Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mayors and Murder: Michael Nutter Takes the Helm in Philadelphia

"The streets are safe in Philadelphia -- it's only the people that make them unsafe." Frank Rizzo

The surprising come from behind candidacy of Michael Nutter, Philadephia's mayor-elect, is a potent reminder that long before the war on terror (and existing on a more primal stage of our political unconscious) the war on crime had reshaped American politics and especially the role of the executive as crime leader. Nutter,formerly a city council representative, won the crucial Democratic primary last spring after coming from the back of a five candidate pack and went on to win the general election this month by a record setting landslide of 86 percent. According to Ian Urbina's reporting in the NYTimes, Nutter's campaign took off after he began promising a crack down in gun violence and specifically to declare certain neighborhoods to be in a "state of emergency" permitting street closures and curfews to be imposed. He also promised a "stop and frisk" strategy to use police to find guns on young men. (Interestingly the wiki-pedia entry on Nutter hardly mentions crime).

For the first election cycle in several, a spike in homicides, including the deaths of police officers, made murder a central problem through which Philadelphian's imagined their future. Not only does fear of violence have a remarkable way of concentrating the imagination of citizens (to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holme's famous quip about hanging)but long before Dick Cheney occupied the Vice President's house in Washington, crime fighting mayors and police chiefs (or both) had ceased the mantle of emergency rule to promise aggressive plans to police city streets.

Like Corey Booker in Newark [see an earlier post], and City Attorney Dennis Herrera in San Francisco [see my earlier post], Mayor Nutter has discovered that violent crime can be like steroids for building political muscle. But as Nutter, a council member who once specialized in issues of property and redevelopment, surely knows, muscle backed fists are poor tools for governing the complex fiscal dilemmas of major cities. All can hope that the spikes in violence which began before, or at least early in, their terms, will turn down (as the laws of statistics suggest they will) on their watch. But they can also keep going up.

The particular tactics embraced by Nutter, neighborhood states of emergency and stop and frisk policing are different but they both share an important truth, violent crime almost always has its origins in locally anchored disputes among individuals and small networks of peers who are known to each other and to others. This truth suggests that mayors and police almost always in a better position to address violent crime than governors, state legislatures, let alone national politicians.

But local problems require solutions crafted to local conditions and both of these tactics are off the shelf of nationally promoted crime prevention strategies (with the talent available in Philadelphia between Penn and Temple alone, Nutter could do better). If forced to choose between the two, I'd put my money on "stop and frisk." pol Declaring states of emergency in narrowly defined sections of the city is a highly symbolic gesture, marked by closing streets and issuing dramatic court orders against gang members, but as a practical matter has little likelihood of bringing down violence rates. Young men with guns aren't stupid and they aren't compelled to remain in the designated crack down zones. Look for gun play to spill over into other neighborhoods if this is relied on.

Stop and frisk is really nothing more or less than the practice of preventive policing. Rather than responding to citizen requests (911 calls), police patrol areas where they expect potential homicide victims and perpetrators to be gathering. When they encounter individuals that they believe may be involved in crimes (past, present or future) police may "stop" them for a brief period of questions. If they have a reasonable belief that the person may be carrying a gun (or any weapon that could be used against them), the police may "frisk" the suspect, passing their hands over their outer-clothing, but in a manner calculated to feel any weapons in or under those clothes. Stop and frisk may reduce violence by discouraging young men in high crime areas (who are the most likely to be subjected to this technique) from carrying guns during their trips through the city. Just making the guns less available can reduce the number of occasions where situational disputes lead to violence.

On the other hand, stop and frisk can exacerbate the mistrust that may already exist in Philadephia's poor neighborhoods. If it is seen as racial profiling, stop and frisk may backfire, even on an African American Mayor.