Robert McGuire

An Update on Crime, Safety, and Moral Decline

VTR Date: July 26, 1983

Guest: McGuire, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert McGuire
Title: An Update on Crime, Safety, and Moral Decline
VTR: 7/26/1983

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Like many of my viewers around the country I’m concerned about the prevalence, not of witches this time, but of crime in our country, in our streets, even in our homes; concerned about the safety of my own family, my friends, of the very fabric of our society, of our civilization. For we really can’t be sufficiently proud of human achievement, of voyages to the Moon, of genetic discovery, for the many other miracles of man’s invention if at the same time we must fear constantly for our lives, our property, our sense of personal and community wellbeing. There isn’t anyone I know in this country that feels as secure today as in all of our yesterdays. We all seem to talk nostalgically of an older sense of ease and wellbeing, of walking in our streets without wariness, without doors left locked, with a period of trust and faith in the people next to us in those times gone by. And that really wasn’t quite so long ago either, that contrast to today’s uneasiness, to the locks and double-locks and chains on our doors, to our sense of siege in the face of horrendous crime statistics. There seems, indeed, to be no place to hide as crime becomes an ever more disquieting blight upon our civilization, nor is this just scare-talk. We’re clearly in trouble, for people can’t live in fear as so many of us do now without us being deeply, profoundly in trouble. And we’d better face that fact, try to understand it, at least look for ways to survive it.

Well, as Police Commissioner for the largest city in the United States, Robert McGuire tries constantly of course to understand it, to deal with it, to help us survive. But as I introduced a program with him just this way two years ago, I felt something less than supreme optimism emanation from the Commissioner and I want to ask him how things are now, not just on our town, but in the rest of our nation as well. Welcome, Commissioner. What’s the state of the union?

MCGUIRE: Well, Dick, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think in terms of crime statistics generally it’s a little better in the last year than it was in previous years. Although certain cities are up, New York is down rather significantly in terms of violent crime. It gives me no great optimism or sense of satisfaction because we’re, one, coming off intolerable levels, levels that we wouldn’t have dreamed of twenty-five years ago. And secondly, there seems to be no dramatic change which would get us back to those years when we left our doors unlocked and our kids walking the streets in our neighborhoods. So I am in the short term modestly encouraged in New York and by what I see around the country in terms of crime programs involving both police and citizens resulting in some diminution of crime. But the statistics remain at a terrible level.

HEFFNER: You know it takes in the course of a program like this maybe 20-25 minutes before one gets down to the depths of despair as you look at the problem or the dimensions of the problem before us. Last time we spoke, a couple of years ago, there was a point at which I asked about where do we go from here, what do we do. And we began to talk about an armed society. We began to talk about a garrisoned society. And I wonder if we’re pointed more in that direction, in your estimation, at this time than before.

MCGUIRE: I don’t think so. I have not seen any accelerating movement toward either an armed society, a garrisoned society, a vigilante society; a concern that I’ve periodically expressed where we get the military more involved in police planning and police deployment on the streets, for example bringing in National Guard units to supplement local police, getting the Joint Chiefs involved with the Attorney General in terms of national crime strategies. All of which will very subtly begin to change the face of our government and the way we view ourselves. I’ve always been worried about that and concerned that we have to do the job at the local level. You do see slight encouragements, for example, the Coast Guard being involved in narcotics investigations on the borders, things like that which are very subtle but you know might move us more toward military involvement which I don’t think any of us want to see.

HEFFNER: And you feel now somewhat differently from the last time we spoke, that maybe the currents aren’t laid out that way. Maybe we’re not going to go in that direction.

MCGUIRE: Well, it’s hard to say. I was concerned about several things a couple of years ago and remain concerned about them today but fortunately don’t see, as I said, any acceleration. I was concerned, for example, about an erosion of the modest gains we’ve made in race relations in this country. I think that, for example, there are no more liberals on crime. As you know, you can’t find them anymore. People are no longer willing to talk about the fact of unemployment and poor housing and maleducation of youngsters, especially in our minority communities when viewed against the serious violent crimes that are being committed. I don’t know if you saw, but recently in Detroit the mayor instituted a curfew and had very strong language for the kids, in which he said nothing justifies mugging an old woman, in effect, and taking her pocketbook. And that’s the feeling around the country I think. There’s a sense of frustration about how to address this issue. Is it rehabilitation work? Is it the family structure? Is this stuff developed in children in their very earliest stages, which allows them to act out violently against people when they hit 14, 15, 16 or 17? I, I think, will go to my grave believing that this is fundamentally in the broadest sense a moral issue. You can use law enforcement to control behavior and to coerce people to conform to certain social norms and standards. But if the overwhelming part of your community, or indeed a large percentage of your community violate the draft registration laws or the internal revenue laws by failing to file income tax returns, or begin to act out on the street in an antisocial context, law enforcement is very quickly overwhelmed unless you want to have a garrisoned state, unless you want to have a thousand cops in the city which I don’t think any of us want to see. But once the percentages of law-abiding and lawless begin to tip, then you start to get – you start to move toward anarchy, you start to move toward much broader lawlessness. And I think we’ve been moving in that direction.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that tipping come to some extent, or may it not come, inevitably when one finds oneself in a position where the police are not capable any longer in terms of the demands upon them to enforce the law in the little things that make up the amenities of life? And then the scales begin to tip. You can get away with this, and then you can get away with a little more, and then a little further.

