New York has done it, can't we?


Zainah Anwar on Friday: New York has done it, cant we?

My Suhakam car was stolen in front of my gates a few years ago. Two weeks ago, a snatch thief got away with the handbag of the daughter of my cleaning woman as they were riding a motorcycle to my house.

Except for the stolen car, no arrests were made.

A friend living in Petaling Jaya, whose house was burgled four times, now offers ang pow money to burglars.

The cash is placed in a white envelope, with a clearly marked “$” sign on the cover, and placed prominently on a table in her living room. It used to be RM300, then RM500. Now, it is RM800 to match the rising cost of living.

She would rather the burglars take the money and run, than her having to face the trauma, yet again, of a ransacked home and an unsolved case.

The ordeal that Kuching shopowner Tengku Auvoraza Tengku Abraham went through facing 30 burglaries since 2004, four just this month, is a serious indictment of our criminal justice system.

For decades now, the police crime index has registered an increase in the number of reported crime cases. From 1998-2002, there was, however, a dip in the trend, except for violent crimes.

But the crime index began to rise again from 2003. What is most alarming is the phenomenal 63 per cent average increase in violent crimes (which includes murder, rape, outrage of modesty, robbery, assault) for the first nine months of last year over 2005.

There was also a 12 per cent increase in property crimes over the same period. These are just the reported cases. How many more cases go unreported?

Many of us feel even more vulnerable to rape, snatch theft, burglary, robbery. In my neighbourhood, residents got together to hire private security to set up a check-point and patrol the streets after an increased spate of burglaries and car thefts a year ago.

How is our police analysing this rising crime rate and what exactly are they doing to reduce it, beyond recruiting more personnel and deploying more policemen to patrol the streets?

Most criminologists attribute the incidence of rising crime to socio-economic issues poverty, inequality, joblessness, drug use, demographic trends, etc. Tackle these problems and crime will go down, they say.

But studies on the phenomenal consistent decline in the crime rate of New York City over the past 15 years compared with the national US average show one major single factor that made the difference policing. Both in tactics and technology.

From the war zone of the 1980s, New York City has now been transformed into the safest big city in the US. From 1990 to 2000, murder, robbery, burglary and auto theft dropped over 70 per cent, twice the national average.

From 2000-2005, the citys crime rate fell another 30 per cent, bucking the rising national trend. And the crime rate continues to plummet, even as the prison population continues to shrink in New York City, challenging those who believe in constructing more prisons and locking up more people to reduce crime.

Why and how this is happening continues to be debated. But most New Yorkers attribute the dramatic dive which began in 1994 to the introduction of assertive policing by the newly-elected Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who won election on his promise to reduce crime.

Proponents of effective policing point to the “broken windows theory” and the pioneering Compstat (computer statistics) developed by the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the 1990s.

The broken windows theory holds that unpunished minor offences lead to an atmosphere of disorder that can lead to more major crimes.

Now they go after misdemeanours that affect the quality of life, crimes such as throwing stones at the neighbourhood laundry shop (causing broken windows), loitering, drinking alcohol in the streets, urinating in public and jumping subway turnstiles.

By doing this, the police come into contact with a much broader segment of the population who could potentially graduate to more serious offences than if they were to only pursue serious crimes.

In the early days, New York City policemen denigrated this “quality of life policing” as a waste of resources.

But what it did was to eliminate the sense of public disorder in the streets. Also gone was the feeling that they could not be caught (which would have emboldened them to move on to commit more serious crimes).

The broken windows theory claims that petty offenders and hard-core criminals are often one and the same people.

The extensive police records of minor offenders meant wider resources of suspects profile to comb through when serious crimes occurred.

This sort of policing which focused on minor crimes often entailed aggressive tactics. This led to charges of police brutality and racism in the 1990s as police statistics showed that most of the minor offences were committed by young blacks and Hispanics. Thus, they often became targets of crackdowns.

This resulted in an outrage in the community and youth alienation among minorities.

Compstat, the other pivotal anti-crime strategy used by the NYPD, has attracted police officers from all over the world to study its workings.

Under Compstat, each precinct commander attends monthly NYPD command centre meetings where they brief their top bosses on crime in their precincts and the efforts to combat it.

These three-hour meetings are attended by some 200 officials, including those from the District Attorneys office, Housing, Welfare, parole and probation agencies, and public schools.

Precinct statistics displayed on a huge screen are scrutinised relentlessly and precinct commanders are grilled by the bosses on the statistics.

They are questioned why the arrests are fewer, are they satisfied with that, why was there a sudden spike in snatch thefts, were their men and women sitting behind desks instead of patrolling the streets and why their domestic violence officers didnt visit high-risk offenders at night or over the weekends.

These meetings, which break down traditional barriers to communication, reportedly generate unmatched cumulative knowledge about tactics. They evaluate what works and what does not.

Commanding officers learn and relearn constantly, for example, not to close a case before every assailant a victim identifies is detained for questioning and to ensure that an arrest leads to an indictment.

Cops are reminded that if they go to court without enough evidence and the case is thrown out because of police negligence, then the alleged robber does not just go back on the street, but goes back emboldened.

Again, Compstat has been controversial as critics allege that the constant pressure placed on precinct commanders (responsible for an average of 100,000 residents) to reduce crime can lead to falsified reporting rates in order to show improvements.

But new research comparing the official police statistics with independent sources, such as the National Crime Victimisation Survey and the New York City Medical Examiner, show similar dramatic falls in crimes during the same period.

I would be very surprised if the Malaysian police have not caught up with the NYPD policing technology and tactics and how they can be adapted to our situation.

I first learnt about it when I attended a Harvard Business School course for non-profit organisations some 10 years ago where the “broken windows theory” was presented as a case study of successful problem solving.

I was alerted, too, to the controversy as a few black men and women from New York City challenged the professors definition of success as this assertive policing style had also led to victimisation, racism and increased police brutality of minority communities.

These issues are now being dealt with by Giulanis successors.

A cut on aggressive “stop and frisk” tactics was ordered and police officers were required to meet with local business leaders and community organisations regularly to maintain good contact, find out problems and help to solve them.

Personal security and public safety are fundamental to a civil society and our general sense of well-being.

I would loathe to see the neighbourhoods of Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya beginning to look like Johannesburg where the middle-class, white and black, have resorted to barricades and private security guards and created their own no-go zones for outsiders.

The lesson of New York City is that assertive and effective policing, combined with improved community relations, have led to a lower crime rate and better quality of life.

This has led to a revitalised city, with residents working closely with the police to maintain public safety and deter crimes.

It is bad enough to be a victim of a crime, but worse when you have no confidence that the police and the criminal justice system are able to tackle it. Even worse is if it gives you no hope that the future will be better.

New York in America: Big Evil Country. Don’t follow western culture. Yadda yadda yadda…