By Heather Mac Donald
From the Manhattan Institute
Tuesday, July 15, 2008 12:00 AM
Sen. Barack Obama had a little something for everyone in his speech last month to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. For those skeptical of the government's ability to engineer community renewal, he asserted that "change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up." For those who look to Washington to solve cities' problems, however, he promised to appoint the "first White House Director of Urban Policy." His welcome emphasis on rebuilding the public-works infrastructure invoked an appropriate government function. But his claim that state and local governments can "plan and grow regional economies" appealed to the constituency that still believes that bureaucrats, not entrepreneurs, are best placed to make market decisions.
For all his effort to touch an array of policy bases, Obama ignored the single most effective urban policy of the last decade: accountable, data-driven policing. The conquest of crime has done more to revive troubled cities than any other government policy of the last 40 years.
Many American cities began their decades-long decline in the 1960s, when crime started spiraling out of control. Businesses fled, as did residents who could afford to. The law-abiding poor who were left behind lived in a nightmare zone of fear and stunted mobility and opportunity. The received wisdom of the Great Society held that crime could be lowered only by eliminating its "root causes": poverty and racism. There was a massive build-up of means-tested welfare programs, which have totaled $10.3 trillion since 1965. Sadly, many police leaders were only too happy to accept a marginal role in fighting crime; they embraced the root-causes theory of crime as enthusiastically as the growing poverty bureaucracy.
But in New York City in the 1990s, Police Commissioner William Bratton and a group of hard-charging reformers embraced the iconoclastic idea that policing could in fact radically lower crime. The N.Y.P.D. pioneered an array of techniques to provide precinct commanders with the most up-to-date information on crime patterns and to constantly evaluate which crime-fighting strategies actually worked. Most important, commanders were held ruthlessly accountable for crime in their jurisdictions. The results were startling: From 1993 to 1997, major felonies in New York City dropped 41 percent and homicides 60 percent -- a record unmatched anywhere else at the time.
With crime in freefall, New York, almost universally viewed as moribund in the early 1990s, roared back to life. Not only the central business districts of Manhattan experienced this rebirth; businesses poured into predominantly minority areas in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The residents of these once-troubled neighborhoods experienced freedom of movement and economic opportunities that had been deemed permanently lost.
The federal government has only a limited role to play in fighting urban crime. The best urban renewal strategy Obama could adopt would be to rebut the false charge that the criminal justice system is racist. Study after study has shown that the criminal justice system responds to the crime and the criminal history of the offender, not to his race. The high black incarceration rate is more a reflection of the disproportionate rate of black offending than it is of bias on the part of the police, prosecutors, judges or juries.
The next president should also lift the federal consent decrees that the Justice Department has needlessly imposed on police departments. Those federal mandates force police departments to squander resources on endless paperwork that should be put onto the streets. And to the extent that federal resources flow to local police departments, the Justice Department should deemphasize its terrorist funding and mandates, and refocus its attention on the fight against street crime.
Some of Obama's urban strategies are worthy, especially his call for infrastructure improvement. But the natural dynamism of cities needs little encouragement from Washington -- so long as the entrepreneurs and residents who flock to them can live free from the fear of crime.
Heather Mac Donald is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to its magazine, City Journal.