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Toward a new intolerance of crime and violence.

Fearing crime, or becoming one of its victims, is to lose a fair measure of freedom in a democratic society. And, my premise is that we have gotten far too accustomed to, and accepting of, crime and violence.

The public and law enforcement alike have acquired a new tolerance to both. Why? Perhaps the numbers are just too overwhelming. Perhaps it's because we know that law enforcement can't work miracles. We know that the problems that land on the doorstep of law enforcement stem from vast social failures that the police alone will never solve.

Yet, the police can't withdraw either. We are engaged in addressing society's worst problems, and the public looks to us for solutions. They look to us for leadership. We can ill-afford to become numb to violence and the community erosion it causes. People rely on the police to make a difference.

I believe the vehicles to help us regain some ground over violent crime are there. One is gun control; the other is community policing. We need to focus on both to make the kind of breakthrough that will make measurable differences in public safety.

There's no doubt about how violent we've become. The homicide rate in America is now about 10 for every 100,000 Americans. In Canada, the rate is 5 for every 100,000 Canadians, and in Japan, it's less than 1.

The fact is that we have become too tolerant of murder. In New York City, there has somehow arisen a new benchmark for homicides. Over 2,000 homicides a year is considered bad; up to 2,000 is somehow "expected" or "acceptable." The old chestnut of laying things end-to-end to get a sense of proportion becomes frighteningly macabre when you realize that 2,000 bodies laid end-to-end would stretch for over 2 miles.

So, of course, it is not acceptable...simply familiar. We have grown accustomed to the staggering numbers.

We were not always as tolerant. In an issue of The American Scholar, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan writes how shocked the America of 1929 was when seven mobsters were murdered on St. Valentine's Day. "It would appear," Senator Moynihan wrote, "that the society in the 1920s was simply not willing to put up with this degree of deviancy." But now, it seems, we are. The fact is: Our larger cities regularly reach a body count of one-half dozen or more over 2- and 3-day periods, but rarely do we call them "massacres" anymore.

Society's increasing tolerance of crime and antisocial behavior, in general, is abetting our own enslavement. The erosion of freedom caused by crime is so pervasive that we are in danger of failing to notice it at all.

It is an accepted practice that the elderly stay home at night. They are easy prey, so they make themselves scarce. They check before getting into elevators. Women of all ages take similar precautions. And, increasingly, we worry about our children's safety going to and from school, and even in school.

No one is immune. A New York City police officer who chased a troublesome teenager away from a school was shot the next day by the same boy, who ambushed him from a nearby rooftop. When the boy observed that he wounded the police officer in the foot, he complained to a friend that "I wanted to get him in the cabbage,..." meaning the head. Yet, we seem to be growing immune to the existence of such sociopaths.

There is an expectation of crime in our lives. We are in danger of becoming captive to that expectation and to a new tolerance of criminal behavior, not only in regard to violent crime.

A number of years ago, there began to appear in the windows of automobiles parked on the streets of American cities signs that read "no radio." Rather than express outrage, or even annoyance, at the possibility of a car break-in, people tried to communicate with the potential thief in conciliatory terms. The translation of "no radio" signs is, "Please break into someone else's car. There's nothing in mine."

These "no radio" signs were flags of urban surrender. They were hand-written capitulations. Today, instead of "no radio" signs, we need new signs that say "no surrender."

Another disturbing indicator of our new tolerance has to do with the omnipresence of guns. We see it in people who show up at community meetings to ask if the police can help to get metal detectors installed in their schools. When people ask for metal detectors in the way they used to ask for more library books, then you know your tolerance level is way too high.

For certain, we have become far too tolerant of guns. The police and the public should insist on a new level of intolerance. And we should insist that Congress adopt the strictest of gun control measures possible.

Now is the time for Congress to end all the talk on gun control and enact any number of measures to stop the carnage that guns--especially handguns--are causing. Those of us in law enforcement need to play an important role in that regard.

It is time to call the bluff of the vaunted gun lobby. We should hold it accountable, at least in part, for the mounting body count.

The gun lobby talks about individual freedom. But, they help to rob us of freedom, the freedom from fear. They fill the halls of Congress with the rhetoric of liberation. But, who is liberated when arsenals of drug dealers, streets gangs, and psychopaths are protected? The fact is that the number of guns in private hands about doubles in America every 20 years to the point where there are now over 200 million guns in circulation, compared to 54 million in 1950.

