In 1990, New York City had over 2,000 homicides; this year it will probably have under 280. That’s an 86 percent reduction. Baltimore can do the same, but it requires smart strategies and political will.
Contrary to political spin and media reports, we did not reduce crime in New York because we indiscriminately stopped, questioned and frisked thousands of innocent people, or disregarded the Constitution. We reduced crime because we focused on guns, drugs, gangs and the relatively small number of people who commit the majority of crimes.
Our patrol and detectives were empowered, organized, equipped and held accountable to work with prosecutors to legally remove illegal guns from the street; to disrupt and dismantle narcotic distribution networks; to develop intelligence about and target gangs, and make it more difficult for them to recruit, extort and intimidate and terrorize neighborhoods.
It is possible for community policing and assertive crime initiatives to work side by side. It is possible to do stop, frisk and question (in moderation) constitutionally with well trained officers. It is possible and required to engage the community to trust their police department. When five police officers were tragically murdered in Dallas, former Police Chief David Brown made some very insightful and true observations. He said that the public and politicians often mistake the role of police. They are not social workers; their number one job is public safety, and they cannot solve all of society’s ills. He was right on target. I believe that one of the most important civil rights is to be free from harm. I also believe that criminals and only criminals should be afraid of police.
To reduce crime on Baltimore, we need to do the following:
Increase resources: When you are in a war, you cannot be looking for budget cuts from those who protect you. Although Baltimore has an adequate number of officers per capita, the department needs funds for technology and overtime.
Improve technology: The future of policing is intelligence-led policing. Departments should have access to tools such as predictive policing software, computers and data terminals in vehicles, and well trained intelligence analysts on staff.
Focus on drugs and guns: Study after study has shown that 80 percent of crime in America has a nexus to drugs. We need a strategy that combines well trained special and centralized drug units (it is not the time to reduce special units) that target traffickers — not users. It will require intelligence, and, yes, assertive policing including some stop, question and frisk (done right and constitutionally). Criminals need to know that there is a high probability of arrest if they commit crimes. That only happens if we know who they are, and they know we are there. More guns are taken off the street or don’t get to the street because criminals fear arrest.
Ensure accountability: It counts what you count! It is important to hold police commanders responsible for how they perform. The measure of success is critical. In private industry executives are held accountable for profit; in police work they should be held accountable for crime reduction — not arrests or seizures. Is that being done in the Baltimore P.D.?
Involve the community: No police department can be successful without the help of its community members. They are the eyes and ears of the department to help solve crimes. Officers must listen to responsible community leaders and get the community involved in keeping their neighborhoods safe.
If you look today on the side of every police vehicle in New York City, the words “Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect” are in bold letters. It is more than just a slogan. When we put that on our vehicles during my tenure, we did a lot more. We established a Citizens C.P.R. commission, made up of not just our supporters, but some of our most vocal opponents. They told us what they liked and disliked about our department. The number one complaint was not brutality, but discourtesy. We listened and trained every officer in the department in courtesy, professionalism and respect. Our civilian complaints went down each year thereafter, while we continued to reduce crime in record numbers.
We also set up a program called “Model Block.” We chose the worst crime ridden blocks in the city, and with the consent of the community we first arrested the drug traffickers, and then with the help of the community we had all the city services restore the neighborhood. We also posted officers on the block to ensure the criminals did not come back.
Baltimore is a beautiful city that is going through very difficult times. With thoughtful, assertive, goal-oriented policing it can really become Charm City. The Baltimore Police Department is full of good, dedicated officers. Leaders both within and outside the department must motivate and show them that out-of-control violence and crime can be controlled. We need to give them the tools and the backing and not cave to political correctness. Every life matters, and if something is not done — and done quickly — more innocent people will lose theirs.
Howard Safir (Howard@Vritechnologies.com) was New York City police commissioner from 1996 to 2000; prior to that he spent 26 years with the U.S. Department of Justice at the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S Marshals. He now lives in Maryland.