TOPICS > Politics

Crime Watch

January 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


Margaret Warner looks at a drop in murder rates.

MARGARET WARNER: 1996 was a decidedly less deadly year in most American cities. The murder rate in each of the nation’s 10 largest cities dropped significantly last year, by 15 percent or more in all but two of them, according to a “Washington Post” survey of local police departments. In some cities the number of homicides was at a 30-year low. There were a few exceptions, however, with Las Vegas, Atlanta, Miami, and Washington, D.C., showing increases. What’s behind these numbers? We have three perspectives. Howard Safir is the police commissioner of New York City. David Michaud is chief of police in Denver, and Paul Butler is a professor of criminal law at George Washington University Law School and a former prosecutor. Welcome, gentlemen. Mr. Butler, starting with you, what do you think is behind this fairly dramatic decrease in the murder rates?

PAUL BUTLER, George Washington University Law School: It’s good news. No one knows what is the real explanation, or a couple of potential ones, demographics. As a country we’re getting older. Our median age now is 35. You’re most likely to commit crime if you’re in your teens or in your twenties. So to the extent that we’re getting older we would expect levels of violence to fall off. A lot of the increase in the murder rate in the late 80’s was associated with drugs, especially crack cocaine. The market for that is stabilizing. Turfs are being established and drug dealers are working out alternative means of resolving the disputes, alternatives to murder, that is. I also think that one explanation is that communities are taking more responsibility to fight crime. They’re working more closely with police, and they’re also mentoring their youth. We saw a lot of talk about self-help, especially last year, including at the Million Man March. All that contributes to the lower rate.

MARGARET WARNER: Commissioner Safir, in New York City, you’ve seen one of the most dramatic decreases, I think 17 percent last year. What do you think is the explanation?

HOWARD SAFIR, New York City Police Commissioner: (New York) Well, I think it really isn’t demographics because there are a number of cities that do not have increases in its murder rate. We’ve had the largest decrease in 30 years. And I think it’s effective policing. I think part of it is working closer with communities, but I think our quality of life enforcement, going after minor crimes and briefing everybody that we talk to and making sure that we share our intelligence throughout the department and get everybody in the department involved at the same time working from the top down, going after drug trafficking and guns, because I believe that the major source of violence and murders in this city were drugs and guns. We’ve taken a lot of guns off the street. We’re driving drug traffickers out of this city. And that’s the focus that I think has an impact on the reduction in murders.

MARGARET WARNER: And Chief Michaud, what about in Denver, what do you think is the cause? First of all, explain to us how much murder has gone down in your city last year, and what do you think is the reason?

DAVID MICHAUD, Denver Chief of Police: (Denver) Well, in our city we have seen from ’96 compared to ’95 about a 25 percent reduction in our murder rate. The real tangible thing that I think we can all look at is the tremendous response we have received from the medial profession through the years. We get paramedics to scenes of violent criminal acts much quicker than we did when we were all young officers. We get victims of crimes to medical facilities much quicker via helicopter, and the emergency room teams do fantastic things, I think, sometimes with murder victims. So that may be a tangible reason. The murder victim of 10 years ago is now an aggravated assault victim.

MARGARET WARNER: But aren’t assault rates “also” down?

CHIEF DAVID MICHAUD: Yes. Our assault rates are down as well, but I think that that murder rate is down because of that medical profession. But I also agree with the Commissioner, that contacts with the community, where I believe the police profession has really established a greater degree of trust than we have seen in the past, that has opened lines of communication between the police and community, has certainly served us well. And I think good, solid police tactics have also done the same thing through aggressive, proactive approaches to open air drug markets, prostitution on the streets, curfew programs, if you’ll just look at that, active curfew programs take youngsters off the street in the middle of the night, where they cannot only be involved in criminal behavior, we hope that we’re preventing them from becoming victims of crime. And I think that there’s also a tremendous amount of credit to be given to the–all the work that’s been done in the domestic violence arena.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Paul Butler, what about the point that the commissioner in New York made, that if it were mostly demographics, then we’d see this decrease everywhere? Whereas, in fact, in many cities, including Washington, it’s still up.

PROFESSOR PAUL BUTLER: Well, almost everywhere. In the top 10 cities in the country, the rate of homicide is down, and those police departments all employ vastly different means of law enforcement. So that suggests that although I agree that policing is getting smarter or more effective, it’s not the only explanation. We should also understand that the rates going down in most places back to what it was in the 80’s and 70’s, which is still much higher than what we see in other places, including Western Europe. Most killings aren’t associated with drug markets. In fact, they’re between people who know each other. Domestic violence has a lot to do with the vast number of homicides we still see.

MARGARET WARNER: Commissioner Safir, in New York, is the greatest reduction in homicides between people who do know each other, or what we call random homicide, or stranger homicide?

COMMISSIONER HOWARD SAFIR: Well, it’s interesting. About 81 percent of the murders that we had last year were by people who knew each other, but many of them were, in fact, drug related. But we had 19 percent stranger murders in New York City, which shows why we’ve become such a safe city. We’re now 23rd in overall crimes in the United States of the 25 major cities. MARGARET WARNER: And do you mean because you used to have a much higher rate of stranger murder?

COMMISSIONER HOWARD SAFIR: Well, in 1993, it was 65 percent. But, you know, one of the things that I think you have to look at, as well, is shooting incidents and shooting victims. We’ve reduced shooting incidents 22 percent in the city and shooting victims 21 percent. So I think that comes back to the issue of dealing with guns. And one of the things we really have to do in this country is change some of our gun laws and not treat weapons with the kind of insanity that we do right now. Virginia recently passed a one gun a month law. And they used to be the No. 1 supplier of weapons to the city. We need a national one gun a month law.

