Joe Abbin is a 36 year veteran of the Albuquerque Police Department Reserve Unit. He is a strong proponent of community policing and served as a member of the Foothills Community Policing Council from 2015 to 2018 and served as Chairman of the Council in 2019. Mr. Abbin is the author of ABQ Blues: Crime and Policing in Albuquerque, NM. In his book he reviews the function of the various elements of the criminal justice system in general and offers his analyses of the ills associated with the local system and its parts. He concentrates on what can be done to improve policing and police-community relations on the way to reducing crime in Albuquerque.
EDITOR’S DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are those of Joseph P. Abbin and do not necessarily reflect those of the political blog www.petedinelli.com. Mr. Abbin was not compensated for his guest column.
Between 1990 and 2009, New York City reduced its homicide rate by an astonishing 82%, its auto theft rate by 94%, and all crime rates by a minimum of 63% from their peaks. NYC became “one of the safest big cities in the world” per “The City That Became Safe”. (Reference 1).
The NYC crime rate reduction was almost double the nationwide improvement during the same period. Nationwide improvement was driven by major crackdowns and reforms at the federal level (e.g. the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and later legislation). Reference 1 outlines the NYC crime reduction measures and reviews their effectiveness. The author concludes that none of the NYC declines were accounted for by significant changes in demographics or other social trends, and that the total incarceration numbers actually shrank.
ABOUT “THE CITY THAT BECAME SAFE”
The author, Franklin Zimring, is a law professor and Chair of the Criminal Justice Research Program at UC Berkeley. In this book, he takes a deep dive into the NYC statistics and attempts to rigorously determine which changes were or were not instrumental in NYC’s remarkable crime reduction. He found it difficult to rank the effectiveness of the measures NYC implemented, since many were initiated at about the same time. So what worked? The book concludes the “NYC Effect” resulted from substantial increases in police manpower, but more importantly from massive changes in police crime fighting policy, tactics, and management. Arrest and incarceration as crime fighting tools came under new scrutiny. The findings are believed relevant for reducing crime in any city, including Albuquerque. (Reference 1)
MAJOR FINDINGS FROM “THE CITY THAT BECAME SAFE”
In the following paragraphs, I summarize some of the major findings of the book and add my own comments based on my 36 year police experience as an APD reserve police officer. I visited NYC often from 1966-1971 and infrequently later, so I have some firsthand knowledge of the city and their struggle. Direct quotes from the book are in italics.
“Through 2009, NYC homicides declined 82% from their peak and auto theft declined an astounding 94%! All crimes were reduced from their peak by a minimum of 63%” (page 4).
“None of the declines can be accounted for by significant changes in demographics and immigration (pages 56, 60, and 65), by economic trends (page 65) including unemployment trends (page 68 and 70), poverty alleviation efforts (page 69), other social trends such as the rise of single parent families (page 71) and changes in high school graduation rates (page 71). Likewise NYC achieved its double dose of crime reduction with a “much smaller reliance on incarceration (page 75).”
Zimring does not clearly distinguish between the different levels of arrest and incarceration. These are clarified in Reference 2. Incarceration for over a year usually takes place in prison, and is generally reserved for convicted felons. Incarceration for less than a year usually takes place in jail or detention centers, and is usually reserved for those convicted of misdemeanors (less serious crime), and those awaiting trial for both felonies and misdemeanors.
As NYC’s incarceration rate for misdemeanors went up, the incarceration rate for felonies went down at a faster rate, thus reducing the overall incarceration rates (Reference 2). This is a profound result. Using the opposite approach to incarceration, Albuquerque has utilized little or no incarceration for misdemeanors in recent years! Indeed, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) issued special orders discouraging arrest and pursuit for most misdemeanors. The result: higher serious and minor crime.
Incredibly, in the middle of a major crime wave, the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) is more than half empty, the previous Westside Overflow Detention Facility has been re-purposed, and the older Bernalillo County Detention Center (BCDC) is scheduled for demolition. ABQ is far from jail overcrowding and “mass incarceration”. Meanwhile, the criminals are on the streets!
NYC’s findings in the 1990-2009 period are extraordinary and upend much of the current “wisdom” as to the causes and remedies for crime.
