Stop using crime to score political points

The Observer editorial board

Police brass listen in January as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Jim O’Neil announce the city’s near-record low crime rates for 2016.
Police brass listen in January as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Jim O’Neil announce the city’s near-record low crime rates for 2016. AP

The nation’s top law enforcement agency recently declared that one of the nation’s most visible and important police departments has been “soft on crime” and is responsible for gang violence.

There’s no better illustration of why the decades-long, bipartisan tradition of using violent crime for political purposes must end, particularly as the nation continues enjoying a historically low crime rate while a handful of cities – including Charlotte – grapples with a recent spike in crime. Such loose talk isn’t consequence-free.

“New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city’s ‘soft on crime’ stance,” the Department of Justice said in a statement aimed at nine so-called sanctuary cities from which it has threatened to withhold federal funding. Painting the city as lawless is an attempt to shame officials into complying with the Trump administration’s controversial mandate to clamp down on illegal immigration. It’s a naked political ploy.

That’s an extraordinary thing to do to a city which just experienced its most crime-free three-month period on record, has seen its murder and crime rates continue a generation-long decrease, and whose aggressive and discriminatory stop-and-frisk had to be discontinued by the courts. It is also ground zero for the country’s domestic defense against terrorism and been the site of high-profile cases of police brutality. If the New York Police Department is soft on crime, there’s no such thing as tough on crime.

Charlotte has seen an increase in its murder rate this year. Overall, though, the nation’s murder rate was nearly halved between 1991 and 2016, which includes an uptick in 2016, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The crime rate has dropped for 14 consecutive years. We are living through one of the safest periods in our country’s history.

Charlotte is among cities the Brennan Center expects to experience an increase in the crime rate, though not the murder rate. Nearly half of the recent spike in crime has been concentrated in large cities, such as Chicago, Baltimore and Houston. The uptick is not a national problem. It is not a return to the bad old days. And so-called “sanctuary cities” have crime rates lower than those of comparable cities. (Illegal immigration has been on a downward trend for nearly a decade.)

Effectively preventing and combating violent crime requires a delicate balancing act, one that acknowledges its seriousness while resisting calls to overreaction. Irresponsible rhetoric that downplays the issue because it is sensitive – because of race or other factors – endangers those already most likely to be victimized. But fearmongering leads to laws, policies and law enforcement tactics that destroy families and harm and imprison the innocent. We’ve spent years trying to undo the damage caused by unwise laws aimed at curbing a drug epidemic in the 1990s.

Violent crime has been with us since the beginning of human history. Even during the safest periods, it is one of the most vexing problems we face. There are no easy solutions. But the task grows more difficult every time our leaders use it to score cheap political points.