Why the Losing Battle Against Crime?
Read What A Veteran Police Officer Says About It
NO CITY has as much total crime as New York city. More people—1,669—were murdered here in a recent year than have been killed in almost seven years of fighting in northern Ireland!
As a New York City police officer for over fourteen years, I have seen the failure of all sorts of efforts to stem this crime. New York State special prosecutor Maurice Nadjari was right when he said: “We are no longer capable of securing the people against crime.”
Hundreds of New Yorkers daily are either murdered, assaulted, raped or robbed—a serious crime is reported almost every minute. A New York Times headline, reporting the crime increase of the early months of 1975 over the same months of 1974, reads: “SERIOUS CRIMES UP 21.3% IN THE CITY.” No wonder that in many sections of the city New Yorkers are afraid to venture outside—they are, in effect, prisoners in their own homes.
Are Police to Blame?
Afraid and angry—and understandably so—people often blame the police. We are called too dumb to solve crimes, or too lazy. The common opinion is that we regularly accept illegal payoffs, as the movie Serpico gave the impression. Many say that we have a superior, above-the-law attitude, evidenced by our failure to obey laws that we are responsible to enforce. Others accuse us of being insensitive toward the public, and of treating criminal suspects brutally.
While there may be an element of truth to some of these accusations, I feel that generally they convey an unfair impression. Police work is of such a nature that it is easily subject to misunderstandings by the public. So it is unfair to pass judgment without hearing our side. Listening to it, I believe, may give you, not only an insight into the reason for the increase of crime, but also an appreciation of the frustrations and pressures that the police endure.
A Realistic View of Police
Some persons say that a major reason why crime flourishes is that police are corrupt. As evidence, they may cite the report that, of fifty-one New York police officers who were handed “lost” wallets and asked to turn them in, fifteen pocketed the money inside. (New York Times, November 17, 1973) However, look at this in perspective.
Did you know that when a similar test later was made on random New Yorkers, forty-two of the fifty persons dishonestly kept the money? So, to a considerable extent, the police simply reflect the standards of the society of which they are a part, don’t they? As for bribes, isn’t it the public that offers these to the police?
I’m not trying to justify police dishonesty. But it is good to get the whole picture. Some corruption admittedly exists. But, really, don’t we police officers do much to prevent crime? Aren’t people usually more inclined to be law abiding when they see us around?
Recall what happened in 1969 when 3,700 Montreal, Canada, police officers went on strike. Crime increased to such an extent that government leaders said that the city was “threatened by anarchy.” And believe me, it would be worse in New York. Without the police on duty, New Yorkers had better barricade themselves in their homes. The city would be unlivable!
What Police Experience
To illustrate the frustration that police officers often experience in fighting crime, let me relate the following: A fellow officer recently caught a twelve-year-old and a thirteen-year-old having intercourse on the roof landing of a project building. He took the girl to her parents. But the mother told him to mind his own business, saying: “She’s a lady now; she can do it any time she wants to.” An experience like that makes the police officer feel helpless. I think this modern permissive attitude, where anything goes, contributes to the increase in crime.
In ghetto areas the police officer represents the part of society that the people feel has been kicking them down and keeping them in the gutter. So we are often viewed more as a threat than a help in these areas. For instance, when we go into a neighborhood to take out a drug pusher, his neighbors fight for the pusher and against us. This antipolice attitude, too, I believe, is another contributing factor in the rise in crime.
I remember an incident in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. A couple of guys had stolen a car, and tried to get away. We pursued, and they crashed, smashing the car. We cornered them and had them faced against the wall, with our guns drawn. But before we knew it a crowd formed and started menacing us. I tell you, the sweetest melody I’ve ever heard was the sirens of police cars coming to our assistance.
You have to face such situations to understand the sickening sensation of cold terror. I know that critics are inclined to censure police for using their guns too quickly and for unnecessary use of force. But criticism is easy to give from a place of safety. Critics would feel differently, I believe, if they had to face armed criminals.
The situation is appalling! Nearly one police officer a month is killed in the city! The amount of crime is almost unbelievable—a fellow officer the other day said that one patrol car had five robberies to handle during one tour of duty, mostly drugstore holdups.
Even murder has become routine, and the police often become hardened to it. Officer John Flores, who worked the high-crime 73rd Precinct in Brownsville, illustrated the matter by describing one tour of duty in which he was so busy that, while eating a sandwich, he noticed that he hadn’t even washed the blood of a murder victim from his hands.