Unfortunately, in the last two years, NYC has backpedaled on their 1990 – 2009 approach to crime and has suffered predictably poor results. On January 1, 2020 NYC released 3800 prisoners from Riker’s Island (NYC jail) as part of Prison Reform and Bail Reform efforts. James O’Neil, the NYC Police Commissioner quit on the same day predicting disaster. The disaster materialized immediately and is gaining momentum. “New York City’s homicide rate has hit a five-year high as the amount of people shot has jumped 42 percent compared to last year on the heels of an implosion of the city’s judicial system…..”, and “we cannot keep people safe without keeping bad, dangerous, people off the streets” per current NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea (Reference 4). Just a year earlier, Commissioner O’Niel and Mayor DeBlasio visited ABQ touting NYC as the “safest big city in the world” due in large part to their policing and incarceration strategies.
NYC is apparently trying to re-learn what works or doesn’t. They/we forgot valuable lessons. Soft on crime has never worked in the past, so why are NYC and ABQ pursuing this approach again? The cost to society is far greater than the cost of incarceration of criminals. Read on!
MORE ON WHAT DID ACCOUNT FOR THE MAJOR CRIME REDUCTION IN NYC
“There was real and substantial change in the number of police, in the mission and tactics of street policing, and in the way that the nation’s largest police force was organized and governed (page 100).” Even though NYC and ABQ differ in important ways, we can study their changes to determine if they might be achievable in Albuquerque and have similar outcomes. (Reference 1)
In 1994, NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton, and Jack Maple, his deputy, “initiated the COMPSTAT process (short for COMPare STATistics) to collect and analyze crime data and other police performance measures, to create and implement best-practice strategies to address identifiable issues, and to hold police managers and employees accountable for their performance. The wide variety of NYPD strategic and tactical changes originating from this process are credited with much of NYC’s crime fighting success (page 117).
The APD has adopted their version of COMPSTAT, which has yet to demonstrate its effectiveness, but seems to be a step forward from previous crime analysis efforts. A major part of NYC’s success resulted from holding upper police management accountable for crime fighting success in their area commands. This seems to be lacking in the APD, especially at the lower levels of management. Field officers are not adequately held accountable or rewarded for their individual performance, or lack thereof.
Officers are no longer responsible for a beat (designated neighborhoods within an area command), but are considered area wide assets (which they always were to a large extent, but they had primary responsibility for a much smaller area). This diffuses responsibility and evaluation of results. Their reward system does not promote excellence. Mid-level management belongs to the same union as line officers, which greatly inhibits effective management. See Chapters 6 and 7 in “ABQ Blues,” (Reference 5). Operational compliance to DOJ mandated police reforms has been lagging. See “Compliance Levels of the APD and the City of ABQ with the Requirements of the CASA,” IMR-12 and earlier, 9/20, (Reference 6).
“A further shift worthy of independent mention was emphasis and rewards for aggressiveness in street policing…….the basic methodology is to take control of potentially threatening situations by street stops ….and by making arrests for minor offenses as a way to remove perceived risks from the street and to identify persons wanted for other crimes (page 118).” The APD has taken the opposite approach, and is essentially de-policing in an effort to avoid use of force and jail crowding. Arrest and pursuit are actively discouraged. Citations are recommended for minor crimes, but many citations result in failures to appear generating over one hundred thousand outstanding warrants. This is an important factor in ABQ’s high crime rates and guarantees results counter to NYC’s results.
While incarceration was not the dominant method of crime control, it concedes that “even while felony arrests were falling in New York City, misdemeanor arrests continued to increase substantially…. even with a lower crime rate and a somewhat smaller police force (page 170).” (Reference 1) One might conclude that if you make minor crime accountable, you will deter major crime. The emphasis is on arrest, not the duration of incarceration. Most arrests involve at least limited incarceration with accompanying identification of the arrestee and contact info. As noted before, misdemeanors by definition require that any jail sentence will be a year or less, unlike felony prison sentences which can be a year or more, including life. Again, NYC’s and my own experience demonstrate that arrests, not necessarily the duration of confinement, are an important aspect of crime deterrent/control.
Zimring goes on to say, “…most criminal offenders seem responsive to modest and even temporary alterations in the environment of the city…..small changes in their environments could produce big changes in the number of serious crimes they commit (page 195).” This is related to the preceding paragraphs. Criminals and the public take notice when the police are active and appear to be in charge. Everybody in the neighborhood notices when arrests are being made, whether associated with a current crime or for past crime warrants. The word gets around fast.