MCGUIRE: I agree with you. I would back up one step. I think there’s a deep-seated moral malaise in this country. I don’t think kids are taught what I call the Jiminy Cricket on their shoulder, a sense of values, a moral sense, a sense of the value of human life, respect for other people’s property. And I really do point to the breakdown of the institutions in this country post-World War II, church, the state, lack of respect for the government, difficulties in the school system, and a much more permissive environment than which kids in the 50s. Not the 50s, I was brought up in the 50s; it was still rather structured. The 60s and the 70s, a lot of our young people were brought up in those twenty years and it was basically as long as you don’t hurt somebody, what’s good for you, what makes you feel good; all these euphemisms for doing whatever you feel like doing. You can’t live in society with that kind of attitude and not expect people to like your gold chain so they take your gold chain, like your corvette so they take your corvette, see affluence on television so they feel they are entitled to it even though they’re not going to work for it. I think all of these things have resulted in an environment which basically contributed to the acting out. Then you had reduced numbers of cops because of fiscal crises in many of the cities and, to use a bad cliché, benign neglect on the streets of our cities where we didn’t enforce the law vigorously with respect to what we call quality of life violations; kids sitting in the parks and vandalizing the parks, hassling old people on the corners, smoking marijuana in public, drinking which I think has become an overwhelming problem in this society.

And what we did for five and six and ten years is to say we can’t really deal with this so let’s make believe it’s not happening, or let’s make believe it’s not criminal, or let’s make believe it’s not affecting our society. The genie comes out of the bottle and now you try to put it back in again and it’s almost impossible. People look at you like you’re crazy when you start to enforce traffic regulations against running red lights, stop signs, drunk driving, low level narcotics sales. And it becomes an institutionalized part of you societal structure which I think is very uncertain, unfair, whatever you want to call it.

HEFFNER: But it sounds to me as though you’re saying we’ve begun that process of trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

MCGUIRE: We have in New York very vigorously in the last three or four years.

HEFFNER: And how successfully?

MCGUIRE: Well I think in terms of statistics, very successfully. Namely, we give out for example over a million moving violations, summonses for running red lights and stop signs in this city. We have a massive drunk driving educational and deterrence campaign going on at the present time. We arrest approximately twenty thousand people for low level narcotics violations in this city each year. We have reduced down violent crime rather significantly in the 10-15% in the last two years, each of the last two years. Burglaries, robberies, assaults are down. We are finally indicting large numbers of people, and convicting them and sending them to jail for a long time in this city. And I believe it’s having a significant effect, an impact on street crime.

HEFFNER: But you know what puzzles me about that Commissioner is that you talk about the change in our society, you say it’s a moral issue, that crime is essentially a moral issue; it has to do with what our own sense of what is appropriate in terms of our relationship with other human beings. But nothing very much is changing for the better in terms of the forces that touch us, mold us, make us what we are.

MCGUIRE: That’s true. I mean what we’ve done in New York, for example, and I’m sure in most of the major cities has been accomplished by what I would characterize as the muscle side of society. I mean we are coercing this social behavior by law enforcement efforts, community anti-crime efforts where we get citizens and neighborhoods involved, by incarcerating people and getting them off the street. If a kid is committing fifty robberies a year and he’s locked up for seven years, that’s fifty less robberies that are going to be committed for the next seven years. But I think you’re absolutely right in terms of the fundamental problem. We’re dealing with the symptoms rather than really the cause. And we are not making any headway in terms of addressing why. Why do large numbers of our young people, and we’re basically talking about young people, why do large numbers of our young people commit violent crime given the opportunity? They appear to have the inclination. If they have the opportunity, they appear to do it with impunity. That is a fundamental question and it is not being addressed in this society.

HEFFNER: And your answer is in terms of large social movements.

MCGUIRE: Well, my answer is, in terms of large social movements, my answer is that we’ve fundamentally got to begin to teach kids values. And we have to I think also address the social environment within which these kids live, schooling, full employment, or moving towards full employment. You have to be able to educate young people in an increasingly technological society. If you’re maleducating them and they become school dropouts and we’re going into a high-tech society, maybe we’re in it already, where jobs won’t be available for the uneducated; what are we going to do with these kids?

