Denver Tackles Crime, New York Style
With grassroots support, a Democratic mayor embraces the policing revolution.
New York City’s policing revolution is 13 years old now and by any objective measure a phenomenal success, with major crimes down by 74 percent since 1993. Even as the decline in crime nationwide started flattening out in 2000 and many cities saw their 1990s gains erode, crime in Gotham continued to fall. Still, critics deny that policing can cut crime. They attribute Gotham’s remarkable turnaround to the end of the crack epidemic, the strong economy of the Clinton years, or the number of potential criminals who have not been born since abortion became legal. Worse, they argue, New York–style law enforcement is racist: policing quality-of-life offenses and sending more cops to crime-ridden areas, they say, inevitably singles out minority residents for racial profiling and police harassment.
So it is even more remarkable that Denver, Colorado—home to America’s most liberal marijuana laws and an electorate that has sent Democrats to the mayor’s office in every election since 1963—has in the past year and a half enacted a series of policing reforms based on New York’s success, with surprisingly wide support, especially from the city’s poor and minority residents. In particular, the Denver PD has instituted Broken Windows and Compstat policing—so far, to good effect. Major crimes dropped 14 percent from 2005 to 2006, and another 13.7 percent for the first eight months of this year compared with the same period last year. If Mayor John Hickenlooper’s reelection this spring with 87 percent of the vote is any guide, popular support remains strong for the policing policies that, along with education reform, were the most prominent planks in his campaign platform.
And who sparked this policing reform? A group of plucky Hispanic high school kids who wanted their neighborhood safe, a grassroots organization that believes in helping people help themselves, and above all a former city official who describes himself as a “political progressive.”
Hickenlooper, a 55-year-old restaurateur and developer first elected mayor in 2003, had not run at first as a police reformer. But policing issues forced themselves upon him. After cops killed two Denverites in separate, high-profile incidents in 2003 and 2004—one just days before he took office—Hickenlooper began mulling over changes in policing strategy. Moreover, he had a crime problem as well as a policing problem. After almost a decade of falling crime in the 1990s, Denver, a city of about half a million people, saw crime begin to climb again in 2000. By early 2005, violent crime was up 42 percent compared with five years before, and burglary 49 percent. With one crime reported for every 15 residents in 2005, according to the FBI, Denver had a higher crime rate than Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia.
A stabbing brought these problems into public focus. In early September 2005, at an after-school soccer practice outside Saint Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in the rough Westwood neighborhood, a group of gang members started hassling Lisette Mendoza, one of the team’s players. When Victor Flores, then 19, tried to get between the gangbangers and Mendoza, they stabbed him nine times—steps from the church’s front door, in full view of his teammates—and fled. He survived and has since recovered.
Horrified that such an attack could happen literally at their church’s doorstep, Saint Anthony’s called in Mateos Alvarez, a community organizer for a nonprofit group called Metro Organizations for People (“Mop”), for advice about the crime in their neighborhood—home to about 15,000 people, three-quarters of them Hispanic and one-quarter living under the poverty line. “We didn’t feel safe, so we looked for help,” says Teresita Chavira, who was 16 when she witnessed the stabbing. “We were like, ‘This is going to be the final point. We shouldn’t be scared of them. This is where we say it’s all going to end.’ ”
With 11 staffers and a $750,000 budget, Mop works with Denver-area churches, schools, and youth and neighborhood associations to solve community problems. On its website, Mop answers the question, “What is community organizing?” with an expanded (and gender-neutral) version of the ancient Chinese proverb, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a night; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for the rest of his life.” Mop adds: “If you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate people. . . . By educating people, you will harvest one hundredfold.”
In that spirit, Alvarez met with about 20 parishioners a few days after the stabbing. “I advised them on how to make an impact on their community without going for what people traditionally go for, which is a service model,” he says. “Instead, they said, ‘We’re going to use this experience to begin to change the culture of our community ourselves and make it safe for everybody.’ ”
A core group of about a dozen high school students and recent grads quickly formed, with Chavira and her younger sister Brenda as leaders, along with their friends Claudia Perez and Yasmin Solis. Calling themselves the Saint Anthony’s Public Safety Committee, they met each Sunday with Alvarez. At first, they wanted to form a neighborhood-watch patrol, but Alvarez persuaded them instead to try to change the way their neighborhood was policed.