MARGARET WARNER: Paul Butler, what do you think on that point about greater confiscation of guns? Do you think that’s part of it? And do you think the Brady Law had anything to do with this decrease?

PROFESSOR PAUL BUTLER: I think that the commissioner is absolutely right. We need more gun control, and we need national gun control. Then we’ll have something really to celebrate.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean in terms of what’s already happened, do you think that the Brady Law has had any impact?

PROFESSOR PAUL BUTLER: Well, it’s had a marginal impact, but in Washington, D.C., we have among the strictest handgun regulations in the country. But we also–our murder rate is going up. The reason is what the Commissioner said. You can go across the bridge to Virginia and buy your one gun a month. Until we have a national policy of gun control, we’re still going to see too high levels of homicide.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Chief Michaud, out in Denver, is your department doing what they are doing in New York in terms of aggressive policing against what used to be considered minor crimes? The Commissioner just referred to that–aggressive panhandling and so on.

CHIEF DAVID MICHAUD: Yes. We think that’s a very effective tactic, and we talk about the things that I mentioned earlier, open air drug markets with proactive approaches. We do a lot of prostitution stings. We have a tremendous effort, I think, placed on those that are involved in gang behavior. We aggressively monitor that gang activity and consider that–that has been a source of homicide and a lot of violent activity in our city, and by monitoring that more closely, as we have done, I think we’ve had an impact on violent crime.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Mr. Safir, explain to us why aggressive policing of something like panhandling, aggressive panhandling, or, or vandalism, why would that lead to a decrease in the murder rate?

COMMISSIONER HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I think there are two reasons. One, you send a signal that you’re not going to accept disorder or any crime at any level. But the second and the most important benefit of it is that many of the people who commit minor crimes are the same people who commit major crimes or have information about major crimes. Recently, we had a very serious sexual assault in Central Park. We solved that case and a related murder because the individual had been arrested for jumping a subway turnstile earlier in the year, and that was the only time he had been arrested. Because we take all that information and computerize it and share it throughout the department, we were able to track him down.

MARGARET WARNER: Does he have a point, Paul Butler?

PROFESSOR PAUL BUTLER: He does have a point. But the concern is incarcerating too many people. We don’t know how many people are locked up or jumping the subways who aren’t violent criminals. And that’s very expensive, as well, so we have to be careful about that. The United States already incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Michaud out in Denver, what about the point Paul Butler made earlier, that if your different police tactics and approaches that you’re using, if that were really the cause, then you would see the decrease in the murder rate only in cities that are doing this kind of thing, whereas, in fact, it’s much more widespread than that?

CHIEF DAVID MICHAUD: Well, I think the tactics that I talked about and that the Commissioner talk about are being very widely used across the country. Both the Commissioner and I are a member of an organization called The Major City Chiefs. That’s the chiefs of police from the forty-five biggest U.S. cities and the four biggest cities in Canada. And we get together three times a year and talk about these very issues. And I think that I am speaking for my colleagues in the other cities when we say that these kinds of tactics and approaches, problem-solving approaches, if you will, are very much being universally used by many of the cities around the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Commissioner Safir in New York, what advice would you give to your colleagues in cities that haven’t had the success in bringing the murder rate down, or do you see any common thread that you can help us analyze why say Miami, Atlanta, and Washington, to name three, haven’t had that success?

COMMISSIONER HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I think what Chief Michaud said is absolutely right. I think those cities have to institute the kind of crime reduction strategies that we’re doing here in New York, that he’s doing in Denver, and what you have to do is you have to have information, you have to be able to computerize your information so that you can meet with your local commanders, and then hold them accountable for what you do. Then the most important other thing is to hold people accountable and measure success not by arrests but by crime reduction. Here in New York we don’t measure success of our commanders by the number of arrests they make. We measure success by the number of crime complaints they reduce. And I think by applying business principles to crime reduction and managing crime, instead of letting crime manage you, you end up with the kind of reductions that we’ve seen here in New York. Accountability and responsibility is probably the key to making sure that police departments are effective.

MARGARET WARNER: Chief Michaud, do you have anything to add to that in terms of what you’d advise your colleagues elsewhere?

CHIEF DAVID MICHAUD: No. I think that that was well said. And those are the tactics that we try to use here. And I must say I must thank the Commissioner because many of the things that we’re trying here in Denver we have taken from some of the things that New York has tried and has found such success with.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that prescription, Mr. Butler?

PROFESSOR PAUL BUTLER: I do agree. And I think what’s so exciting about these new trends in law enforcement is their emphasis on community policing and crime prevention. So the Commissioner is right. It’s not just locking out people but it’s trying to prevent crime before it happens by working especially with the young people in the communities. That’s so important. And it’s good news.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think this is a short-term phenomenon or the beginning of really a longer-term trend?

PROFESSOR PAUL BUTLER: Well, because we still can’t quite be sure what caused the decrease it’s unclear, but we do know that in about five or ten years, there’s going to be an up-surge in teenagers and people in their twenties, again, the people most likely to commit crime. So then I expect that we’ll see a peak.

MARGARET WARNER: Commissioner Safir, do you agree with that?

COMMISSIONER HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I think it’s something we have to be concerned about as the population demographics change. But I think, you know, one of the things that’s important is that police executives not get confused about their role. I think social agencies and prevention programs are very important, and everybody needs to work with the community to do that. But I think in order to keep crime down police executives have to understand our role is crime prevention and law enforcement, not social services.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, gentlemen, thank you all three very much.