Rafael Mangual joins Brian Anderson to discuss why the Biden administration’s policy on law enforcement and prosecution could spell disaster for American cities, last year’s nationwide increase in homicides and shootings, and what New York’s progressive political class has planned for criminal-justice “reform” in the future.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Ralf Mangual. He's a contributing editor to City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and he's been on the podcast before. His latest piece for us, which appears in the winter 2021 issue of the magazine and was released online just this past week, is called “Soft on Crime” and it details how a Biden administration policy toward policing and law enforcement could spell a real problem for American cities. Ralf, thanks very much for joining us.

Rafael Mangual: Oh, thanks so much for having me back, Brian. Always a pleasure

Brian Anderson: As most people who paid attention to the election will recall, President Biden, when he was running in the primary was attacked pretty ferociously by his democratic colleagues, including his vice president, Kamala Harris for his previous support for the then popular but now infamous crime bill. But as you write, the Joe Biden of 1994 is unfortunately gone and he's repudiated his role in the great crime decline of the nineties and two thousands. Can you tell me what you expect from the Biden administration when it comes to policing, law enforcement more broadly? What worries you the most?

Rafael Mangual: Well, one of the things that worries me the most is where the country finds itself on the policing front with respect to the number of police on the street. For a couple of years now, police departments around the country have been pretty consistently reporting really serious retention and recruitment issues. And of course, the protests in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis really exacerbated that, right? There's, been just a much more pronounced anti-police climate that has kind of bubbled over in a lot of American cities. And that has caused a lot of police officers near retirement to take that step and leave their departments. We've seen that here in New York to the point where at one point commissioner Shay actually had to put a cap on the number of people that could retire in a given period of time.

But we've also seen that in places like Chicago and Minneapolis. More and more cities are now flirting with this idea of defunding police, which is primarily hitting their ability to replace the officers that they're losing now. So of course, here in New York City, we saw the July New York police department Academy class canceled as a result of the $1 billion cut passed by the city council this summer.

And so when I think about Joe Biden, I think about, of course his role in the 94 crime bill. And one of the things that people may not know about that bill was that one of the most consequential aspects of it was that it added about a hundred thousand officers to the streets across the country, including here in New York City. And depending on the department, those officers basically became eligible for retirement in about 2014 to 2020, which means that we're at the point where we're going to start losing those officers in pretty great numbers, which means that whatever detriment we've been seeing as a result of the recruitment and retention crisis that's pre-existed the anti-police climate of 2020 and 2021.

It's going to grow. It's going to get worse in the coming years. And the bad part about that is I don't see the Biden administration taking that problem seriously. I don't see it pulling any policy levers to help close that gap, which is one of the things that I think it really ought to consider doing. So that's something that is really worrisome for me.

And then of course there are all these other steps that a presidential administration could take. The chief executive, of course, oversees the Department of Justice. Under president Obama, when Biden was vice president, the Department of Justice was very fond of these pattern and practice investigations where we kind of intrude upon local police departments wherever there were racial disparities with respect to some kind of enforcement metric, and then basically coerced those departments into entering into consent decrees.

Now, Roland Fryer and Tanaya Devi of Harvard University recently released a troubling study that looked at a lot of these Obama era pattern and practice investigations. And what they found was that those investigations and subsequent consent decrees were actually associated with pretty serious crime upticks in the jurisdictions in which those investigations were brought about by some kind of viral police incident. So something like what happened to George Floyd, or more specifically Tamir Rice or Michael Brown in Ferguson. Ferguson was actually one of the cities that saw a big crime spike. So watching what the Biden administration does with its Department of Justice is certainly something that we ought to keep an eye out for, and early indications are that they're going to go back to that route.

Brian Anderson: This is a good time to mention some of the work from our colleague who writes a lot on crime issues, Heather MacDonald. She had a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled taking Stock of the Most Violent Year. In that piece, she highlights some of the troubling increases in homicides we're seeing in cities across the country. Murders were up 95%, for example, in Milwaukee, 78% percent in Louisville, about the same amount in Seattle, 72% in Minneapolis, 62% in New Orleans, on and on. Now the most common explanation for this increase that we're seeing in the media is the ongoing pandemic. More people are unemployed, goes to the argument, and struggling. And according to this line of thinking, that leads to greater crime and violent crime. Heather McDonald, for her part, disagrees with that narrative. But I wonder, what's your response to this COVID explanation or excuse? Do you think it really has an effect?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. I mean, I don't think the COVID explanation holds water, certainly not the formulation of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who suggested in July that the homicide and shooting uptick in New York was a result of unemployment that led to some kind of economic desperation in which people would resort to stealing bread to feed their families. And that sort of thing. Of course, at the time she made those remarks petty larceny was actually down for the year in New York City. And so I don't think there's much of a connection between the pandemic's impact on socioeconomic indicators like employment rates or poverty rates and the violent crime spike that we're seeing.

I mean, for one thing New York has seen really sharp upticks in unemployment in the past, of course the financial crisis of 2008 really hit New York City quite hard by 2009. A number of jobs had been lost, particularly among black males, which account for a disproportionate number of the violent crimes committed in New York City. And what's interesting is that if you look at the 2006 to 2009 period in New York, which of course captures the financial crisis that caused that deep recession, the unemployment rate for working age black men basically doubled. It went from 9% to just a hair under 18%.

