Finding Common Ground on Crime

Finding Common Ground on Crime

Finding Common Ground on Crime
August 11, 2014

This summer New York City is getting locked into a political cold war over crime fighting strategies. This political conflict has emerged in the wake of the tragic death of Eric Garner and statistics showing a marked uptick in shootings.

On one side, the proponents of Ray Kelly-era stop-and-frisk tactics are trumpeting the line that crime will explode if Kelly’s approach is not reinstituted. On the other side, those outraged by Garner’s death are trying to turn Police Commissioner William Bratton’s “Broken Windows” methodology into a dirty word.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has three reasons to keep the Garner tragedy from creating a political war zone. 

First, the mayor should focus the NYPD on a real mission. Can crime be held in check, and actually reduced, by finding the right mix so that people feel safe in their own city?  Bratton’s emphasis on preventative community policing has worked in New York and Los Angeles, but where its priorities and tactics are placed is an ongoing process.

Moreover, the need to feel safe in their own city is as important for young people of color as it is for senior citizens in upscale neighborhoods. Finding the right balance so that a proactive police presence distinguishes the gateway behavior to crime from mere nuisance behavior is neither easy nor automatic. Bratton and the NYPD deserve the chance to find the right balance. 

Second, there is too much at stake to allow a bonfire of political vanities to poison the dialogue. Over the past two weeks, strident voices from all sides have shed far more heat than light. 

What can’t be rebutted is that New York City has been the beneficiary of the decade’s long drop in crime. Gotham becoming the safest big city in America not only has attracted more tourism dollars, but it serves as a magnet for the human capital as well as the venture capital New York needs to generate growth as it moves toward a city of nine million people.

If New Yorkers no longer feel safe working, shopping and at recreation, that fear will have a profoundly negative impact on tourism. Furthermore, if upstate and suburban politicians once again find traction running against the perception of violence taking over New York City, that will reduce the city’s lobbying clout in Albany and Washington—not to mention exacerbating the regional fault lines long at work in our state’s politics. 

Third, it was the long-term decline in crime which opened the door to the political success of the de Blasio coalition, which sought to prioritize the issues attending the income inequality gap. If Bratton can’t craft a successful strategy for fighting crime and if de Blasio can’t maintain the political support to buttress that success, make no mistake: the big loser will be the political aspirations of progressives.

In 2013, exit polls showed that 55 percent of the general election vote in New York City was minority while 45 percent was white. If the cold war on crime becomes a hot political war, here is how the city’s electorate will likely divide if the pattern from the 1990s reemerges: whites will vote for tougher crime-fighting strategies by margins exceeding 4-1, and a quarter of blacks, at least 40 percent of Hispanics and a strong majority of Asians will follow suit. That division could smash the multi-racial coalition sustaining de Blasio, even if demographics take the minority share towards a 60 percent share in future elections.

This is why we should keep the debate on how best to fight crime out of venomous political swamps. All responsible voices would be wise to focus their efforts at helping de Blasio and keep this debate productive and purposeful. In return, the mayor and his police commissioner should greet all good ideas with an open hand and an open mind.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the challenge of continuing to win the war on crime is too vast for politics as usual. Let Eric Garner’s tragedy be seen in retrospect as the tragedy, which produced policy light, not as the generator of the political heat tearing New York City and ultimately New York State apart.


Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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Bruce N. Gyory