cleaning their windows and then demanding money.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Chief Nuchia in Houston, give us some sense of Houston’s numbers.
SAM NUCHIA, Police Chief, Houston: (Houston) Well, we’ve had about a 17 percent reduction in murders, which is very gratifying, but it’s a continuation of a trend that we started in 1992. Our violent crime reduction just over last year is 5 percent, but in comparison to the way it was in 1991, it’s about 25 percent, so we feel very good. We recognize that especially in violent crimes at each one of those numbers there is an individual who is either not murdered, not raped, not robbed, or not assaulted. So our whole goal is to prevent our citizens from being victims of crime.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you explain the decrease in Houston?
CHIEF NUCHIA: Well, we think it’s a combination of things. The police force was rebuilt by, by the mayor that was elected in 1992, which gave us the strength to do it and also the direction to very much as, as the commissioner in New York was saying, do something about the street crime, address it directly, further our state legislature, increase the size of our prison system. We had a very bad situation with revolving door, very short sentences, virtually no punishment for major crimes here in Texas, and, and they changed that so that you have to spend at least 50 percent of your sentence before you’re eligible for parole for violent crimes and a much more significant amount of incarceration for non-violence, putting those two things together, and I think it’s kind of an attitude of let’s help ourselves here in Houston. I think that, that we’ve been able to really intervene between the citizen and the criminal and those criminals who do commit a crime we’ve been able to bring a swift and sure punishment.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Chief Stephens in St. Petersburg, how’s your city doing?
DARREL STEPHENS, Police Chief, St. Petersburg: (Tampa) Well, we’re on a six-year trend of decline in reported UCR crime. At the crime, we’re 26 percent below what we were in 1989. And I think it’s a combination of a number of things that crime is way too complex a phenomenon to lay it at the doorstep of the police, as what’s been done over a number of years. It’s–our effort is aimed at a partnership with other aspects of local government and most importantly focused on neighborhoods. We believe that we can build a partnership with people in our neighborhoods and from that partnership come ideas and programs that have an impact on the amount of crime that occurs in our community.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said that it’s too complex to lay at the doors of the police. You mean you would not want right now to interpret these figures as, as being caused by changes in police technique. You’ve been responsible for researching some of this, and I know you headed the forum. Give us your view of what would explain these figures? Or maybe they can’t be explained.
CHIEF STEPHENS: I think, I think it’s very difficult to explain why crime has changed in our, in our country, as well as in communities around the country. A lot of people want to talk about the number of police that’s been on the streets over recent years, and that certainly is a positive step and a positive factor, but we’re enjoying a strong economy right now where unemployment level is at the lowest point that we’ve seen in a number of years. Those factors, I believe, have an influence on the amount of crime that’s reported to the police. Certainly the police, in concert with other aspects of government and with the community, I think can make a difference, but what we have tended to do is emphasize the role of the police in the criminal justice system and not take into account all of the other factors that contribute to crime.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Commissioner Safir, what do you think about that? What does the research show in New York?
COMMISSIONER SAFIR: Well, I think what the research shows is when you have more police, crime tends to go down, but it’s not just more police; it’s what you do with them. And I agree that community outreach is a very important factor, but here in New York, we had over 2,000 murders in 1991. That’s been reduced 50 percent to date and murders are down 14 percent this year. So there really is an effect when you have police out on the street, enforcing the law and sending the signal that crime won’t be tolerated. Community outreach is also very important, and one of the things that we have done in all of our precincts is work very closely with community groups and with youth groups to make sure that they become part of the policing effort.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And that’s part of your prevention activities. What are you doing specifically on prevention?
COMMISSIONER SAFIR: On prevention, we have a, a very good anti-drug program that we teach in the schools here, which is an NYPD version of the DARE program, and we also work very closely with youth, in fact we run youth academies in the summer, six-week academies, in which we bring youths from the inner city into youth academies and teach them exactly what the police do and make them our allies and this has worked very effectively. We also do citizens academies and create block associations to make the community part of what we do. One of the things that we want to make clear to all of our inner city communities is that we’re not an occupying army, that we’re their police force.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because there have been complaints, have there not, been a number of complaints to the relevant commission that looks into the complaints against police over, overreactions, those complaints went up a lot, did they not, in the last couple of years?
