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Crime check

Published : Sep 23, 2011 00:00 IST

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A POLICE OFFICER stands guard at a railway station in Times Square, New York. A file photograph.-MARY ALTAFFER/AP

A POLICE OFFICER stands guard at a railway station in Times Square, New York. A file photograph.-MARY ALTAFFER/AP

The fall in crime rate in the U.S. is attributed to various factors, but the key is intelligent policing by committed professionals.

AMIDST the cacophony of a nationwide debate on corruption and the Anna Hazare campaign, I am afraid our country has lost the focus on an equally important issue, namely, how to improve the quality of our public services. The euphoria generated by Parliament acceding to the Maharashtra warrior's demand for a strong anti-corruption law is most natural. The people are so much fed up with dishonesty in public administration that there is an extraordinary hype even about a token step forward.

The worry, however, is that in the process there is a tendency to ignore the need for stabilising public services that are vital to the average citizen. The case for upgrading school education, and improving medical care in villages, sanitation in the bigger cities and community safety all over the country to somewhere near international standards cannot be overstated. This may be a distant ideal, but it is worth striving for in pursuit of a greater standing in the comity of nations. I hope the Anna team will not rest on its oars but take up this challenge seriously so that we build a solid foundation upon which a strong economy can rest.

I am especially exercised about the non-availability of the police to perform basic tasks such as tackling antisocial behaviour of individual bullies and countering crime against the life and property of citizens. Police time is mostly taken up in handling mass demonstrations like that of Anna Hazare's and providing security to state dignitaries. As a result, less attention is given to the day-to-day requirements of the community. Not many understand that this is a state of affairs that promotes conventional crime, a task about which the police care very little today. This was what was sought to be conveyed by the eminent thinker Prof. James Q. Wilson when he and Prof. George L. Kelling propounded the theory of broken windows in the early 1980s (One broken window in a community, which remains unattended and which no one cares to fix, is an open invitation to antisocial elements looking for an opportunity to indulge in crime). But then the phenomenon of crime is no longer as simple as it was when Wilson first enunciated the concept. While the axiom of what he propounded remains as relevant as it was then, the factors that generate and foster deviance have taken on new dimensions. This has led to strange generalisations, bewildering paradoxes and inscrutable misconceptions, which mark public debates on crime and law enforcement. Television debates the world over take the cake for superficial interpretation of whatever happens on the crime front.

This happened in the United Kingdom recently. The country is, undoubtedly, going through an economic crisis, with the growth rate standing at less than a per cent compared with the 8 per cent of India and a slightly higher rate of China. The common belief everywhere is that unemployment and poverty drive crime up. This was how the London riots, accompanied by shameful looting of shops, were explained by criminologists and other scholars. Many of us were deeply impressed by what they said and lapped up the theories advanced by them without any reservation. Also peddled on this occasion was the story that the looting and arson was an essentially a collective outrage resulting from prolonged state neglect and the consequent appalling conditions the blacks live in.

Both the theories were punctured the moment police released the names and other details of proved offenders. For instance, there were a number of rioters who held some job or the other, and they were not vagabonds. This meant that they did have a stake in civilised and lawful conduct. A further revelation was that there were a number of whites also among the criminals taken into custody by the police, disproving the argument that race had a lot to do with criminal behaviour. The black community, both in the U.K. and the United States, is no doubt more prone to deviance because of several traditional factors, including low levels of education, teenage pregnancy and single-parent families. The fact remains that many among the whites are also proactive participants in crimes in the two countries. This is the complexity that besets many crime studies of the present times. Their findings confuse the lay citizen rather than inform him.

It is against this backdrop that we are confounded by several recent studies, which speak of a drop in crime in many parts of the U.S., a trend that is contrary to graphs in most of the world, barring perhaps some countries in Europe. That too at a time when President Barack Obama is confronted with many serious economic problems: recession, acute debt repayment difficulties, shrinking welfare schemes and joblessness, all of which should normally induce crime rather than discourage unlawful conduct. The damage caused by tropical storm Irene a few days ago and the money that has to be sunk into relief and rebuilding measures can only add to Obama's fiscal woes. The simplistic explanations that problems such as these, which involve huge government outlays at the cost of investment in the economy with a view to generating new jobs, promote crime no longer seem to hold water.

We have, therefore, to look for other reasons why crime figures are either steady or are actually going down in the U.S. at a time when the country is gripped by a nearly unparalleled downturn. I am particularly impressed by two recent reports on crime in the U.S. which make a lot of sense.

The first of these is a presentation made in the past few months by two eminent criminologists at a National Criminal Justice Association meeting held in Washington, DC. One of them is Prof. Franklin Zimring of Berkeley, a scholar of great repute, whose theses on the phenomenon of crime are widely respected. In Zimring's view, the drop in crime in many American cities is the result of hard-core policing at the street level. He cites New York City in particular as an example of intelligent and high-visibility policing deterring potential offenders. Readers may recall how, in the late 1990s, Bill Bratton, as chief of the New York City Police Department, introduced several innovations which, it was believed, reduced crime in the city.

Another academic, James Austin, of the JFA Institute (Washington, DC, and California), echoed the position taken by Zimring. Both spurned the theory that higher rates of incarceration of criminals led to a lower incidence of crime. This was in the context of the well-known fact that the U.S. has more prisoners inside its jails than any other country. Many of us should look forward to reading Zimring's forthcoming book, The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control (Oxford University Press). It should give some insights valuable to the police in our cities.

The other report (August 22) on the U.S. crime scene is by Chris McGreal, The Guardian's reporter in Washington, who points out how the city no longer deserves to be called the murder capital of the country, if not of the world. From about 480 murders a year, until two decades ago, the figure came down to 130 in 2010. A number of analysts are puzzled by this substantial drop. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report' (the equivalent of Crime in India' brought out annually by the National Crime Records Bureau, New Delhi) says this is not a solely Washington, DC, phenomenon, and the trend is seen elsewhere also. For instance, the 536 homicides in New York City last year was a dramatic drop from the 2,245 one saw in 1990, when the city was a really dangerous place, especially around Times Square, then a haven for prostitutes, bootleggers and drug peddlers.

Along with homicide, robbery rates have also come down across the country. The Guardian's reporter cites both John Roman, Director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute, and Prof. James Q. Wilson to give a flavour of what experts in the country believe to be the main factors that have contributed to a fall in crime. Both the scholars, in contrast to the stand taken by Prof. Zimring, say that high levels of incarceration have helped to disable a large number of past and potential offenders and taken them off the streets. (More than two million people are in Federal and State prisons in the U.S. at any point of time. The corresponding figure for India is 0.3 million held in the more than 1,300 prisons in the country.)

Also noteworthy is the fact that unlike many other countries, including the U.K., which believes in locking up offenders, the U.S. has benefited from longer mandatory sentences. Also, one factor that has contributed to lower property crime is target hardening. Automobiles, a favourite object of attack for criminals in the Western world, have become harder to steal (with so many anti-theft electronic devices), and houses (with sophisticated alarm systems) are more difficult to break into. One can go on and on to explain fluctuations in the rate of crime and new patterns to offend against persons and property. In the ultimate analysis, I believe there is no substitute for intelligently structured policing on the ground backed up by policemen who derive professional satisfaction in solving crime.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 23, 2011.)

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