Monday, December 28, 2009

Rudy Giuliani and the majestic equality of the law

The poor have to labor in the face of the majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.

                                                                                       - Anatole France

Rudy sees a panhandler and imagines bloody murder.

Well, it’s official. The city of Rio de Janeiro will probably hire Rudy Giulani to tell us how to clean up our town for the Olympics. Let me tell you why this is a bad idea.

Rudy’s good at tooting his own horn and, to hear the man talk, he got rid of crime in the Big Apple in only 6 years by instituting a “zero tolerance” policy. According to Rudy, “It’s the logic of the broken window. You should fix it first before another is broken. In New York we tackled problems showing the population that disorder is not the example to be followed.”

Wonderful theory. In practice, however, what it means is that what Rudy did was simply apply Anatole France’s “majestic law” by basically outlawing poverty in Manhattan. “Disorder” was simply defined as behaviors that poor people engage in far more often than rich people and the police were then set to crack the heads of the “disorderly”.

Panhandling – asking for spare change on the street – was declared disorderly, as was being homeless or sleeping in subways and pissing on the street. Jaywalking was declared disorderly, as was prostitution and graffiti writing. Manhattan was thus made a free zone for those who had the disposable income to follow every city ordinance to the letter. Those who didn’t quickly learned to stay away.

And, by god, it turns out that in a capitalist society, if you get rid of the lumpen and ride tight herd on the working class, why crime does indeed go down – at least crime of the squalid, individualist sort (white collar crime unfortunately probably grew during the period: ain’t that right Bernie Madoff?)

But did Rudy really rid New York of crime? Let’s take a look at the facts…

Rudy was Mayor of New York from 1994 to 2002. Crime had already been dropping nationwide and in the New York region for several years before Giuliani took office and it continued to do so throughout Giuliani’s terms as mayor. The most intensive phase of Giuliani’s “zero tolerance”, however, occurred under the reign of Police Commissioner Bill Braton, from 1994-1996. Now take a look at what happens to crime in New York City and the neighboring city of Newark New Jersey from 1994 to 1996: it drops a bit in NYC but leaps up in Newark. For Brazilian readers not familiar with American geography, let me point out that Newark is just across the river from NYC. What was going on here was that a significant amount of criminal behavior seems to have migrated across the river from New York City.

In the following years, however, one can see that even crime in Newark took a big drop downwards. By 2002, at the end of Giuliani’s time in office, crime stats had dropped by about 50% in each city. Hold on, though: those stats are somewhat misleading. Note that in both non-Giuliani Newark and Giuliani-led NYC, violent crime dropped by almost exactly the same amount over the same period. Meanwhile, even in chaotic, poorly-administered, crime ridden Washington DC, violent crime dropped by about 30% during the same period. So while Rudy’s policies after 1996 may indeed have impacted upon crime, it’s doubtful whether they were responsible for the majority of the decrease, which seems to have been caused by an improving economy and demographic changes (i.e. more rich people living downtown and more poor and desperate people being shunted off to jail or to suburbs, where social chaos doesn’t impact on major city crime stats).

But the big thing Rudy introduced in New York and which most analysts seem to agree has had an impacted on crime has been CompStat. Those of you who have watched the hit T.V. series The Wire should be aware of what I’m talking about. That’s right: Rudy was responsible for bringing that CompStat into the world.

CompStat – or computer statistics is a management tool which pretty much allows police departments unprecedented control over crime statistics. Proponents claim that it allows police to quickly see and get atop of emerging crime patterns. Detractors claim that it can easily be abused to manipulate crime data so that improvements appear to be occurring where none actually occur.

CompStat vastly increases sensitivity to crime statistics all up and down the policing hierarchy and this, in turn, creates the sensation that “the numbers are everything”, which can lead to some fast and tricky play with the books. For example, a department which records 100 aggravated assaults and 400 cases of simple assaults in a year can easily create an illusory sense of improvement by using CompStat meetings to push for the qualitative reclassification of these crimes. If police manage to reclassify 75 aggravated assaults as simple, they can create the illusion of a huge drop in crime when, in fact, not much has happened.

In fact, CompStat has already been implemented in Brazil – in São Paulo – and, true to expectations, crime stats have dropped drastically. CompStat true believers will, of course, say this points out the system’s excellence. Anyone who understands the history of policing in Brazil, however, has cause to doubt that such a huge drop could, in fact, occur practically overnight simply through the implementation of what is effectively crime mapping. An integral component of the CompStat process is that it creates an enormous amount of “accountability” and thus competition between departments. The temptation to doctor statistics in such an environment is enormous and, of course, there’s no independent oversight to the process: we basically accept – or don’t accept – what the cops tell us.

But hey, the Military Police of Brazil would never lie to us, the citizenry, would they? Just looking at their corporate history should be enough to quell the doubts in any loyal citizens heart. If you know what’s good for you, that is…

Compared to Rio and São Paulo’s cops, the NYPD is a model of liberality and respect for human rights. Even so, the implementation of “zero tolerance” and CompStat on Mayor Rudy’s watch led to a distinctly human rights unfriendly environment. Several unarmed suspects were tortured and killed by the NYPD on Rudy’s watch, the most notorious case being the that of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was brutally sodomized by New York’s finest with a broken broomstick after being picked up for disorderly conduct in 1997. The general atmosphere of the Giuliani reign in New York was one of extreme disrespect for the rights of any human being who couldn’t afford a top-notch lawyer.

So this is the model which we are about to import to Rio de Janeiro, a city whose record of police violence and corruption is extremely well-documented. To the PM’s armored cars and assault helicopters, we shall now add an official ideology that sees any infraction as tantamount to murder and a computer statistics management program which will allow the police an unprecedented amount of control over the crime rate (on paper, if not in actuality).

What we are set to see is another assault on the poor of this city in the name of “hygiene” and “order”, the likes of which has not been seen since the Pereira Passos period in the early 20th century.

Is it too much to wonder whether the result will not be another revolt on the order of the Revolta da Vacina…?


  1. " And, by god, it turns out that in a capitalist society, if you get rid of the lumpen and ride tight herd on the working class, why crime does indeed go down – at least crime of the squalid, individualist sort ....."

    well, by god, that is just what the communists do

    your point of veiw smell like bullshit

  2. Yeah, it is what state capitalist societies like the USSR and Cuba and China do.

    So WHY do you want to see such a thing happen in the U.S. or Brazil, Anon?