Robert McGuire

Crime, Safety, and Moral Decline

VTR Date: November 6, 1981

Guest: McGuire, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert McGuire
Title: “Crime, Safety and Moral Decline”
AIR: 1/16/82

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, but of crime in our country, in our streets, even in our homes. Concerned about the safety of my family, my friends, for the very fabric of our society, of our civilization. No one can be proud of human achievement, the voyages to the moon, of genetic discovery and manipulation, or of the many other miracles of man’s invention if at the same moment we must fear for our lives, our property, our sense of personal and community wellbeing. There isn’t anyone I know anywhere in this country who feels as secure today as in all of our yesterdays. We all tend to talk nostalgically of an older sense of ease and of wellbeing, of walking in our streets without wariness, of doors left unlocked, of trust and faith in the people next to us, in times gone by. Nor was that quite so long ago, 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 crime statistics that grow ever more horrendous everywhere all the time. There seems indeed to be no place to hide as crime becomes an ever larger concern, an ever more disquieting blight upon our civilization. Nor is this just scare talk, not nonsense either. Clearly, we’re in trouble, for people can’t live in fear as so many of us do now, without being deeply, profoundly in trouble. We’d better face that fact, try to understand it. At least look for ways to survive it.

Well, Robert McGuire tries constantly to understand it, to deal with it, to help us survive. As Police Commissioner of New York City, he presides over an army of law enforcers that sees these statistics of crime worsening each year. What do we say then even to ourselves, Commissioner, and what in the world do we do?

McGuire: I don’t have the answers. It’s a hard question. But I think it is the significant question on a domestic basis that we have to deal with Dick. We looked at a study which indicated that in New York City we have about five times as much crime reported as in 1957, which is not so long ago. In a sense, none of us should be shocked by the explosion of crime, it seems to me.

Heffner: What do you mean?

McGuire: Post World War II, for a lot of reasons we’ve seen a breakdown of the family, we’ve seen a walking away from religion in a formal sense, we’ve seen violence in terms of movies, television shows, news reports of Vietnam on the six o’clock news, napalming villages, a me-too kind of civilization in which if you want your neighbor’s car you take it, if you want to do something you take it. Thirty-seven percent of all births in New York City recently this year are reported to be illegitimate. And I think we’re reaping what we’ve sown in the last 20 years. And in a sense, we just should not be shocked by what’s occurring.

Heffner: Then what? I know you say that’s the difficult question to which there are no easy answers. But what?

McGuire: I think you have t, one, recognize the scope and the extent of the problem which, I think you just very, very articulately did. I think people are beginning to understand the dramatic impact that crime is having on their daily lives. Maybe the people have always known it, and maybe it’s the public officials and people who control the destiny of this country and of its people in terms of governmental institutions who have to understand it more. I think that you have to deal with I ton several different levels. And i think there has to be – and I don’t want to sound self-righteous – but I think ultimately and fundamentally you have to have a moral reawakening, an understanding that unless people are prepared in terms of the social contract to live together peacefully, it all breaks down. We cannot live in an armed garrison with 50 thousand cops in each large city controlling things. I think we have to deal with law enforcement. I think we have to build prisons and we have to put more cops in the street and we have to, in the short term, protect our citizens. I think we have to more efficiently manage our resources in terms of the criminal justice system.

But I think at the same time unless you’re prepared to go to a garrison state you’ve got to deal with illegitimate births. And you can translate that by and large to minority teenagers having one, two, three and four kids who have no fathers around, no male role model, who go to school, who are left on the streets by themselves, who become literally street youths, carrying weapons, ultimately engaging in, after their truancy, in criminal acts. And they become the kid at the age of 16 or 18 who kills somebody else because he doesn’t like the look of his face or because somebody smiled at you. So I think you have to deal with morality in its broadest and most fundamental sense, the family role inculcating ethical principles into kids so that they can live peacefully in society with other people. Secondly, get kids back into the educational system. Provide some meaningful employment opportunities in an increasingly technological society. I think we’re going one way in terms of the technology in our society, and we’re maleducating our kids that can’t read or write so that they’re going to grow up frustrated, society’s going to be frustrated in terms of employing them. I think that has got to be faced and addressed hard. We have never in this country seriously dealt with full employment, at least getting close to full employment in terms of our young people who are committing the disproportionate amount of crime.

So I think all of those things. I think there has to be a moral underpinning for human behavior. I think you have to deal with maleducation, employment opportunities, and get very serious about crime control on the law-enforcement side. And if somebody’s going to mug you or rape you, they should go away for a long period of time. And we have to commit the resources to law enforcement which we have heretofore not done.

Heffner: You talk about a garrison state, a police state. Isn’t that at the moment where we’re heading, where we must head given the enormity of the problems as you’ve outlined them?

McGuire: Well, we’re certainly moving in terms of people’s fears and anxieties and people’s sense, I think they would welcome more repressive police approaches, bigger prisons, more police officers, longer prison terms. They’re fed up. And I can understand it and I’m sure you can. I’m only concerned that instead of correcting the deficiency in our free democracy we don’t do it at the expense of the loss of the liberties of all of us. But I can understand how people are so frustrated today. It is of no consequence to an old woman living in Brooklyn or the Bronx that she lives in the most affluent, powerful free society in the history of the world when she has, as you just pointed out, five locks on her doors and she’s unwilling because of her fear to go out at night or even in the afternoon. She may as well be living in a dictatorship where she can go out in the street. So I think what you’ve got to be careful of is 10, 15, or 20 years from now, the civil authorities being unable to control crime and consequently, in the first instance, a very subtle cry for help from the military for example, the National Guard units, Army units supplementing3police. And all of a sudden a subtle change in the form of government that we have. And I think it’s incumbent upon everybody, public officials as well as private citizens, to address hard and to face up to the issues that are afflicting us today as a society. I think in many respects they’re moral issues with a lot of very pragmatic aspects to them that have to be dealt with in terms of resource, commitment.

