June 25, 2000
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The Times returns this morning to an attempt to write intelligently about crime and policing by using the technique of interviewing lots of unsavory characters about how they feel they are being treated by the police. The last time it tried this, it found that the New York Police Department was trying to impose the values of "Mayberry" on a city with a healthy tolerance for a little vice: that report was dissected convincingly twice, the first time by John Podhoretz in the New York Post, then more recently by Arch Puddington in the June issue of Commentary.
Now the Times is back on the trail with a front-page article by five reporters, interviewing, it tells us, "about 200 people" -- "young gang members and tired ex-cons" as well as "prostitutes" and "scrawny heroin addicts," who claim that, no, the police haven't stopped hassling them. To its credit, this time around the Times includes a sentence acknowledging the fact that some elderly persons and homeowners may actually be glad that the police aren't backing off. But the rest of the story, besides the strange reliance on the testimony of criminals and drug addicts, still betrays a misunderstanding of some basic concepts.
For instance, the article makes much of the fact that arrest statistics are up, and interprets it as a sign that police are not retreating. But measuring police performance by the number of arrests is using a failed model. The goal of good policing shouldn't be to make lots of arrests; it should be to reduce crime. A rise in arrests can be a sign of an increase in criminal activity. There's lots of police activity short of making an arrest: telling a crowd of youths gathered on a street corner to move along, asking the hosts of an unruly house party to please lower the volume of the stereo, walking the full beat while assigned to foot patrol rather than hiding out for hours in the safety of a convenience store. A retreat in police activity would be seen as much in these kinds of practices as in arrest statistics, and a retreat in these sorts of practices could well lead to an increase in arrest statistics of the sort the article reports.
The article also sites "fewer crimes" as a sign that police are not in retreat. Well, the article reports that in the 113th precinct in Queens, "serious crimes are up about 6 percent," and that city-wide, there has been a "puzzling rise in murders." Crime victimization statistics are notoriously unreliable, except for homicide stats, which are pretty much incontrovertible; it's hard to hide a dead body or someone's disappearance.
The Times story doesn't, however, quantify the increase in the murder statistics. For that you have to go to an opinion piece by George Kelling in last week's Wall Street Journal. Come to think of it, Professor Kelling, who teaches at Rutgers, would have been a good person for the Times to consult for this story on whether the police are in retreat. But of course, why would the Times want to ring up an academic expert? It has its own ready favorite sources for stories on police and crime patterns: those "gang members," "prostitutes" and "scrawny heroin addicts."
Wreckonings: Somehow, the spellcheckers didn't catch the word "Midwesternrefinerstouseethanolwouldn't," which was rendered as one word in Paul Krugman's "reckonings" column on today's Op-Ed page. If the consolidation is intentional, the meaning is lost on this reader.
The Magazine: Today's Times magazine. Page 15: Interview with artist who was once "married to the Italian porn star Cicciolina and making paintings and sculptures that showed you copulating in every which position." Page 20: Article about sperm banks in which we learn that "Danish donors" are "permitted to sire as many as 25 offspring." Page 36: article about Pakistani religious school in which the writer reports that students there were convinced "that Westerners engage in sex with anything, anywhere, all the time." The writer also reports he was "asked to describe the dominant masturbation style of Americans." (Maybe he means "predominant.") Pages 38 to 45: Forum discussing issues confronting actresses considering whether to do nude scenes. This is a pretty typical Sunday. Enough said.
(Note: Smartertimes is in Washington D.C. this morning and operating off the Washington Final edition; page numbers and story placement may vary from edition to edition.)
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