The US government is putting dramatic crime reduction gains over the past 15 years in jeopardy by switching too many resources from mainstream policing to counter-terrorism, according to Bill Bratton, chief of police of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“The federal government is a one-eyed Cyclops – it can only focus on one thing at a time,” said Mr Bratton, in an interview with the Financial Times. “We have to fight a two-front war on terrorism internationally and on crime at home. You cannot fight terrorism at the expense of 16,000 homicides a year.”
Mr Bratton, credited with reducing New York’s alarming homicide rate in the 1990s when he pushed “zero-tolerance” policing as head of the New York Police Department, said Washington had pared down federal police funding to worryingly low levels since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001.
The result has been a rise in recorded crime, which Mr Bratton described as a “gathering storm”. The impressive gains of the 1990s, when cities such as New York more than halved their homicide rates, were being put at risk by “an ideological bias” in Washington that saw policing and law and order as an issue for states rather than the federal government.
“I was part of that wonderful revolution in policing in the 1990s,” he said. “We got it right. Then, after 9/11 the federal government wanted to back out of the partnership.”
The result, he says, has been a reduction in the number of police officers. During the 1990s, Bill Clinton had worked with the Republican-controlled Congress to pass the “CopsInitiative”, which added 100,000 police to the streets, including an extra 100 for each of New York’s 76 precincts.
But there were roughly 100,000 fewer police officers on the beat in US cities than before September 11 2001, a fall of about 10 per cent. Mr Bratton said the decline was “a factor in why crime is going up in many cities”.
Partly as a result of these reversals, which have reduced New York’s police presence by 6,000 in the past six years, the US recorded its first rise in homicides in 2006 since 1990 – which was America’s peak year for murders, said Mr Bratton.
“After 9/11, the national capitol got fixated on dealing with terrorism – some of which was about ideology,” he said. “They have been taking money from one bucket [crime] and putting it into another [terrorism].”
Mr Bratton said he was optimistic that New York could hold on to the gains of the 1990s, partly because of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s strong focus on crime. America’s financial capital also benefits from a far higher ratio of police to population than Los Angeles, where Mr Bratton took the top job in 2002 and will be appointed to a second five-year term later this month.
The LAPD has 9,300 police compared with the NYPD’s 35,000. On a population basis, LA should have double its current number, he said.