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Nashville Scene NYPD Blues

And you thought Nashville had crime problems

By Phil Ashford

MAY 3, 1999:  In the grand scheme of things, the incident in which West African immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by police in New York was a minor, albeit tragic, accident. But such things sometimes have a way of taking on a life of their own and becoming outsized in their effects, be they in New York or Nashville.

Diallo was killed last February when four plainclothes police officers investigating a serial rape case confronted Diallo in the doorway to his apartment building in the Bronx. Apparently believing he was armed, the officers fired off 43 rounds at the young street peddler, hitting him 19 times. Perhaps because such a hail of lead made the mistake so emphatic, the outcry over the incident has been similarly full-throated.

As a consequence, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has seen his popularity undermined for a possible Senate race in 2000, the four officers have been indicted for second-degree murder, the Clinton administration has stuck its oar in, and racial leader Al Sharpton has seen his own stature puffed back up again.

The sharpest blow may have come to the city's image. New York's great success story of the 1990s has generally been acclaimed as its dramatic success in reducing crime. What the Diallo shooting has done is raise the related question: At what price?

The law and order issue has always been a two-edged sword, reflecting the dual concerns of the citizens: safety from the criminals, and safety from the police. In New York, it is concern about the latter that is raising questions about the success of the former. But New York is certainly not alone in facing the twin dilemmas. Nashville had similar crises with the furor over the Reggie Miller incident in 1992 setting off some abortive introspection and the 1997 crescendo of rising crime statistics triggering a more successful round of police reforms.

To a degree, the Diallo case is an example of the potent irrelevancy. Statistics indicate that the New York police are not notably trigger happy. The real controversy should not be over whether in the heat of a confused situation the officers fired off the last rounds; the controversy should be over why they fired off the first.

But the ensuing gnashing of teeth has focused on broader questions like police brutality (of which the city already had a more vivid case involving Haitian immigrant Abner Louima); police tactics; the interplay of white cops who live in the suburbs with residents of minority, inner-city neighborhoods; and the personal style of Giuliani, who once appeared on the David Letterman show to voice the proposed new tourism slogan, "We can kick your city's ass."

New York achieved its breakthrough crime reduction by the simple expedient of getting the police to focus on reducing crime. Historically, police departments tend to take a covert pleasure in rising crime rates, as they underscore the importance of the police mission and help make the case for even more police resources. In the early 1990s, Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, reversed that notion by holding local police commanders responsible for the safety of their neighborhoods and expecting them to get out in front of the problems with remedies reaching beyond just taking reports from victims.

At the same time, the police also focused on matters of public order--stopping lifestyle offenses like public drunkenness, public urination, and, most famously, disarming the squeegeemen who extorted money from motorists to not clean their windshields.

The sum of this hard-nosed approach was great success--the murder rate fell to a pre-1970s level--and some uneasiness. Clearly citizens in the aggregate were better off when liberated from the threat of crime. But there was also concern about the price, which was exacerbated by the abrasive style of Giuliani, who could be described as an angry and insecure version of Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen. Giuliani has Bredesen's certainty about where he wants his city to go and a Machiavellian willingness to get there, but lacks Bredesen's deceptively sunny disposition, tolerance for opposing viewpoints, and willingness to suffer fools gladly. Giuliani made his name before coming to the mayor's office as a career prosecutor, and he tends to approach everything with a confrontational, smash-the-evildoers outlook.

Much of the ongoing commentary in the community about the successful crime initiative focused on the necessary tradeoff between personal safety and freedom from indignities when dealing with the police. Among upper middle class citizens, that tradeoff was small; for those who would actually have to pay that price, there was always more ambivalence. Aggressive police tactics may have gotten more guns off the street, but that may not mean as much to someone who suffers the real embarrassment of being stopped by police.

The Diallo shooting gave form to the accumulated concerns about the price of what Giuliani had wrought. Some critics contend that the same results could have been achieved with more humane tactics. But the New York that Giuliani found when he was elected in 1993 was a difficult nut to crack. Bredesen himself commented on the subject after he returned from a conference in New York in 1992. Speaking to a luncheon, Bredesen beamed about how much he was enjoying being mayor, and that one of the attractions was that, even though Nashville had problems, they were solvable. "It's not like New York, where you think it's just hopeless," he said.

The environment which now questions the harshness of the methods used to reduce crime has changed dramatically. Insofar as crime itself is a form of oppression, New York now has the luxury of being able to concern itself with the lesser forms of oppression. This isn't to say that it isn't time for New York to seek a more humane form of policing; rather the city probably needed to pay a steep price to turn the corner on crime.

Giuliani's latest response has been to issue cards to the city's police officers setting out new standards of courtesy for interaction with the public, such as requiring them to use courtesy titles like "mister" or "ms." when addressing citizens. Although it has been easily mocked, the idea is not as stupid as it sounds, with the underlying concept being that if police officers are initially required to act respectfully to citizens, they might ultimately become respectful of citizens. As the current New York Police commissioner, Howard Safir wrote, "the fact is, for most New Yorkers who feel they have had negative interactions with the police, the issue is civility, not brutality."

Nashville had its two policing crises in reverse order. The Reggie Miller incident produced a certain amount of hand wringing over the tenor of law enforcement without producing any real changes. In that regard, the case represented a lost opportunity both to improve the interactions of the police with the community and to improve the performance of the police.

In the Miller incident, a black undercover police officer was roughed up by four white police officers after he failed to pull over his unregistered truck quickly enough. Miller, who was on duty at the time, had wanted to leave a busy area before identifying himself to the policemen as another officer in order to protect his undercover identity. The somewhat overblown response was to treat the case as a second Rodney King incident: Police Chief Robert Kirchner ordered two of the white officers fired and a special commission on police practices was established under the leadership of prominent lawyer James Neal.

Naturally, nothing came of the whole process because little was sought other than to contain the incident and prevent it from becoming a festering sore. Critics of the police department fumbled the opportunity by focusing almost exclusively on the creation of a civilian review board and by not pushing for other less contentious ways to improve police/community relations and police crime-fighting performance.

Unfortunately, it took a record murder rate in 1997 to trigger a more comprehensive look at the performance of the Metro's criminal justice system, culminating in Bredesen's appointment of the 14-member Commission of 12, which made some sweeping recommendations for improvements and prodded the police department into a more aggressive approach to maintaining order.

The crime figures have since come down, reflecting either the success of the approaches or the cyclical nature of a lot of statistics. While Nashville's improvements have been modest in comparison to New York's, Nashville's problem was never as horribly out of control as New York's was. Nashville only required a small improvement to move back into the range of public tolerance.

The ambivalence remains. Driving the crime rate down inevitably involves using the most aggressive tactics in those inner city areas most hard hit by crime, which in turn rubs the rawest nerves of community relations. But that does not diminish the needs of those communities for safety. Hence, the Tennessean's Brentwood-based, Lost-in-the-Sixties columnist, Tim Chavez, can regularly offer up columns decrying the interaction of police with the residents of inner city neighborhoods while also demanding that the city hire more of these same police.

Ultimately, a police force is a fairly blunt instrument for coping with the broader underlying pathologies of society, and its operation creates an unhappy amount of blunt-force trauma even for the citizens who most benefit from greater safety. While there may be better worlds to strive for, it is first necessary to make this world livable.


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