Alvarez started studying policing. Rosemary Rodriguez, then Westwood’s city councilwoman, put him in touch with the police commander for the area, Rudy Sandoval, who was interested in trying new policing strategies, and with Shepard Nevel, who would become the major force behind Denver’s policing reform. Nevel had been advocating that the city adopt Broken Windows and Compstat policing since 1998, when he went to work for the previous mayor, Wellington Webb. Despite his left-of-center politics, Nevel admired how effective these techniques had proved in New York.
Developed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, the Broken Windows theory, which undergirded New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former police commissioner William Bratton’s quality-of-life and zero-tolerance policing, posits that cracking down on minor crimes such as vandalism creates an atmosphere of law and order that discourages major crime. Compstat, short for “computerized statistics,” refers not only to the technology that monitors crime patterns by location but also to the philosophy that cops can prevent crime by policing aggressively where it occurs—and that precinct commanders should hold cops accountable for doing so, which in New York they do at weekly crime-report meetings.
Now working in the private sector, Nevel watched the numbers with mounting concern as crime continued to rise. In January 2005, he suggested that Hickenlooper hire Kelling, a Rutgers criminal-justice professor (and Manhattan Institute fellow), to help revamp Denver’s policing strategy. Kelling’s consulting firm, the Hanover Justice Group, had advised the Los Angeles Police Department, and has since begun work in Milwaukee, Boston, and Allentown, Pennsylvania.
It took Nevel nine months to convince Hickenlooper that Kelling and New York–style policing would be Denver’s best bet. He succeeded, he says, because he could cite data to prove that such policing worked. “I had the best product,” he says. “I had what the generation before me didn’t have: numbers from New York—from City Journal, by the way. I had ready answers, even in the first meeting.”
He also had, by the autumn of 2005, the well-publicized support of Mop and the Saint Anthony’s teens for a dramatic push against crime. The day after he formally presented his plan to Hickenlooper, Nevel met with the Saint Anthony’s Public Safety Committee to explain Compstat and the Broken Windows theory. He gave them a 2005 City Journal article and two Manhattan Institute bulletins reprinting speeches by Kelling, Wilson, and Bratton, among others.
In November, the teens’ Public Safety Committee called a meeting at Saint Anthony’s. More than 150 people, many of them Spanish speakers, showed up. Councilwoman Rodriguez, precinct commander Sandoval, and Nevel were there, along with representatives of the mayor’s office. Victor Flores, still in bandages, gave a compelling speech, saying that he wanted people not to see him as a victim but rather to learn from his experience and make Westwood safer. The girls gave a PowerPoint presentation on Broken Windows policing. “We were afraid people would think it meant no tolerance,” Chavira says. “But we showed them the good points. The people I know thought it was a really good program.” Later, the young people met with Mayor Hickenlooper, who had already decided to give Kelling a try. They persuaded him to make Westwood the spot for one of his pilot programs.
Hickenlooper, with money from the non-profit Denver Police Foundation, hired Kelling’s Hanover Justice Group. The two Hanover consultants who spearheaded the work in Denver were Mike Wagers, who heads the Police Institute, a crime-fighting think tank based at Rutgers, and Robert Wasserman, former chief of staff of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. They set up two neighborhood pilot programs and transformed the Denver PD’s Command Operation Review and Evaluation—or Core—meetings into something more like New York’s Compstat. City and police officials still keep in close touch with Kelling, Wagers, and Wasserman.
The pilot program in Westwood began in late February 2006. Before it started, however, officers went around the neighborhood knocking on doors, chatting, and handing out a survey to learn what complaints residents had about crime and disorder—what street corners they feared to walk on at night, where they regularly saw kids dealing drugs, where they encountered vandalism, panhandling, litter, and noise. Much of the cops’ work during the pilot program involved aggressive quality-of-life policing, as well as trying to anticipate and prevent crime instead of just responding to 911 calls. Commander Sandoval sent out two units called “Scat”—Special Crime Attack Team—that spoke to residents and examined crime data to figure out where offenses generally occurred, and then patrolled those areas relentlessly to discourage criminals or catch them in the act.