HEFFNER: But that’s the situation that we’re in, isn’t it?

MCGUIRE: That’s correct.

HEFFNER: And there doesn’t seem to be any indication that that’s changing.

MCGUIRE: That’s correct. It may be getting worse.

HEFFNER: So why when we began is McGuire somewhat more optimistic than McGuire was when he sat at this table a couple of years ago?

MCGUIRE: Well, I believe there are two sides to the issue; the fundamental problem, and then dealing with the symptoms. And I think we’ve been dealing much better with the symptoms, the acting out, the anti-social behavior. I think that law enforcement plays a major role. You know, I believe in original sin as I’ve told you on more than one occasion. A lot of people are going to be bad. And I think the law enforcement is doing a better job of saying to the potentially bad person, “If you do it, we’re going to catch you and we’re going to lock you up.” The other side of the coin is not being addressed at all.

HEFFNER: You say a substantial number of people are bad. Right? Original sin?

MCGUIRE: I don’t know that they’re fundamentally bad. I don’t think they’d be bad for example if a lot of these kids were not brutalized as children and given no family support in terms of their schooling. I mean they come from single family homes. Their mothers are often times 14 and 15 and 16 year olds, emotionally disturbed themselves, who should not have children. As you know, the figures of illegitimate births in the United States are dramatic; 50% I hear in Washington D.C., perhaps 40% I think in New York. You can translate that often times into a very young teenage girl having one or two children without the emotional, financial, or other capacity to raise a child in a decent environment. Then the child goes into a school system which does not have the infrastructure which is able to offset what the family has failed to accomplish and the kid becomes a street kid. By the age of 12, 14 they’re carrying knives. And then they go on totally incapable of getting gainful employment in our society. Those are the problems we haven’t begun to address.

HEFFNER: But if we were to say here they are just as you described them, you don’t expect that those problems are going to be resolved in this century and maybe never, right?

MCGUIRE: Well I don’t know. I mean these problems have always been with us but, like crime, in a much more tolerated, tolerable size in terms of society. They’re getting out of proportion now and beginning to impact on the rest of society. We’ve always had crime, as you know, down through the ages and in this country. We’re a relatively violent society. But thirty years ago when you had two hundred or three hundred homicides in New York and now you have sixteen hundred to eighteen hundred, as you indicated at the beginning of the show, things have changed dramatically. It’s not just hype. It’s not just media attention on crime. The crime picture has changed in our society and it’s spilling out and now affecting all segments of our society in all different ways.

HEFFNER: That’s why I wonder why initially you say you don’t think that we’re going to head toward a garrison state. You don’t feel at the moment.

MCGUIRE: I didn’t say that. I said that I haven’t seen any acceleration toward a garrison state or vigilantism in the last two or three years. I think that, and this may be a short-term hiatus in which society is beginning to catch up with the crime problem in law enforcement terms, in lock ‘em up terms, in get tough on crime terms, in not coddle a criminal terms. I think you reach a high-water mark with that approach. Now you have hundred of thousands of criminals whom you are not rehabilitating. You’ve got farm teams coming up of the kids coming from the single-family homes, the illegitimate births, the absolute lack of emotional empathy for other human beings. These kids are still being raised in our society and there’s no infrastructure designed to offset that, to interdict it, to stop it. And consequently I am not optimistic in terms of the numbers of kids who will fit this mold and will come up and will if given the opportunity act out in a violently criminal fashion.

HEFFNER: Then of course I have to ask you, as a prophet – that each man is a prophet in his own home whether a lousy or a good one – as a prophet, what do you see for the end of this century?

MCGUIRE: It’s very difficult for me. I hope against hope that we begin as a nation to address these fundamental issues. I think there’s some residual racism in this society which gives rise to a lot of these problems. I think we have, for example, an increasingly large and emerging black middle class, and an increasingly isolated component of the black community that is welfare-dependent, young black females having children that they can’t support and repeating the process in fifteen or sixteen years, not in a thirty or forty year period. And I think those are the issues we have to address in terms of structural support, training, counseling, and getting to the cause of the problem very, very quickly. If you’re asking am I optimistic, the answer is I see nothing to suggest that we are willing to make the moral, financial, and emotional commitment to deal with these problems. Right now the country is in sort of a pro-law enforcement, we don’t care what the causes of crime are, we’re tired of it all, lock him up. And I think that has to be a component of it. And I have been an advocate of that. I don’t think we can wait for twenty, forty, or sixty years while all this passes in some societal sense and our people become prisoners in their own homes. But I think that whether you’re a liberal or a conservative or a neo-liberal or a neo-conservative, you’ve got to start dealing with why is society spawning all of these kids. I mean we’re talking about a large population of potential criminals whom we arrest in our cities every year. Where are they coming from? Somebody has got to say, “Why is this happening?”

