AMERICA'S BIG CITIES SUFFER FROM CULTURE OF 'RIOT

John Leo

7/27/2001 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
"De-policing" occurs after riots and demonstrations against police behavior. Shell-shocked or resentful, police overlook a lot of suspicious behavior. They stop trying to prevent low-level crime and simply react to 911 calls. Crime soars.

This happened in some New York City neighborhoods after the Amadou Daillo shooting, and in Seattle after the World Trade Organization riots and the Mardi Gras riots. In fact it happened during the Mardi Gras chaos. Many officers became bystanders as the rioting spread. A Seattle cop explained de-policing: "Parking under a shady tree to work on a crossword puzzle is a great alternative to being labeled a racist and being dragged through an inquest, a review board, an FBI and U.S. attorney investigation and a lawsuit."

Now "de-policing" has hit Cincinnati. Since the April riots, set off by the police shooting of an unarmed black man, arrests have dropped 50 percent. Shootings are way up -- 59 incidents and 77 gunshot victims, compared with nine incidents and 11 victims in the same three months last year. Traffic stops are down 55 percent, presumably because almost any stop of a black driver by a white cop might be cited as racial profiling. Crime is up partly because criminals are less fearful of cops. They know all about "de-policing."

The riots hit the city hard. Convention business is down. The white exodus from the city has spread to cops. Large numbers of officers have applied for jobs in the suburbs. But the city's biggest problem is that elite commentators have defined the city as hopelessly racist. (Cincinnati is "the belly of the beast" of police violence against blacks, said Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP. It is "a model of racial unfairness," said Time magazine.)

But Cincinnati is a decent, tradition-minded small city where the big corporations all practice affirmative action and the city is building an Underground Railroad museum to commemorate its role in helping black slaves escape to freedom. It has a disastrously weak form of city government and some problems in police training and procedures. One is that it's much too hard to get rid of bad cops. The April shooting that sparked the protests was indeed questionable. But there is no evidence that the department is out of control or racist. "Fifteen black men shot in six years" has become a mantra of blacks and critics on the left, with no analysis of whether that rate of fatalities is high or low. Police in many other cities have higher kill rates, including the San Diego cops (constantly cited by The New York Times as progressive) and the heavily black force of Prince George's County, Md., which killed 147 people from 1990 to 2000.

As analyzed by The Cincinnati Enquirer, four of the 15 recent fatal police shootings in Cincinnati raise serious questions about officer misjudgment and excessive force. The rest seem justified. One man shot by police had axed a 15-year-old girl to death and held police at bay for four hours. Another dragged a black officer to his death in a car. The Enquirer found no racial pattern in the use of police force. Indeed, Heather Mac Donald, in the conservative City Journal, writes that "a Cincinnati cop is 27 times more likely to die at the hands of a black man than a black man is to die at the hands of the Cincinnati police."

But after the riots, local leaders rushed to defuse black anger. They quickly agreed to mediation in a racial profiling suit they had been determined to fight. They meekly asked the Justice Department to take a look at their police practices. Long lists of demands included the alleged necessity for "diversity training" of police and importance of restoring a cut in a community youth program (the cut had been made because of scandal -- the agency billed the city for $156,000 for a program that cost just over $16,000 to operate). Last summer, an amusement park north of the city had to import a thousand young Eastern Europeans for summer jobs because it could find no local youths to apply. Yet now there are demands to create thousands of summer jobs to forestall another rampage.

This pressure is the result of what urban historian Fred Siegel calls "riot ideology" -- the belief that all black grievances are legitimate and must be assuaged at all costs. Siegel is a professor at Cooper Union in New York City and author of "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities." He thinks Cincinnati is giving in to riot ideology at the moment other cities have learned to avoid it.

The Catch-22 is that if you pay off for rioting, you are likely to get more of it. In New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani in effect said to Al Sharpton and the city's other racial provocateurs: The game is over -- there will be no payoffs for racial threats or disturbances. In Los Angeles, Mayor Richard Riordan quietly pursued a similar strategy. No city money poured into rebuild South Central after the riots of 1992. "If you pay, you lose both ways," said Siegel -- you lose the money and you open the door to another riot leading to another payout. The heyday of riot ideology is past. Does Cincinnati really want to revive it?