WASHINGTON — This is the first in an occasional series of articles that wil examine President Clinton's record during his first term. WASHINGTON -- America is holding a presidential election in a year when it seems to be reeling from one horrific murder to the next, a shocking number of them committed by increasingly youthful killers, and in places -- schools and suburban malls -- once considered sanctuaries.
Paradoxically, President Clinton, citing FBI data, says violent crime is declining and that the policies pursued by his administration are responsible for safer streets.
Unwrapping this riddle may help determine the outcome of the )) 1996 presidential election -- for crime is a potent political issue. Several prominent law enforcement officials and criminologists interviewed about Mr. Clinton's claims say he exaggerates the effects of his policies -- and the drop in crime. They add, however, that they believe the president is pursuing solutions that will reap benefits eventually.
Even Mr. Clinton's critics agree that he has almost single-handedly brought the Democrats aboard on this issue, making them more open to crime-fighting -- and less susceptible to the historic accusation that they are "soft" on crime.
"He understood the political vulnerability to Democrats," says criminologist Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University. "He was a lot more of a hawk than the McGovern kind of traditional Democrat."
Michael S. Dukakis opposed capital punishment. Walter F. Mondale considered crime control to be a job for state and local government. Jimmy Carter conceded that he didn't know what to do about crime -- and insisted no one else did either.
But Mr. Clinton was different.
In 1992, as a candidate, he insisted crime was "a national problem that requires a tough national response." While reiterating traditional Democratic calls for curbs on handguns, he also proposed federal funding for 100,000 new police officers. He also defended the death penalty -- rare for a national Democrat -- going so far as to return to Arkansas to sign the order to execute a cop-killer.
In 1993, he introduced a sweeping anti-crime package with his new police officers and gun control. It included a number of conservative ideas, too, including limiting the number of federal appeals convicted killers can file in death penalty cases.
In 1994, the president shepherded his $33 billion crime bill
through Congress. It contained $8 billion for new police officers and tough measures such as longer incarcerations for drug dealers and habitual criminals and an expanded federal death penalty. But it also included other solutions, such as a ban on the manufacture of assault weapons and hundreds of millions of dollars for "preventive" measures, such as behind-bars drug treatment, midnight basketball leagues and gender sensitivity programs designed to reduce domestic violence.
In his basic stump speech, Mr. Clinton highlights three aspects of his record: gun control, 100,000 new police officers and support for "community policing," which is designed to make officers more visible and accessible.
"Talk to any major police officer in this country in any city, and they'll tell you that these police officers walking the streets are not only catching criminals quicker, they are preventing crime," Mr. Clinton says. "We were attacked for giving cities the money. But they were wrong, and we were right. And the crime rate is going down. We are saving lives."
The crime rate
Evaluating the accuracy of that claim is not easy. The first step is determining the true picture of crime in America today.
FBI crime figures covering the first six months of 1995 show that the murder rate declined by 12 percent over the same six-month period in 1994, the largest such reduction in almost 20 years. The president hailed this news -- and some of the nation's most prominent media outlets followed suit: A Time magazine cover proclaimed, "Finally, We're Winning the War Against Crime."
But a close look at the FBI data gives little reason for euphoria.
The dramatic drop-off occurred only in murder rates. Other violent crime remained about the same. The decline in the murder rate was due almost exclusively to drops in the largest cities, especially New York, which was responsible for 61 percent of the decline by itself. In most cities with more than 250,000 people, including Baltimore, there was no drop.
The figures were low partly because they followed years of unprecedented carnage. The murder rate was still higher than during the Reagan administration -- and nearly double what it was a generation ago. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh termed the decreases "modest," saying, "Violent crime remains at an intolerable level."
The statistics revealed a disturbing pattern involving youth crime that led one bi-partisan panel, the Council on Crime, to conclude that juvenile crime is a "ticking time bomb." In the past 10 years, the number of juvenile killers tripled.
For many criminologists, the relevant questions are whether Mr. Clinton's policies will lessen the havoc these juveniles wreak as they reach their 20s -- the prime age for criminal behavior -- and whether it will help prevent other younger people from turning to crime in the first place.