But during that period, homicides actually fell. They fell from 596 in 2006 down to 471 in 2009. In other words, the downward trend of serious crime continued during the economic downturn of the great recession and it continued thereafter. So and this isn't really surprising. It shouldn't be at least to anyone who has any sense of the data over the course of American history. There just really isn't a relationship to speak of between these socioeconomic indicators and serious violent crime. There's certainly a connection to say property crime and that sort of thing but it's just not there for violence.

I mean in 2016, for example, which was the year before New York City posted a modern record for low homicides at 292, the city poverty rate in 2016 was 19.5%. That's a full point higher than it was in 1989, which is the year that proceeded New York City's peak in homicides, which was a record high of 2,262 in 1990. So if you can go from almost 2,300 murders a year down to less than 300 murders a year and have the poverty rate basically stayed the same, but in fact, get a little worse. What that tells you is that there's something more to this phenomenon than what people who blame the pandemic are pointing to.

Now, that's not to say that the pandemic hasn't played any role whatsoever. There are some crimes that have probably been facilitated by the downtick in the number of potential witnesses on the street, by the closure of businesses that might have had security cameras that would have caught people in the act, that sort of thing. But it's likely more marginal than people think. My sense of things in New York City is that the crime uptick is probably more a function of a lot of the criminal justice policy levers that have been pulled over the last five or six years than it is of the pandemic.

Brian Anderson: Well, you live in New York City and so that's a good bridge to the next question. We've had you on the podcast before, as I mentioned at the top, and in that previous appearance you discussed some of those specific criminal justice reforms that have been coming from the state and local legislatures here in New York over the last several years. You had a piece recently in the New York Times, congratulations for that.

Rafael Mangual: Thank you.

Brian Anderson: Where you break down some of the numbers in the city. Homicides in New York were up 41%. reported shootings have really, really skyrocketed up 97% from 2019 numbers. So this comes after, as we mentioned, Democrats in Albany passed very progressive reforms to the state's bail laws. What do you think happens next in New York? And say, perhaps elaborate a little bit on that bail law question. Democrats now have a veto proof state legislature in Albany, a city council that's eager to placate their left-wing base in the city. What reforms along these lines might we expect to see on the horizon?

Rafael Mangual: Well, we've already got at least some idea of what some of those reforms might be. I mean, the city council just this past Friday actually unveiled a new legislative package to "redefine public safety". I think 10 years ago it would have been absolutely mind boggling to imagine a city council coming forward with their first new legislative initiative to be something like redefining public safety through additional police and criminal justice reforms in the wake of a crime increase on the order of what we saw in New York City in 2020.

One of the things that I wrote in that New York times piece was that there's this widespread belief that crime upticks, like what we saw last year, can just easily be capitalized on to stunt reform efforts. There's kind of an underdog complex within the criminal justice reform movement that has really taken to heart the sense that the slightest uptick in crime is just going to get honed in on by local newscasters and it's going to scare people out of making progress on these issues.

But what we've seen since 2020 is really quite the opposite, of course. Just recently, Governor Cuomo has proposed placing basically a corporate monitor to oversee the NYPD. And then there's this legislative package proposed by the city council, which includes a number of reforms, including removing disciplinary authority from the police commissioner and placing it with an independent body. In this case, it would be the CCRB ending qualified immunity for police officers, which is something that got a lot of attention over the summer. Requiring actually the city council to confirm the police commissioner, much in the way that the Senate would confirm, say a Supreme court justice at the federal level. There will be a body tasked with investigating police officers with "a history of bias", whatever that means, additional reporting requirements on various things, like vehicle stops based on race, et cetera, basically prohibiting or at least limiting police responses to mental health emergencies or what are categorized as mental health emergencies, limiting police presence on public school grounds, et cetera.

So there's actually quite a lot in here. Moving traffic investigations, so the Department of Transportation is another big one. So even if it turns out to be a criminal matter where the crash is caused by, say a drunk driver with an open warrant who's likely to run away from the scene, apparently that potential downside risk is not enough to dissuade this kind of reform proposal. So I think what we've seen in the wake of the crime increase that we saw in 2020 is going to be more of the same of what proceeded that crime increase. I'm not sure what that portends for the city. I don't think it's anything good, but we'll have to wait and see.

Brian Anderson: Certainly, it's going to, I would think, harm recruitment efforts to bring new officers into the NYPD, to go back to the first question.

Rafael Mangual: That's exactly right, especially given the some of the other proposals from mayoral hopefuls, for example, has been to limit the recruitment pool to people who live within the five boroughs, which would make it impossible for officers to serve in the NYPD while living in Nassau County or Suffolk County or Westchester County, which are counties from which the New York City Police Department is able to actually draw a pretty sizeable part of its force. So to limit artificially the pool of potential recruits in that way at a time in which the department is down I think 7% year over year in terms of number of officers in uniform service, is quite misguided in my view.

Brian Anderson: Well, very troubling. Thanks very much, Ralf. Don't forget to check out Ralf Mangual's work on our website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page and his recent work in the podcast description. You can follow him on Twitter @Rafa_Mangual. You can also follow City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please leave us a ratings on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Thanks again, Ralf, for joining us today.

Rafael Mangual: Thank you.

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