Over the program’s 28 weeks, incidents in which officers took the initiative increased by 70 percent from the previous year. The result of all this work: crime in the neighborhood fell 21.4 percent, again compared with the year before. Contrary to what opponents of Broken Windows and Compstat would predict, not one civilian lodged a complaint against a cop in Westwood during that time.
The other pilot, this one still ongoing, focuses on drug dealing, prostitution, and quality-of-life crimes in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and it encourages property and business owners to beautify the neighborhood and keep it clean. Crime there dropped 12.5 percent in 2006 and another 14.5 percent for the first eight months of this year.
The Westwood pilot program won approving editorials in both the liberal Denver Post and the more centrist Rocky Mountain News, and Flores, Chavira, and their friends appeared at a press conference to praise it. Residents of many other neighborhoods—especially poor and minority ones—lobbied for their locales to be next, and similar crime offensives are now under way in three Denver police districts.
The Kelling team’s redesign of the Core meetings proved crucial. Now, precinct commanders meet every week with the police chief, deputy chief, and other city officials to report crime patterns in their districts, explain what tactics they’re using to combat them, and answer often sharp questions about their decisions. “We have made significant strides in arming the police department with more accurate and fresher crime data,” Hickenlooper says, “and we’re setting the expectation that officers and managers will use that information to deploy resources more strategically.”
Reports Jeremy Bronson, Hickenlooper’s special assistant on public safety, “The meetings are changing practically weekly. We’re still experimenting with what works best.” Each commander now presents his district’s crime statistics not only for the previous week but also for the previous 28 days and 12 months, in order to distinguish a trend from a weekly aberration. And the tone of the meetings has recently become less adversarial, with commanders having more control over the agenda and more time to pursue each goal. Among the rank and file, morale has picked up, too, now that the department gives cops clear information about crime and expects them to take the initiative and do something about it. “For many police officers that is a very empowering thing,” Bronson says. “That’s exactly the sort of trust and encouragement one should give to public-safety officers.”
In Shepard Nevel’s view, “Assertive policing is one of the most progressive things you can do. I believe that one of the greatest injustices is that you can have law-abiding, hardworking people who live in fear and are not safe.” After all, lawlessness hits minorities and the poor hardest. Blacks and Hispanics (40 percent of Denver’s population) are the victims of many more crimes per capita than whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and poor people (14 percent of Denverites) suffer many more crimes against their person than the more prosperous (though property crimes are more evenly distributed). Plus, getting mugged for $50—or being stuck with a $2,000 hospital bill after an assault—makes life a lot harder for someone earning $20,000 a year than for someone earning five times that.
Nevertheless, critics condemn Broken Windows and Compstat policing as inherently bigoted. Cops, they say, unfairly single out the poor and minorities not because such people are more likely to commit crimes but out of their own institutionally sanctioned bigotry. Activist policing is not just unhelpful, such critics say; it is immoral and must be stopped.
For example, even as plummeting crime numbers were revitalizing New York City—especially its poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods—left-wingers and self-appointed minority advocates accused Gotham’s police of racism and tyranny. “There is an awful sickness coursing through the NYPD,” columnist Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times in 1996. “The department has gotten more brutal, not less, . . . because no one has stepped forward to make it clear to the sadists and the sociopaths and the raging, howling racists in the Police Department that their murderous behavior will not be tolerated.”
Jeremiads veered into conspiracy theories. Eddie Ellis, president of a Harlem-based advocacy group called the Community Justice Center, suggested to Newsday in 1995 that New York City’s policing was a racist ploy to get rid of blacks and Latinos by confining them to the state prison system, “a multiple billion dollar industry that provides jobs and contracts and patronage in upstate Republican areas.” And after the police shooting of soon-to-be-married Sean Bell outside a Queens nightclub last November, the Reverend Al Sharpton absurdly claimed that minorities had as much to fear from the police as from robbers. Outside the court where the three officers who shot Bell appeared in April, the New York Times reported, protesters chanted: “Today’s pigs, tomorrow’s bacon.”
