By Dave Lindorff
When I was starting out as a reporter back in 1972, working for a little family-owned daily, the Middletown Press in central Connecticut, I had editors and a publisher who demanded the best from us. If I was covering a story -- whether it was a police blotter report, a town meeting, or a controversial decision by a local zoning board -- and I failed to ask an important question, I inevitably got a call from the editor telling me to get it answered and inserted into my article.
These days, leaving important questions unasked is not just commonplace, it has become the norm. This is particularly true when it comes to not questioning the assertions of government authorities.
A few days ago, I wrote about how the New York Times has been simply parroting, unquestioned, the official Washington line concerning Russia and President Vladimir Putin in its reports on the crisis in Ukraine, where a US-backed coup last year ousted the elected government and installed a bunch of fascists and corrupt oligarchs.
Now we have the once-celebrated Philadelphia Inquirer, which in the wake of a spate of police murders of unarmed blacks in Los Angeles, Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY and Cleveland, OH, shamelessly pimped for the brutal and murderous Philadelphia Police Department and its complicit Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
In a Saturday banner headline over a pair of articles, the Inquirer declared "HOMICIDES DOWN," over an article that was sub-headed "Changes in police approaches are seen as key to a safer city."
For starters, the headline was misleading. Homicides in Philadelphia were not actually down in 2014 from the prior year. We learn in the article itself that in 2013 there were 247 people killed in the city, while last year, the number killed was 248 -- an increase of one. Both years do represent a 7% decline from 2012, but that decline is old news, hardly meriting an all-caps banner headline this year, particularly as close to 250 murders in a city of 1.5 million represents a lot of killings (New York, with 8 million people, had 328 murders in 2014, and considered that total horrific). The number of non-fatal shootings in Philly, to be sure, was down to 1047 this year, compared to 1128 in 2013. But again, that is hardly a number to boast about in a city of 1.5 million. In any case, it probably has more to do with the marksmanship or lack thereof, of the shooters, and the luck of the victims in getting to a hospital quickly, than with the quality of policing or changes in policing policies.
Where the Inquirer reporting of this story really falls down, though, is when the article starts supporting the sub-headline's assertion that "changes in police approaches" are somehow responsible for the rather anemic if over-celebrated "decline" in homicides.
The paper's two reporters, Dylan Purcell and Aubrey Whelan, do
homicides and violent crimes have steadily gone down over the last decade,
according to the most recent FBI figures.
But then they go on to write that Commissioner Ramsey:
the citywide drop in crime to a sustained strategy focused on data-driven
policing that targets known offenders, community outreach, and accountability
-- from officers working foot patrols to commanders responsible for developing
Now, to be fair, Ramsey's recently introduced "sanctity of life" policy for police appears to have cut police-involved shootings, with the cop-killing incidents down from 16 in 2012 and 12 in 2013 to 4 last year. And it is certainly conceivable that some of his policies (both "tougher" and more progressive ones), which include targeting known gang leaders for monitoring and harassment by police on the beat, foot patrols in high crime areas (which can be fairly militarized in nature), controversial "stop-and-frisk" tactics targeting primarily young men of color, and diversion programs that supposedly steer young first offenders charged with minor offenses into community programs rather than to prison, may have had something to do with what little progress may have been made in reducing the city's violent crime, but that's really just conjecture. In any event, there is no way of knowing this from the Inquirer article.
Never asked by the reporters, who should have put the question directly to the self-congratulatory police commissioner, as well as to the several academic criminologists they interviewed, is this: If violent crime is down all over the country, including both in cities like Philadelphia where police are taking an increasingly militarized approach to their jobs, and where the so-called "broken windows" philosophy of arresting people for the slightest infraction in high-crime neighborhoods is operative, and in cities where a different, less confrontational "community policing" strategy has been adopted, then isn't it more likely that the drop in crime has other explanations than what the police are, or are not doing in Philly?