HEFFNER: But haven’t you answered that? Haven’t you described the reasons why the breakdown of an older society that simply does not exist any longer? To say, “Why?” – It doesn’t. It’s not here. This is not 1900. It’s almost the year 2000. Why then wouldn’t it be better and wiser for us to make that concession and to try to structure a society that is based upon realities in terms of what we do about crime, what we do about criminals, what we do about law enforcement generally?

MCGUIRE: Well, of course I think we’re moving in that direction. But I don’t know that it’s going to make you as a human being happier because what we might well be saying about that is we are incapable as a country, as a nation, the greatest country in the history of the world, we’re incapable of dealing with the causes of crime whether it be the breakdown of the family and the institutions that kind of coerced people in a good sense to obey the law, to recognize the value of human life, and the fact that somebody’s property is not theirs, it’s somebody else’s, and then to deal with, on the other side, which is to create in effect a garrisoned state. We’re doing that now with security gates, with guards, with all kinds of apparatus. And I do believe in the short term we have to do that. All I’m saying is that we’ve got to start dealing, if we are going to survive as a nation, with this other stuff in the most fundamental sense. And it’s not whether a teacher in a classroom is teaching properly. It’s far more fundamental than that. And I think we have to deal with those issues if we hope to survive as a nation and to progress. I mean in a sense we’re going backwards, not forwards.

HEFFNER: Would that we were going backwards in some ways because in a sense when you talk about survive as a nation you mean survive as the nation you want us to be, the nation we were for a time, a point in history. Where is it written that those values that produced the years we spoke about, those early years of our lives are to be repeated? Where is it written? Where is it written that we will not have to experience this transvaluation of values?

MCGUIRE: I think that it’s not written anywhere. Perhaps it’s written in the Ten Commandments, in the Old Testament and New Testament. And if we get away from that then we are going into a totally new kind of society, but it’s a society I don’t believe I want to live in. I don’t want my children living in it. I would rather fight to maintain the traditional values that not only am I comfortable with, but I think work. I mean I think there are some immutable values in your life as human beings. And I don’t think that’s going to change whether we’re in the twenty-first century or the twenty-second century. And that is respect for my life, for me as a human being and my respect for you as a human being.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back to that matter of Original Sin because I had the feeling you were saying, “Look, no matter what, you and I know there always will be those who in any society – the number is small in a small society, the number is legion in a much larger society – who will be antisocial, who will be destructive for whatever reasons.” And here we’re talking about nature perhaps rather than nurture. If that’s true and we continue to grow, and there are almost a quarter of a billion Americans, aren’t we going to find of necessity ourselves pointing toward if not a garrison state at least a state that does perhaps separate more effectively antisocial elements from the rest of us?

MCGUIRE: Yes. And I think that there’s nothing intrinsically…

HEFFNER: It’s a brief answer to such a long-winded question.

MCGUIRE: Well, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with separating whether you mean physical separation or psychological separation. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with, after somebody has demonstrated that they’re incapable of living in your society by your rules whatever they may be, that you now separate them from society. The society has a right to protect itself obviously from internal threat and external threat. Parenthetically, I once said that when the Russians, if they ever invade the United States their main worry will be getting mugged on one of our large city streets. I think that we have made a commitment to reinvigorate our military establishment. We’re not making the same commitment to deal with this internal threat of crime. I think there’s nothing wrong with taking a very hard law enforcement perspective or even a broader gauged perspective, which is to constitute physical removal of the pathologically social people unable to conform to our rules. However, I, as a human being, while I’m willing to do that, I’m sad about that, that human beings, we’re losing them. And I would like to see us address seriously these fundamental questions of young people. I don’t believe that a little baby in your arms, six months old, is lost. I think what happens is that society comes down upon that child both affirmatively and negatively, and the child becomes a juvenile delinquent, the baby becomes a juvenile delinquent, and then a serious criminal, and then a murderer. I don’t think it has to be. And I think if we were willing to commit ourselves to find the answers and to deal seriously with these fundamental problems early enough we could save large numbers of these young people who are terrorizing us right now, not all of them but some of them.

HEFFNER: Commissioner, that’s at the beginning. Toward the end, then, when people have talked about rehabilitation; I think when you were here last time or the time before you indicated that you really hadn’t seen much there as positive by way of rehabilitation. Do you feel that way now?

MCGUIRE: Yes. I think that it’s a strange thing, but rehabilitation seems to have to come from within…