View all Articles
Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Will the Excuse Empire Return?

Public Safety, Cities, Cities, Economics Policing, Crime Control, New York City

New Yorkers have been nervously scrutinizing Mayor-elect Mike Bloomberg’s every action with the intensity of Kremlinologists reading Pravda. Their purpose? To divine Mr. Bloomberg’s intentions regarding the legacy of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

On the plus side, Mr. Bloomberg, who takes office tomorrow, has said that he will make quality-of-life issues a top priority. But Giuliani fans who fear a return to urban chaos have been disconcerted by Mr. Bloomberg’s choice of advisers for his transition committee. To name a few, there’s Luis Garden Acosta, the head of a public high school in Brooklyn that has taught students graffiti for academic credit; Megan E. McLaughlin, a charity director who stridently fought welfare reform; and Dennis Rivera, a union official who along with Al Sharpton orchestrated protests against the New York Police Department in 1999 that grotesquely caricatured the department as racist and brutal.

These and other transition advisers are avatars of New York’s vast excuse empire, and they are undoubtedly planting in Mr. Bloomberg’s ear its founding principle: Certain preferred victim groups cannot be expected to obey the rules that the rest of society lives by.

Poor single mothers, for example, can’t be expected to support children without welfare because of racism; young minority males can’t be held to the law until society eradicates the “root causes” of crime; drug addicts, vagrants and the mentally ill should be allowed to sleep and defecate on the streets because of the evils of capitalism. New York’s conventional wisdom pre-Giuliani held that the enforcement of rules against such preferred victims is neither effective nor fair.

Before Mr. Bloomberg forms too fixed a world-view from his counselors, he should listen to people on the receiving end of Mayor Giuliani’s effort to enforce the law equally regardless of gender, race or class. He would learn that rules work and that they are supported by the very “victim” groups that New York’s advocacy industry purports to speak for.

In October, I talked with some ex-felons who had recently gotten out of prison and were now plotting their course into mainstream society. Returning to the life of crime was not an option, they said, because law enforcement in New York City had become too strict.

“It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” said a man with a ponytail, shaking his head ruefully. “You can’t stand on the corner too long without being confronted by a police officer, and you’d better have an ID.” Kevin, a boyish-looking ex-con with huge tortoise-shell glasses, recalled the halcyon days of trivial penal sentences and the criminal culture they spawned. “In the ’70s and ’80s, all you got was a slap on the wrist. If you didn’t have a game, you was a square,” he reported. “But selling drugs is whack now, with the time they give you now. It took me being up there [in prison] to see that the game is no longer a game.”

This is criminological heresy. Don’t these people know that the police can’t reduce crime until govern

ment ends poverty? Don’t they know that longer sentences have no deterrent effect on lawlessness? Don’t they read the New York Times?

Apparently, these former thugs are just as ignorant as Mr. Giuliani was when he ordered the police to enforce all the laws, including quality of life ordinances, and to question and possibly frisk suspects hanging around drug hot-spots in order to get guns off the streets. Such criminologically incorrect practices produced a 70% drop in murder and a more than 50% drop in violent crime under Mr. Giuliani’s reign.

Mayor-elect Bloomberg’s advisers will be countering such facts with the nostrum that Mr. Giuliani’s crackdown on crime resulted in a war against young black males. Mr. Bloomberg should talk to a few before he believes it.

Last summer, the board that investigates civilian complaints against the police held a forum in Brooklyn in which community members could vent their allegedly boundless anger against police mistreatment. Eleven people showed up. Vernon Jackson, a roly-poly teen, was one of them. His complaint? “When I call the police, they don’t come fast enough.”

Elite thinking in New York holds that virtually every minority male has been harassed by the police, but Vernon merely looks perplexed when I ask him if he’s ever been stopped by the cops.

In fact, it’s easy to find inner-city men who say they have never been questioned by an officer because they don’t run with the wrong crowd. A 28-year-old standing outside the civilian complaint board meeting observes: “The people who complain about the cops do negative things. As long as you keep you nose clean, you’re OK.”

Perhaps that’s why a 1999 Justice Department survey found 77% support for the NYPD among blacks, just 12 percentage points less than among whites.

Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers will also argue strenuously against the enforcement of welfare rules designed to eliminate fraud and encourage self-sufficiency. Mr. Giuliani enraged the advocates by cracking down on welfare cheats and demanding that able-bodied people on the dole perform work in return for their benefits. In lawsuit after lawsuit, the poverty promoters claimed that strictly verifying an applicant’s eligibility and asking for work was oppressive.

Mr. Giuliani paid the advocates no heed. The welfare rolls dropped 59% and the administration caught 9,000 fleeing felons trying to apply for welfare, including 12 people wanted for murder.

Today, the strongest proponents of a strict, no-excuses welfare regime are former and current recipients. Beverley, a large, extroverted single mother, collected welfare for 20 years while pulling in mountains of black-market cash booking clients for an escort service and arranging photo shoots for such magazines as Hustler, Black Tail and Big Butt. The federal five-year time limit for welfare receipt scared her off the dole, however, and now she works legally counseling welfare recipients for a Brooklyn employment agency. There is no tougher practitioner of tough love.

“I have one guy who gives me every excuse in the book for missing appointments,” she explains. “`I’m depressed.’ `I have to see my parole officer.’ My response? `When you’re not attending here, you need a legitimate reason. I’m marking you absent.’ I tell the clients: `You can’t out-trick the trickster.’”

Rather than accepting at face value the recipients’ claims to have diligently performed their required job search, she calls their alleged contacts at each business to verify their story. “`Don’t even try to fool me!’” she commands. Once the Giuliani administration started checking recipients’ fingerprints (triggering frenzied protests by welfare advocates), a friend who used to collect welfare in both New York and New Jersey never crossed the Hudson river again, Beverley notes with approval.

New Yorkers will not have to wait long to find out how Mr. Bloomberg intends to govern the city. A current dispute over the homeless will spill over into his administration and provide the clearest possible test of his commitment to the equal enforcement of rules and the promotion of personal responsibility.

The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has been encouraging up to 45 derelicts to sleep on the sidewalk outside its walls, in multiple violations of city law. This is a classic piece of Manhattan “compassion”: maximally visible with no sacrifice to the self. The homeless can’t actually come inside the church, and they have to leave early in the morning so church employees don’t have to step over them.

Recently, the police have tried to move the vagrants into shelters, where they could receive treatment for mental illness, addictions, and infections, and where they would not endanger the public. Three times in the last two years, deranged vagrants have pushed people in front of subway cars, killing one woman, severing a man’s legs, and, just this November, fracturing a mother’s skull.

That’s apparently OK by the church, however, which has screamed “rights violation!” against the city’s efforts to enforce the law, and which just won a preliminary court ruling to keep its homeless on the streets.

If Mayor Bloomberg does not fight this ruling with all the legal resources at his disposal, if he does not resoundingly assert his obligation to maintain public order, New Yorkers will know that his excuse-peddling advisers got their man. Soon, the city will be carved up again into responsibility-free zones for select victim groups and the reign of Mayor Giuliani will be remembered as an all-too-brief interlude in the elite’s love affair with lawlessness.