George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher and novelist, once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As increasingly aggressive police tactics are exposed across the country, discontent grows.
Discontent shortens the memory. What was a crisis not so long ago seems less significant in the face of new concerns about heavy-handed, overreaching police conduct.
America would do well not to forget the early 1990s. In 1991, there were 9.8 murders per 100,000 people. In 2013, there was less than half that number, about 4.7 murders per 100,000. Nowhere has the decline in violent crime been so startling than in New York City. According to the New York Post, there were 2,272 victims of murder in the Big Apple in 1990 — in 2013, there were 335.
There are a number of theories why violent crime fell so dramatically. Some suggest that at the height of the surge in violent crime, crack cocaine dominated the streets. As crack fell out of vogue, violent crime fell as well.
There are those who suggest that higher incarceration rates, a robust economy, fewer young people, tougher sentencing laws even abortion have had an impact on violent crime rates. A factor that cannot be ignored is better policing. That includes training, tactics and firepower.
No one suggests that crime has plummeted due to the emergence of the “better angels of our nature.” Crime has been effectively suppressed by better, smarter — and at times a bit of heavy-handed — policing.
To forget the role policing has played in the decline of violent crime may condemn some neighborhoods and communities nationwide to a renewed cycle of violence and discord.
A sign that memories may be beginning to fade is evident when Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill asked for a hearing looking into the militarization of local police departments, after recent tensions between law enforcement and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
“We need to demilitarize this situation — this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” McCaskill said.
President Barack Obama weighed in, “I think one of the great things about the United States has been our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement.”
In New York City, the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, promised to end the controversial law enforcement tactic known as “stop and frisk.” The tactic was being used to take guns off of the streets and to crack down on fugitives. Those opposed to stop and frisk suggested that the tactic disproportionately targeted African-American men. Finally, the courts restricted its use.
However, the picture is not so rosy without stop and frisk. According to the Wall Street Journal, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 10, there have been 702 shooting incidents, compared with 621 for the same period last year — a 13 percent increase. Shootings are at their highest levels since 2012, according to the New York Police Department.
Finding the appropriate balance for police between being too aggressive and not aggressive enough is never easy. To ignore the success of the past — the anguish and pain that has been averted as the result of less victimization and the billions of dollars saved as result of less crime — would be foolish.
Can police tactics be improved? Certainly. Should we revel in the success of lower crime rates and walk away from tactics that have made neighborhoods safer? Certainly not.
New York City’s streets are safer now than ever, in no small part because of aggressive, data-driven policing. To retreat from that posture is not good for New York City or the rest of America.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.