The people in these areas become hardened too. In another case, the husband had killed his wife. They had twelve children, and as the investigation was going on, a number of them were playing tag around the house, as though nothing had happened!
But why are we losing the battle against crime? Does the fault lie with the preparation of police officers for their job?
Prepared for Crime Fighting
It was in 1961, when I was twenty-four, that I received training at the New York Police Academy. Included was physical preparation—calisthenics, judo and the use of weapons. In the classroom we examined the elements of each crime, and what is involved in making an arrest. There is more to the matter than simply saying, “You’re under arrest!” I learned what happens after a person is brought to a place of detention, how he is fingerprinted, photographed and in other ways prepared for appearance in court. I also learned the type of evidence that is needed in order to make an arrest stand up in court.
After about five months my class graduated, and I was assigned to the 66th Precinct, in Borough Park, Brooklyn. There I walked a beat and, on occasion, rode in a patrol car. It was satisfying to help people settle problems, and to give medical and other types of assistance.
However, I hated giving traffic summonses, since they make people feel so bad. So the end of the month would come and I wouldn’t have given my expected number of tickets. I’d then have to give summonses for so-called “borderline violations”—such as for failing to make a complete, full stop, or for slipping through a light as it was changing. It made me feel terrible.
I’ll never forget the first arrest I made. I stopped a motorist who was driving without a license, and he offered me about $100 to let him go. I arrested him and took him to the station house.
I’ve made hundreds of arrests since, but what especially makes that first one memorable is that it marked my first appearance in court, where I saw the chaotic conditions that exist there. The reality wasn’t what academy training had led me to expect. But I soon learned other shocking realities, which were totally contrary to the fine police training we had received.
The Way It Was
I had been on the force a short time when it became apparent to me that many policemen were taking payoffs. It was common knowledge that some went around picking up protection money from gamblers and other underworld figures.
Then came the Knapp Commission’s investigation into police corruption. About four years ago it put the spotlight on the corruption, and since then cops have actually been convicted and jailed! Furthermore, the conspiracy of silence was broken—police officers began reporting corruption. So fear spread, cops were afraid of being turned in by other officers, and this contributed to a cleanup.
A department-wide anticorruption program was launched. Posters, for example, have been put up in police stations explaining that the earning potential of a police officer during twenty years of service and twenty years of retirement is $500,000, and urges them not to gamble all of this by taking a bribe. We get a good salary now and I doubt that many risk losing it by accepting any kind of bribe or payoff.
That doesn’t mean that all police officers have turned fundamentally honest. A retired Assistant Chief Inspector is probably right when he said of some former corrupt officers: “They are looking at chances right now to make money and are weighing the money against the risk.” It seems that the risk factor must be maintained at a high level, even as a recent police report indicated when it identified fear of getting caught as the reason for the improved conditions.
However, I realize that the public still considers the majority of police to be corrupt; we have lost credibility by our past record. Also, the persistent above-the-law attitude of some police officers contributes to this.
This loss of public confidence, of credibility—resulting in lack of cooperation and even hatred by many of the public—is a major factor, I believe, in our losing the battle against crime.
Detective Work, and Other Factors
I desired to advance in the department, and on May 18, 1962, a terrible thing happened that opened the way—two Brooklyn detectives, named Fallon and Finnegan, were slain in a tobacco store in my precinct, just a few blocks from where I was at the time. In those days murders of police officers were unusual, and detectives from all over the city were called in to work on the case.
The night of the murders I received information from a confidential source that staggered me—I was told the identity of one of the murderers. I immediately went to the police station and reported the information. Right on the spot I was assigned to help on the case. That very night we were able to establish that one of the suspects was involved in the murders. Later he was apprehended and convicted.
As a result of my work, I was recommended for the detective bureau, and in the spring of 1963 I went through the detective training course at the Police Academy. Afterward, as was then the custom, I was assigned to the Youth Squad, a kind of junior detective squad that enforced laws pertaining to places where youths congregate, such as bowling alleys, pool halls and schools. But since 1966 I have done regular detective work.
The investigative work on most crimes is nothing compared with that done on the Fallon and Finnegan murder case, where dozens of detectives and special technicians concentrated their efforts. With well over 1,000 serious crimes being reported daily, there simply isn’t the time to investigate most crimes thoroughly.
But when more time is available, a complete investigation may be conducted. Witnesses to the crime may be sought out, and a thorough search for clues may be made. Fingerprints are extremely valuable as evidence in a crime; however, I feel that this is an area in which many detectives fall short. They fail to utilize the available scientific methods of crime detection either because of lack of interest or due to not being convinced of their value.