COMMISSIONER SAFIR: Well, actually, they have gone up since this citizens complaint review board was created but they’ve actually gone down in the last half of 1995. And one of the things that we’ve seen is as we work closer with the community, the complaints do decrease.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Commissioner–Chief Nuchia in Houston, you seem to have gotten the youth violent crimes down, as I read the figures, is that true?
CHIEF NUCHIA: We do have about a 5 percent reduction last year in violent crimes by youths, and it looks like it may, if the trend holds for what we’ve seen at the beginning of ’96, could be another reduction similar to that on top of what we had in 1995.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, that’s unusual, is it not? There is a larger worry, the experts quoted yesterday when this report came out said that it could just be a lull before the storm, as the huge number of teenagers comes into the population, children now who will be teenagers in another five or ten years?
CHIEF NUCHIA: It is, I think, somewhat unusual. In fact, we were concerned because from ’92–in ’92, ’93, and ’94, the–when we had some of our biggest reductions in crime here in Houston, the subset of crime that was juvenile was actually steadily increasing on us, and it was only in mid 1995 or shortly there before that we began to actually see a reduction in juvenile crime, and we’re very, very gratified to see that. We suspect that some of the things–and I’m like my colleague in New York–I do think that it’s important to, of course, have the community’s input and approval, but the reason it’s especially important these days is because we’re using some very strong and aggressive police tactics, and the public has to believe as he said that we’re not the army, occupying army in their community, but actually there to, to try to, for instance, in many of our cases try to stop the youth gangs that are infesting some of our neighborhoods and bringing the property values and quality of life down, and we’ve created strong, aggressive task forces of officers to go out and put serious pressure on those kids, keep ‘em apart, try to disarm them. So many of them seem to have access to weapons, and we’ve placed a strong focus on removing the weapons from their, from them and removing the confidence that they one time had here in Houston that they could drive around and travel about the community, armed with guns in their cars and on their persons.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chief Stephens, based on the experience in Austin, Texas, Houston, a few other places, but also based on the figures you see, what do you think will happen when these children become teenagers? There’s a very large number of children that will become teenagers. It’s the largest group since the baby boomers, right, by about 2005, right?
CHIEF STEPHENS: It is, indeed. We’re looking at a 20 percent increase in the fifteen to nineteen year old age group by the year 2005, and I think if, if we follow the line of thinking that the police will be able through aggressive tactics, be able to influence the amount of crimes that are committed by these young people, I think we’re making a serious mistake.
People can–our community–people in neighborhoods throughout the country need to have more than just input and, and support for the police. What they need to do is become involved in, in keeping track of their own children. They need to become involved in the educational process. They need to become mentors to the literally hundreds of thousands of children in this nation who come from single or no-parent families.
For us to believe that more police engaged in more aggressive tactics is going to be the solution for whatever crime problems that we might have in the future I think puts us in a situation where five or ten years from now we’ll be trying to explain why crime went up and why it’s not something that is the fault of the police. I do believe we can make a difference. I believe that our ability to make that difference, though, depends on the partnerships, it depends on focusing on problems, and trying to come up with solutions that don’t depend entirely on police and an overworked criminal justice system.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chief Nuchia, very briefly, do you want to respond to that? I want to get to Commissioner Safir on this too.
CHIEF NUCHIA: Well, I appreciate that, what Chief Stephens is saying. It sounds kind of–it makes it sound like we’re trying to hedge our bet when we answer like that. He’s certainly right that the police aren’t going to solve society’s problems for them by aggressive tactics. We have to protect the citizens while our culture works out these things that are creating violence and materialism and, and the problems in our youth. It does take society to handle it. Our job is to try to do the best we can to protect society while that’s going on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Commissioner Safir, what do you think about this question of youth crime?
COMMISSIONER SAFIR: Well, I tend to agree with Chief Nuchia. The fact is that the police have to deal with what the police have to deal with, and while society solves the rest of the problems, we have to pay more attention to violent offenders and to repeat offenders and to make sure that the revolving door system doesn’t continue to revolve. Much of our crime is committed by parole and probation violators who have already shown that they cannot comply with society’s laws and are turned right back out on the street to commit more violent crime. So I think what the important thing for the police to do is to pay attention to law enforcement and be supportive of the community activities and the sociologists but our job is to police crime.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you all very much.