Though none of these charges is true—not just crime but also shootings by police declined in Gotham during the Giuliani administration and after—the anger and ideological prejudices of activist policing’s opponents can stymie change where leftist attitudes predominate. Take ultra-liberal San Francisco, for example, where Mayor Gavin Newsome is attempting the modest reform of establishing a community court that would crack down on quality-of-life crimes in the seedy downtown Tenderloin neighborhood. Newsome’s model is Gotham’s Midtown Community Court, a very moderate institution that combines punishments of community service—and, rarely, jail time—with counseling and job training. Its efficient handling of petty crimes helped resuscitate Times Square in the mid-nineties. Newsome’s critics say that the proposed court will “criminalize poor people simply for being poor,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports. They’re shocked, they say, “that a city like San Francisco would choose a hard-core Republican”—that is, Giuliani—“as a model for how to deal with social problems.” Chris Daly, a community-court skeptic and San Francisco Board of Supervisors member, told the Chronicle, “This proposal is dead on arrival.”
How, then, in Denver, did a bunch of liberal Democrats successfully institute New York–style policing reform, with overwhelming support not just from homeowners and the business community, but from poor minorities who live in blighted neighborhoods?
For one thing, as Nevel observes, “This city doesn’t have as sharp-elbowed grievance groups” as New York’s, which threaten violence (as city councilman Charles Barron did after the Bell shooting) and throw feces at effigies of the mayor (as the hatchet-job film Giuliani Time lovingly documents). With three times as many Hispanics as African-Americans in Denver, many of the city’s activist groups that speak—or claim to speak—for minorities lack the loathing for and suspicion of the police that simmer in many of today’s black partisans.
Without an entrenched class of reflexively oppositional race activists, Denver could thus have a real conversation about crime and policing. Policymakers found that, when vitriol or demagoguery did not drown out the voices of ordinary poor and minority residents, they said that they wanted safe neighborhoods, and for the city to use tactics that experience showed would work best to protect them from the tyranny of lawlessness. In Denver, that desire proved so strong that it erupted in grassroots advocacy for New York–style policing from the very people whom Al Sharpton and his ilk depend on to oppose it—minorities and the poor.
Some predictable opposition has finally cropped up, though. In April, members of the Colorado Progressive Coalition (which advocates “racial, economic, environmental, and social justice”) staged a leafleting campaign that denounced the Broken Windows theory. “More aggressive police will not make our neighborhoods stronger or safer,” the pamphlet reads.
“ ‘Broken Windows Policing’ targets low-level offenses and leads to an increase in racial profiling, youth harassment, police brutality fines, and arrests of those most vulnerable in our neighborhoods. We can’t arrest and ticket our problems away.”
Hickenlooper and the police understand the damage that even such mild opposition can do, and they have been working to assuage it. They’ve stopped using the term “Broken Windows,” emphasizing Compstat-based techniques instead. In May, the mayor and his staff met with two dozen activists to hear their concerns. “The group wanted to look at other solutions to community problems beyond law enforcement,” reports mayoral public-safety aide Bronson, and they wanted cops out of their cars doing foot patrols and building relationships as well as confronting suspicious behavior. “These are all tenets of the program we’re implementing,” Bronson says, “but the Broken Windows debate has interfered with our ability to reach common ground more quickly.”
Officials have also addressed fears about increased police presence in neighborhoods that are home to illegal immigrants, as Colorado has the toughest immigration law of any state. Officers have taken care to explain to residents of these neighborhoods that they won’t turn illegals over to the feds if they report a crime. State law requires cops to refer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement only those whom they have arrested for another crime and also suspect of being illegal immigrants. “Cultural transformation and the institutionalization of change require time both to achieve and to demonstrate as having a sustained positive impact on community safety,” Hickenlooper says.
It’s inconceivable that the mayor, who consistently polls as one of Colorado’s most popular politicians, will ever spark the antipathy that Giuliani did in New York. The only question is whether, should there be another tragic police shooting like those in Denver in 2003 and 2004, he would make the knee-jerk assumption that the police must have been at fault, as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg did after Sean Bell’s killing. If Hickenlooper sticks to his guns, his policing reform will succeed.
Alec Magnet, a former reporter for the New York Sun and the Telluride Watch, is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.