Right now, there exist well-known proposals that might begin to stem the flood of guns into illegal use--the Brady bill, the banning of assault rifles, the limitation of some ammunition. And, isn't it also time to seriously consider the central registration of all handguns? We register cars everywhere in America, and information about those cars is available through a nationwide computer link. Why not handguns?

There are Federal restrictions and permit requirements for machineguns, but not handguns, even though handguns are doing most of the bloodletting. National registration will help us to trace how guns that are supposed to be sold legally end up in illegal hands.

National registration would produce a trail of ownership. It would produce an interesting trail of civil liability, as well, for persons who sold or disposed of their guns illegally or just recklessly. We need to explore all of these alternatives, and more.

We confiscated nearly 20,000 illegal guns in New York City last year. Ninety percent came from easy-to-purchase States with registration requirements that are nonexistent or dubious, at best. Shouldn't we consider making it a Federal offense to commit a crime with a gun obtained in one State and used in another? There is certainly an interstate nexus that would form the basis for such a law.

Eliminating the abuse of the Federal Firearms License is another area to explore. Over 600 such licenses have been issued to people in New York City, who have no retail outlet whatsoever and who have no New York City gun license. In other words, over 600 individuals have received licenses from the Federal Government to help them to break the law in New York.

If we don't get tougher about gun control, then we shouldn't be surprised by the number of corpses we accumulate. Gun control laws, the stricter the better, are critical. But, I believe that the principal vehicle to stop neighborhood crime and violence is community policing.

The introduction of community policing in New York City is forging strong alliances between the police and the public. It is building a public/police relationship that makes life disagreeable, even dangerous, for criminals.

We have committed the entire police department to community policing. It is not relegated to an experiment or a temporary program. We are putting thousands of additional police officers on neighborhood patrol. We believe the added visibility in the neighborhoods fosters better police and community relations.

Some people said it still wouldn't make a difference in high-crime areas, but we have seen significant declines in major crime categories citywide, including high-crime areas. We are confident that the decline is related to our community policing strategy. Beat cops engaged in community policing have made a measurable impact. In Washington Heights, for example, an upper Manhattan neighborhood with one of the city's most notorious drug problems and its highest homicide rate, a gang known as the Gerri-Curls operated a murderous reign of terror until their turf became part of Officer James Gilmore's beat. The gang bought and sold large quantities of cocaine, traded guns, maintained gang discipline through violence, and intimidated some potential witnesses and killed others.

Using a variety of community policing strategies, Officer Gilmore persuaded reluctant witnesses to come forward. He identified previously unidentified gang members and asked the police department's Organized Crime Bureau (OCB) to undertake a full-fledged investigation. OCB, together with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force, broke the gang, sending 20 members to jail.

Similarly, beat cops went after small store owners, who were supporting the area's drug trade through the sale of drug paraphernalia. As a result, they seized 5.5 million crack vials, 250,000 crack pipes, and other items. The store owners were arrested and fined. All the coordinated enforcement activity began with a beat cop.

The assumption that community policing wouldn't make a difference in high-crime areas is based on the cynical view that some areas are beyond salvaging. But, I believe the public, especially those people who have to contend with high levels of violence in their community, is ready to demand adherence to certain levels of civil behavior, and to lower its tolerance of those who violate them. We need to help by committing the kind of resources to community policing that will be felt on the street. More beat cops is one way.

But, beat cops can't embark on community policing alone. They need the resources of police headquarters, city hall, and city government behind them. Community leaders must make that support as strong and as visible as possible. It often takes great courage to do so.

Another thing: Community policing creates expectations of a safer society. It's not something that can be realized overnight. Mistakes will be made, and we will learn from them. You must commit to it over the long haul, and not be discouraged by temporary setbacks.

A final word on gun control: I urge that all of us commit ourselves to passage of the toughest laws possible. If it means banning some guns outright, then help to ban them. If it means central registration for all others, then help to require registration. If it means limiting the frequency of gun purchases, then help to limit them. If it means waiting periods, then help to make them wait.

The point is: As law enforcement executives and concerned citizens, you can help to deliver a message to Congress. And that messages is: Do something!

We need to "do something" to develop a new intolerance of crime and violence. We need to "do something" or lose our freedom to crime and violence. We need to tear up our "no radio" signs and reclaim some dignity. We can be slaves to our metal detectors and car alarms, or we can stage a revolt. I'm for staging a revolt.
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Title Annotation:speech by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly
Author:Kelly, Raymond W.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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