Could Israel benefit by copying NYPD model?

Big Apple's famous turnaround cited as crime-fighting paradigm.

nypd 88 (photo credit: )
nypd 88
(photo credit: )
New York City during the 1980s epitomized the worst of America's crack epidemic, with soaring murder rates and rampant theft, homelessness and urban decay. Amid a national crackdown on crime over the next decade, however, New York cleaned up its act, employing specific policing strategies to target crime-ridden areas and bust quality-of-life offenders and major crime cases. Following the recent spate of high-profile murders in Israel, could a New York-style police model work? Would it even be advisable, considering that New York's crime rate is still significantly higher than the Jewish state's? "It's time to reconsider policing in Israel on a high level," said David Weisburd, a professor of law and criminal justice at George Mason University in Virginia and the Hebrew University. Stressing the need for Israel to develop a national, evidence-based approach to policing, Weisburd said former New York Police commissioner William Bratton had reduced crime rates with various strategies, including a computerized process, CompStat, that held police accountable for crime in each precinct. But, Weisburd said, "We can't say, 'Let's adopt CompStat like New York,' and it will solve our problem." The New York City model identified neighborhoods where crime was worst, then saturated those spots with police officers. The hallmark of the CompStat program was a computerized database of crimes that directed police to specific precincts, neighborhoods and streets. The NYPD also cracked down on so-called minor offenses - such as pubic drunkenness, homelessness, begging and littering - as a way to reduce more serious crimes. The model, sometimes called the broken window theory, reasons that offenders who perceive that police do not punish minor infractions will go on to commit more serious crimes, since it appears no one is watching. "Offenders think no one is looking, no one cares," said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "If they did, they'd fix that window." But the NYPD, which also added thousands of officers during the '90s, was watching and becoming more aggressive in making arrests. "You had this kitchen sink full of police changes in the 1990s, and you have a much bigger drop in crime in New York than the general American crime drop," said Frank Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor and author of The Great American Crime Decline. And yet, experts said the model is not one Israel should embrace blindly. "I would caution them against imitating what the New York police did a decade ago," said Malcolm Sparrow, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "They ought not to imitate any one city," but rather embrace problem-oriented policing in which police identify problems and address them uniquely, with non-generic solutions, he said. Indeed, one way in which CompStat is narrow could impact Israel. "It places responsibility heavily at the precinct commander level," said Sparrow. "That's good for precinct-level problems. If you've got a national problem, that's a terrible way to address it." To be sure, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch has said he would not endorse the New York City model. "I won't allow it," he said. Further, while New York City's crackdown on crime has been widely cited, experts said the drop in crime was multi-pronged, relying on police strategies but also impacted by economics and drug trends. While the crack epidemic of the 1980s fueled a spike in crime, no drug as potent has replaced it over the past decade. "It's a combination of what's happened in the city [over] the past two decades," said Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. Before moving to New York, Haberfeld served in the IDF and the Israel Police, leaving the police as a lieutenant. Drawing parallels between New York and Israel would produce flawed conclusions, she said. "New York City, first of all, is very different from Israel in the sense that its police force is almost twice as big as the entire police force in Israel, and the area is very small," she said. At latest count, the NYPD employed some 38,000 officers for about 8.4 million residents, compared to the Israel Police's 22,000 for 7.4 million citizens. Haberfeld also pointed out that New York City's police department is controlled by the mayor, while Israel's is a national police force. Thus former mayor Rudy Giuliani is widely credited with cracking down on crime and quality-of-life issues. If the mayor of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv tried to do the same, "It will be heard but not necessarily implemented," Haberfeld said. She also underscored that police in Israel are "very much" concerned with anti-terrorism activity. "While police in New York, after 9/11, became concerned with this as well, you cannot compare it to the same level in Israel." She is not convinced Israeli police efforts need reform. "It should not be looked upon as a force that necessarily needs to learn from others," said Haberfeld. Israeli police already deploy officers to areas with high levels of crime, and officials use computer-driven data to deploy officers. "Crime cannot be directly attributed to policing," she said. Haberfeld, who is a believer in "zero tolerance," also pointed out that isolated crimes might not be preventable. "Sometimes, with two, three, four violent crimes in a short period of time and people say, 'If we had a different deployment in police it would not have happened,'" she said. On the other hand, "it might have been something that would not have been prevented, regardless of the deployment." Reluctant to appear overly critical, Weisburd said Israel, indeed, does have an underlying problem with its policing, in that it does not rely on strategies proven to be successful. Also, the government does not support crime research. As a result, he said, it is not clear the recent spate of violence could be classified as an actual crime wave. "We don't have a core group of people studying the crime problem," he said. Weisburd, whose research has focused on reducing crime in "hot spots," or crime-ridden areas, said Israeli policing needs a "complete and utter evaluation." He acknowledged that a decade ago, the Israeli police implemented a community policing program and a computer-driven system like CompStat. "But you tell me what the innovation is at the moment," Weisburd said. Today's reactive posture, he indicated, was a lingering response to the second intifada, when the national police put ordinary policing on hold to focus on terrorism. "I think that had a long-lasting effect," he said. "Since that time, I think they've had trouble catching up." Even with the best of intentions, municipalities have had mixed success in replicating the New York City model. Some police forces may not have adhered faithfully to the model. But also, the Big Apple's population density distinguishes it from other places, perhaps hindering the success of parallel policing strategies. Los Angeles did reform its municipal police by mimicking New York City. But the California city did so under the guidance of the same William Bratton, who had been chief of police in New York City when the reforms were implemented there. Rosenfeld said having a national police force should give Israel an advantage, since successful programs could be shared throughout the state. "In the case of the US, where each municipality has its own police force, it's more difficult to replicate effective programs from one place to another," he said.