The Magazine

Law and Disorder

The case for a police surge.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By WILLIAM J. STUNTZ
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Today, that condition is not satisfied. Most American cities are underpoliced, many of them seriously so. Instead of following the Bush/Petraeus strategy, the United States has sought to control crime by using small police forces to punish as many criminals as possible. As all those who have even a passing familiarity with contemporary crime statistics know, that approach--call it "efficient punishment"--does not work. Like the Army in pre-surge Iraq, the nation's criminal justice system is in a state of crisis. America needs another surge, this one on home territory.


Readers may be excused for wondering how crime could be a large problem in 21st-century America. Crime fell substantially in the 1990s. In this decade, crime rates have been mostly level; the gains from the 1990s remain intact. Where is the crisis?

The short answer is: in urban neighborhoods that readers of this magazine rarely visit. The most important crime trend of the last half of the 20th century wasn't a rise or fall in overall crime levels. Rather, the key trend was a change in the distribution of serious crime, as Table 1 illustrates:

In 1950, violent crime was mostly a southern phenomenon; of the six non-southern cities listed above, three had murder rates lower than the nation's, and the other three had rates only modestly higher than the figure for the nation as a whole. Today, violent crime is an urban problem--everywhere, not just south of the Mason-Dixon line. Atlanta and Philadelphia are comparably homicidal, as are Houston and Chicago. All but one of the non-southern cities listed above--New York is the exception--saw their murder rates double since 1950; all but two saw murders triple, while the nation's rate rose slightly. And remember: These figures are calculated after the 1990s crime drop.

Those high contemporary murder rates understate the rise in urban violence. Thanks to advances in emergency medicine, a sizable fraction of 1950 murder victims would survive today. For accurate comparison, one must cut the 1950 figures by at least one-fourth. Do that, and a clear picture emerges: Outside the South, American cities are at least several times more violent than they were in the mid-20th century. The same is not true of the small cities and towns where many Americans live: In New York state, 3.2 million people inhabit jurisdictions that saw zero murders and manslaughters in 2007. In most of the United States, violent crime is something that happens elsewhere. In the poorer parts of American cities, crime stories are much closer to home. The 1990s narrowed that gap modestly, but the gap remains large.

Even within crime-ridden cities, violent offenses are geographically concentrated. The safest city neighborhoods are about as safe as those small towns in New York where no murders happen. In the most dangerous city neighborhoods, violent crime reaches levels common in Mexico, Russia, and South Africa--three of the highest-crime countries on the planet. Most of our dangerous communities have two things in common: They are poor, and a large share of their population is African American, as one more pair of statistics suggests. In the United States in 2005, the homicide rate among whites stood at 3.5 per 100,000. Among blacks, the figure was 26.5. Urban homicide rates are strongly correlated with the size of cities' black populations.

This is the core of 21st-century America's race problem. The poorest black neighborhoods are frighteningly crime-ridden. The social cost of that crime, and of the criminal punishment that seeks to hold it in check, is colossal, measured in families never formed and investments unmade, lives ended murderously and other lives slowly crushed by long prison terms. Plainly, the public policy status quo is not working. To stay the course--to resist change in a setting that so needs changing and in which so many lives are at stake--is morally indefensible. That proposition holds true for those of us on the political right as well as for those on the left. Conservatives are not anarchists; we believe governments should be small, not absent. Even the smallest governments seek to maintain a decent level of order and safety in public places. Today, in much of urban black America, that goal is not being met.


Over the past 35 years, the United States has run the equivalent of a controlled experiment in alternative means of reducing violent crime. A massive, disproportionately black prison population has had surprisingly little effect on urban violence. As we shall see, modest increases in the size of urban police forces appear to have achieved much better results. More-than-modest increases might do better still.