“While total felony arrests dropped by more than 50,000 from 1990-2009, the volume of misdemeanor arrests more than doubled from 118,434 in 1990 to 235,131 in 2009. That meant that the arrest volume for all offenses increased 48% while the population increased only 12% and the crime rate set world records for decline” (page 210) and the total prison population declined. These statistics back up the value of misdemeanor arrests. ABQ has chosen issuing citations/summons instead of arrests for most misdemeanors. Our city’s high crime rates and huge numbers of outstanding arrest warrants for failure to appear demonstrate that this approach doesn’t work.
Dealing with previously designated “broken windows” offenses such as gambling and prostitution did not merit large police resources or deter more serious crime in NYC. This led some criminologists to declare that the “broken windows” philosophy had been debunked. However, Zimring disagrees, “.. broken windows policing (dealing with minor crime) reduces felony crime (page 229).” Dealing with other seemingly minor offenses such as subway turnstile jumping and petty theft, greatly discouraged more serious crime in NYC. The analogs in ABQ would be traffic enforcement and arrest for most other misdemeanors including shop lifting. In addition, serving outstanding warrants lets criminals know we haven’t forgotten them.
“The rate of misdemeanor arrests has a significant impact on two offenses, auto theft and robbery (page 230).” This is a major finding that is directly relevant to ABQ. ABQ is in the major city top five for both auto theft and robbery crime rates.
“There is a serious problem that is inherent when police are responsible for collecting and auditing crime statistics because they are also interested parties in the outcome. Outside scrutiny is absolutely essential, and may not be enough,” and “Homicides and auto thefts are the most easily verified (page 233).” Our city’s gross misstatement of our crime rates for 2019 demonstrated that this is true.
THE GOOD NEWS
“The most important lesson of the last two decades (1991-2009) is that very high rates of violent crime are not hard-wired into the populations, cultures, and institutions of big cities in the US (page xi).”
“New York’s experience ….. proves that targeted violence-prevention policies can reduce drug violence and reclaim public areas from drug anarchy without all-out drug wars (page xi).”
“The New York difference attributable to policing is an achievable target for major cities all over the country…. (page 158).”
“We now know that life threatening crime is not an incurable urban disease in the United States (page 217).”
In other words, any city can drastically reduce crime like NYC did! My personal opinion and experience indicates that Albuquerque can do this in a Constitutional manner.
ABQ can be the safest city in the Southwest. We have little to lose, and much to gain!
REDUCING VIOLENT CRIME AND INCARCERATION IN ABQ
As noted previously, NYC drastically reduced crime from 1990-2009 while at the same time reducing the need for incarceration. Amazing! The key finding was that increasing incarceration rates for minor crimes (misdemeanors) resulted in reducing incarceration rates for major crimes (felonies) to the extent that total incarceration numbers were actually reduced! This finding validates the concept that if you deal with the small stuff, the big stuff will take care of itself.
In ABQ we have chosen to do the opposite. We have chosen not to arrest, prosecute, or incarcerate for most misdemeanors (the small stuff). And guess what? Serious crime (the big stuff) is lingering at record high levels. Generally, convicted misdemeanor offenders are incarcerated in jails (e.g. our Metropolitan Detention Center) instead of prison. Looking at our MDC jail population vs. ABQ major crime rate demonstrates the effect of incarcerating or not incarcerating minor crime offenders. Reducing the MDC population by half since 2013 almost doubled the major crime rate by 2017 and these levels have remained for the last four years!
Bottom line: Detention is prevention! Arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate where appropriate.
1) The City That Became Safe – New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, Franklin E. Zimring, Oxford University Press, 2012
2) How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration – A Model for Change, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, James Austin, et. all, 2013
3) 14 Things Cops Need to Know to Successfully Use “Stop and Frisk”, John Michael Callahan, Police 1, https:// www.police1.com/investigations/articles/
4) NYC’s Criminal Justice System is Imploding, NBC news, Tom Winter and Jonathan Dienst, 6/24/20, https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/nycs-criminal-justice-system-is-imploding-nypd-boss-says-as-homicides-hit-5-year-high/2483376/
5) ABQ Blues – Crime and Policing in Albuquerque, NM, Joe Abbin, Motorhead Mart, 2018 (out of print but available at the Albuquerque Public Library)
6) Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA), September 2020 and earlier, https://www.cabq.gov/police/documents-related-to-apds-settlement-agreement