What should the police to do when their constituents beg them to maintain order? Ignore them?
It is starting to dawn on at least some members of the press that law-abiding residents of inner-city areas desperately want the police to maintain order in their neighborhoods.
“Please help me,” a gas station owner in West Baltimore begged his local police commander during a recent police-community meeting attended by a Washington Post reporter. The gas station’s parking lot had been overrun with loiterers and had been the site of a fatal gang shooting, following a Justice Department report that had accused the Baltimore Police Department of racism.
The Justice Department had singled out for particular opprobrium the police practice of trying to “clear corners” of loiterers and trespassers in high-crime areas. Such loitering enforcement merely oppresses minority communities, according to the federal lawyers. Black Lives Matter activists, academics, and the press have leveled that same charge repeatedly over the last two years. (See, for instance, an op-ed titled “Romanticizing Broken Windows Policing,” by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, or the New York Times editorial “Broken Window, Broken Lives.”) These critics have claimed that corner-clearing and other forms of so-called broken-windows policing are invidiously intended to “control African-American and poor communities,” in the words of Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt.
This critique of public-order enforcement ignores a fundamental truth: It’s the people who live in high-crime areas who petition for “corner-clearing.” The police are simply obeying their will. And when the police back off of such order-maintenance strategies under the accusation of racism, it is the law-abiding poor who pay the price.
The Post reporter, to his credit, accurately captured the demands of those vulnerable residents:
The 40 or so longtime residents who gathered in a West Baltimore church basement on this August night — many of whom were older black women afraid to walk to the store or leave their homes at night — had come to urge police to clear their corners of miscreants and restore order to their crime-plagued community.
A 67-year-old social worker worried that if the convenience stores in her neighborhood received permission to operate around the clock, they would become hangouts for youth. “We’ll need more police to watch it,” she told the commanders. When crowds of teens hang out on corners, she said, residents have no option but to call the police.
The Washington Post is not the only newspaper to belatedly notice the grassroots source of order-maintenance policing. The Baltimore Sun wrote a story on “corner-clearing” after the Justice Department report, and stumbled across the same inconvenient fact: It is locals who urge the police to enforce trespassing and loitering laws. A 54-year-old grandmother told the Sun why she had posted a “No Loitering” sign in her window: “If I come home from work, ain’t nobody supposed to be sitting on my steps,’ Sophia McMurray said. “I don’t even sit on my steps.” Ms. McMurray understands something that eludes the activists and academics: Out of street disorder grows more serious crime. She doesn’t want groups of teens hanging out, she said, because she wants her “grandkids to be in a safe environment.”
The Sun also heard from the beleaguered owner of a local copy store. After the Freddie Gray riots in April 2016, the Baltimore police virtually stopped enforcing drug laws and other low-level offenses. Shootings spiked, along with loitering and other street disorder. The scene outside the copy store got so threatening that the owner, June Crisp, painted the admonition “No loitering. No sitting on steps. Violators will be arrested” on the steps leading to his store and obtained an official No Loitering placard from his local councilman.
“After the riots, it got bad, like the drug dealers were having conventions on this block,” Crisp told the Sun. “All this drug activity, it scares people away. Legitimate people, honest people.” Crisp calls the police if the people hanging out in front of his store don’t leave. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he told the paper. “I’m trying to make money. I’m trying to pay my bills.”
It is impossible to attend a police-community meeting in a high-crime area without hearing some variant on these heartfelt requests for public order. Through hard experience, the law-abiding residents of gang- and drug-plagued areas perceive large groups of people hanging out as a threat. In April 2016, a 17-year-old girl in Coney Island, Brooklyn, Ta’Jae Warner, tried to protect her brother from a group of girls gathered outside her apartment building who were threatening to kill him; one of the group knocked Ta’Jae unconscious, and she hit her head on the pavement. She was taken off life support four days later and died.
On March 25, 2016, two groups of youths were fighting on a street corner on Chicago’s West Side. One of the teens started shooting at his rivals, instead hitting 13-year-old Zarriel Trotter, an innocent bystander, in his back near his spine. The bullet punctured Zarriel’s intestines.
In a community-council meeting in the 41st precinct of the South Bronx in June 2015 that I attended, residents complained repeatedly about large groups of youth hanging out on corners. “There’s too much fighting,” one woman said. “There were more than 100 kids the other day; they beat on a girl about 14 years old.” Another man asked: “Why are they hanging out in crowds on the corners? No one does anything about it. Can’t you arrest them for loitering? They’re perched there like birds.” A middle-aged man wondered: “Do truant officers exist anymore?”
At a meeting in the 23rd precinct in East Harlem in 2015 that I observed, residents asked why the police hadn’t stopped a recent stampede of youth down Third Avenue.
Several years ago, an elderly lady in the 32nd precinct in Harlem proudly reported to her precinct commander that her building had just gone co-op. But kids had colonized her stoop. “What ever happened to loitering laws?” she asked.
In 2013, I spoke with an elderly cancer amputee in the Mt. Hope section of the Bronx. She was terrified to go to her apartment lobby because of the loiterers hanging out around and in her building. If the loiterers gain access, she said, all hell breaks loose: “You can smell their stuff in the hallway; they’re cussing and urinating.” The only time she felt safe was when the police had cleared the area: “As long as you see the police, everything’s A-okay. . . . You can come down and get your mail and talk to decent people.”
This observed support for public-order enforcement is backed up by polling data. In a Quinnipiac poll from 2015, slightly more black than white voters in New York City said they want the police to “actively issue summonses or make arrests” in their neighborhood for quality-of-life offenses: 61 percent of black voters wanted such summons and arrests, with 33 percent opposed, versus 59 percent of white voters in support, with 37 percent opposed.
The wider public is clueless about the social breakdown in high-crime areas and its effect on street life. The drive-by shootings, the open-air drug-dealing, and the volatility and brutality of those large groups of uncontrolled kids are largely unknown outside of inner-city areas. Ideally, informal social controls, above all the family, preserve public order. But when the family disintegrates, the police are the second-best solution for protecting the law-abiding. (That family disintegration now frequently takes the form of the chaos that social scientists refer to as “multi-partner fertility,” in which females have children by several different males and males have children by several different females, dashing hopes for any straightforward reuniting of biological mothers and fathers.)
This year in Chicago alone, through August 30, 12 people have been shot a day, for a tally of 2,870 shooting victims, 490 of them killed. (By contrast, the police shot 17 people through August 30, or 0.6 percent of the total.) The reason for this mayhem is that cops have backed off of public-order enforcement. Pedestrian stops are down 90 percent. “The streets are gone,” the head of Chicago’s police union, Dean Angelo, told me earlier in August. “The cops are driving by people on the drug corners, they’re not sweeping the corners anymore.”
“Police legitimacy” is a hot topic among academic critics of the police these days. Those critics have never answered the question: What should the police do when their constituents beg them to maintain order? Should the cops ignore them? There would be no surer way to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the people who need them most.
— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The War on Cops.