In the face of the tidal wave of crime, the investigative process has broken down—only one in five serious crimes is solved, and the actual number is probably much less. As a result, public confidence in the police is low. Frustration and selfishness grow, causing more persons to turn to crime.
Still, many police officers believe that there is an even more important reason why we are losing the battle.
Why It Can Be Said, Crime Pays
Stated plainly, the reason is that CRIME PAYS. That is what the evidence shows. Thus James S. Campbell, former general counsel to a presidential crime commission, said: “Crime does pay.” He noted that “the odds were 99 to 1 that you could commit a serious crime and not go to jail for it.” But in New York city there is even less of a chance that a criminal will be punished.
For example, of 97,000 arrests for serious crimes in a recent year, only 900 defendants were tried to the point of reaching a verdict! The vast majority of arrests are handled by “plea bargaining.” The way this works, the criminal agrees to plead guilty to a reduced charge that usually carries with it a suspended sentence. In other words, he goes free. There is no punishment! Even eight out of ten murder cases are resolved by “plea bargaining.” In such instances, the murderer generally receives a light sentence, and is soon free to repeat his crimes again.
From my own experience I could give you many examples of this “revolving door” court system. But let me select just one. In 1970 a man with a long criminal record ruthlessly stabbed to death a defenseless old man, the owner of a liquor store. Yet this cold-blooded murderer was permitted to plead guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to five years, which means he probably served only two or three years. But it was one of the most heinous crimes I have ever investigated!
Why aren’t cases like this tried and appropriate punishment given? Justice David Ross explained: “We’re bursting at the seams and it would take millions [of dollars] to try all these cases.” Furthermore, prisons are already full, and construction costs for new ones may run as much as $40,000 per prisoner. Even now, it costs about $10,000 a year to keep a person in a traditional prison. So it is not only too expensive to try criminals, but also very expensive to keep them locked up.
As a result, persons feel encouraged to commit more crimes, since they can see that crime pays. Why, sometimes they even laugh at us when we arrest them, since they know that they have nothing to fear. So, can you see why police officers often are less than energetic in efforts to apprehend criminals? They usually won’t be punished anyway. A man in Washington, D.C., for example, was arrested fifty-seven times in five years before he was convicted.
It’s a sad situation, as former New York City Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy said: “Police are merely the most visible arm of a broken-down crime-control system, a nonsystem, in which prosecutors and courts also fail.”
A New York Times editorial was correct when it said of the judicial system: “In essence, the picture is one of a ‘system’ constantly threatening to collapse of its own weight, functioning in a manner more designed to avoid that collapse than to mete out justice or to protect the public.”—February 7, 1975.
The public suffers most, especially the victims. There is practically no thought of helping or compensating them for their losses. Furthermore, if they are to testify in court they must do it on their own time, perhaps at the loss of job pay, and the most they can hope for is that the criminal will be punished. But now, with so few criminals receiving punishment, fewer and fewer victims are willing to bother to prosecute, and, frankly, I can’t blame them. One Philadelphia woman had to go to court forty-five times before the assailant who robbed her was convicted!
Some time ago, I was presented with the idea of making the criminal work to repay the victim for what he had stolen or damaged. The idea is from the Bible, where, according to God’s law, a thief who stole a bull and sold it had to compensate with five bulls! (Ex. 22:1-4) That is so logical! If criminals had to make such restitution to their victims, or, in the case of juveniles, their parents had to do so, crime would be greatly reduced.
Also needed is speedy punishment for wrongdoing. When there isn’t punishment, the criminal feels that crime pays and so continues in his bad course, just as the Bible says. (Eccl. 8:11) But if willful murderers were quickly executed, as the Bible recommends, I can assure you there would be much fewer murders. (Num 35:30, 31) And if other criminals were severely punished, I am confident that crime would suddenly decrease.
Yet this system of things moves farther and farther away from a course of reason and good sense. So, as long as this system continues, sad as it is to say, I can see no hope for real improvement in the police battle against crime.—Contributed.
[Box on page 6]
‘Some persons say that the police are corrupt.’
[Box on page 7]
“Murder has become routine, and the police often become hardened to it.”
[Box on page 8]
“Many policemen were taking payoffs.”
[Box on page 9]
“There simply isn’t the time to investigate most crimes thoroughly.”
[Box on page 10]
‘Crime pays. For most criminals there is no punishment.’