A consensus has emerged that getting guns out of the hands of criminals, drug users and young people is the key to lowering the crime rate. What is hotly debated is how best to do this. Conservatives favor more aggressive law enforcement, while liberals often look to gun control measures.
During the Bush administration, the Justice Department began seeking stiff "enhancements" -- five more years at sentencing time -- to those who used guns in the commission of federal crimes. This practice was continued by the Clinton administration and has been accompanied by pushes in state courts for longer sentences for violent crimes. As a result, the nation doubled the number of criminals behind bars.
Mr. Clinton opened a second front, namely the assault weapons ban and the Brady law, which requires background checks for those purchasing firearms from federally licensed dealers. In every major speech, the president cites Treasury Department estimates that in the past two years 60,000 people who attempted to purchase handguns were denied permission because they had criminal records, outstanding warrants or some other problem.
There is little evidence to show that this barrier prevented any actual crime, however. The government prosecuted only a dozen of those applicants, while private handgun sales continued unabated. The FBI reports that 275,000 guns are stolen each year.
"Gun control laws have not, do not, and will not, ever get guns out of the hands of criminals," says Tanya Metaska, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
Gun control advocates counter that in some cases, such as the one involving a rural Kansas man who tried to buy a handgun while under a court order for threatening his wife, the law may have prevented tragedy.
The evidence on the results of the assault weapons ban, which House Republicans recently voted to rescind, is even more scant. One liberal group, the Violence Policy Center, concluded from 1994 police shootings that assault weapons were being increasingly used against police.
100,000 new officers
Mr. Clinton first made his promise for 100,000 new officers in the 1992 campaign, while pointing out that the number of police on the beat hadn't kept pace with the population of criminals. But police are expensive and Mr. Clinton's funding requests would leave the nation tens of thousands of officers short of 100,000. So far, approximately 32,000 new officers have been hired.
For this reason, Republican leaders bristle when they hear the president refer constantly to the 100,000 figure -- party chief Haley Barbour denounces it as "a classic case of Clinton disinformation."
Perhaps a more substantive criticism is that the money for the new police officers runs out in three or four years, leaving local government to pick up the tab. For that reason, 60 percent of the nation's eligible jurisdictions have not applied for funds to add new officers.
The White House has responded by repeating the 100,000 figure as a kind of mantra, and by showcasing examples of crime-busting by officers who were hired under this program, including an Ocean City officer who interceded in a rape attempt.
This doctrine is epitomized in the public mind by pictures of uniformed officers playing basketball in inner-city housing projects and has been credited by the president as having proved its effectiveness.
The biggest drops, however, came in two cities, Houston and New York, that embraced an alternate strategy known as "pro-active" policing, in which officers stop petty offenses such as urinating on sidewalks and public drunkenness -- and make a point of searching for concealed firearms when they make these arrests.
Police officials believe that as word went out that even minor infractions could get you pinched -- often on a serious weapons charge -- young toughs began leaving their guns at home, and that this reduced the random shootings and whim robberies all too common in American cities today.
New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton gave his commanders unprecedented autonomy in dealing with crime -- but held them personally accountable for their precincts -- and ended up replacing half of them.
"For conservative leaders in Washington, Bratton's unquestionable achievements should become the rebuttal to President Clinton's posturing on crime," says John P. Walters, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
But dismissing Mr. Clinton's achievements might not be that easy. Howard Safir, who recently replaced Mr. Bratton in New York, lauds the president's record.
"If Clinton wants to fund 100,000 more cops, I'd think that's great," he said in an interview with The Sun. "And I'm certainly in favor of screening handgun purchasers, and banning assault weapons -- those guns end up killing cops."
Sen. Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican and Mr. Clinton's likely November opponent, has decided to highlight certain pro-defendant decisions by Clinton-appointed federal judges. But even conservatives such as Mr. Walters worry that Mr. Clinton is outmaneuvering Republicans, leaving them to defend the gun lobby or sounding as though they care more about the budget deficit than paying for police.
Lawrence W. Sherman, chairman of the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland, says he believes this has happened.
"Bill Clinton is the first Democrat with a coherent crime plan," he says. "And frankly, I think it's what will get him re-elected."
Pub Date: 5/02/96