Heffner: Pragmatically, in terms of the threat you see, the possibility of the commitment of militia, troops to supplement our police activity, what can, you’re the head man of the police department of the City of New York. What do you want to see done in terms of the police in this city? Do we double the number of police officers?

McGuire: Well, any police commissioner would like to double his police department, obviously. And he would tell the public, I think justifiably, that he could do a better job with twice as many cops. We have right now about 9,000 fewer police officers than we had in 1974 because of the fiscal crisis. It is almost gratuitous for me to talk about how many cops I want because I have to be willing to deal with who’s going to pay for it and how much money is available to pay for it. And the police commissioner, perhaps fortunately, is not given the public mandate, as the mayor and the city council, the board of estimate are, to determine the priorities of the available resources and to spread them around. You have health and hospitals concerns, you have tremendous educational bills in this city. Fire, sanitation. And the mayor has to make the hard choices. Obviously, with more cops you can do a better job, but somebody has to be prepared to pay for those police officers. They don’t grow on trees. So I feel a little whipsawed by the question. Obviously I would like more cops. But ultimately it’s the citizen who has to bankroll it, and it’s a lot of money.

Heffner: I don’t mean to whipsaw you, Commissioner. I wonder whether you think the average citizen is ready, prepared to dedicate more funds. And indeed, that raises the question about the possibility of dedicated taxes for the support for a larger, better police department.

McGuire: I think that if the average citizen in our city was sure, he was certain that if he put up on additional $100 or$200 of his taxes that X numbers of additional police officers would be deployed, and some of them would be in his neighborhood, I think he would be more than willing to put up the money. I think that many of our citizens are cynical that if they pay more taxes they will see probably fewer rather than more police officers, they will get fewer pickups from the sanitation rather than more, that the monies will somehow go into some bottomless pit either for labor increases, salary increases, or just get lost in the shuffle. I can’t say I disagree with that. One of the things you can think about is a dedicated tax. It’s something that perhaps has to be dealt with in the future, because people will have to make a judgment as to what the appropriate level of security is against a backdrop of vastly increased crime in this city. And as you said before, it’s not just New York City, it’s all over this country.

Heffner: Is there any indication that more police, that the presence, the obvious presence of more men in uniform would deter crime or do something to alleviate the situation that we’ve described?

McGuire: Yes, I believe there are studies. We’ve just done a redeployment of the police department in which the mayor gave us some overtime and we put out a lot of police officers in certain, what we call high robbery target areas in the city. Places where we could determine that there were patterns of significant robbery activity on the street. And during the past six months we have had very significant success in both reducing the number of robberies and increasing our arrest activity. So we’re arresting and apprehending more people committing robberies.

Heffner: By definition you’re going to determine success in terms of apprehension and arrests. But I don’t believe…

McGuire: No. I would determine success in the first instance by a reduction in the numbers of arrests. And we have accomplished that. In other words, we have fewer robbery complaints since April 1 in this city. Our robbery complaints have gone down rather significantly, which is a tremendous success for the New York City Police Department. We’re fighting a media campaign of rising crime, but in the last five months in New York City in the area of robberies, which is the most significant crime for people, we’ve been reducing the number of robberies as against last year.

Heffner: Are you convinced that arrests and deterrence through more arrests, more effective use of the police, is basically the answer to our problem?

McGuire: No. I mean, it’s a part of the answer. The global answers are other things, it seems to me. But the police engage in a holding operation. Sometimes people think that if a crime is committed it’s the cop’s fault, or it’s the police department’s fault. I mean, the police officers, you don’t have enough of them to put on every street corner and in every lobby of every apartment house. We are basically society’s moppers uppers. In a certain sense our presence on the street deters a certain amount of crime by our physical presence in uniform and the threat of plainclothes cops. Additionally, we apprehend a certain number of people who commit crimes. Last year, we made 170,000 arrests. And I could certify to you that we probably arrested most people who were committing crimes in New York probably at least once. They difficulty is that the criminal justice system is so overburdened that those cases do not result in serious punishment for the people who committed all those crimes. Because in the broadest sense what you try to accomplish by arrest is, one, punishment of the that person for committing that act, and two, in a broader sense, deterring other people, that person and other people from committing similar crimes in the future. The difficulty is that the system in all cities has broken down by virtue of inefficiencies, but more importantly the numbers of cases, the numbers of criminals who are now prettying on people in this country. And what you end up with is, in effect, trivializing crime, plea bargaining, little if no incarceration, and conditioning people that crime pays. The criminal who gets arrested three or four times and does not spend any time in jail must walk away thinking, “This is terrific. Why shouldn’t I do it again”?

Heffner: Commissioner, it’s mind boggling to think of this kind of problem, that we don’t pour in the kinds of resources that would enable us not only to make arrests, but then to see that those people who, if proven guilty, are sent away. Now, where does it break down, not in terms of the general morality that, immorality that leads to crime? Where in the world does the criminal justice system break down?

McGuire: Well, the criminal justice system is not geared to handle the volume of cases that it’s presently handling.

Heffner: “Geared”, meaning what?

McGuire: Resource-wise or managerially. It was designed in an era of vastly fewer cases. And it is not a system that was designed by IBM or some other systems people. It is a system that has grown up. You have your independently elected prosecutors, you have your judges, all of which, in a sense, are independent components of what should be a flowing, dynamic, efficient from a managerial sense, system. We’re now talking not about the quality of justice that’s dispensed, but whether the case moves expeditiously and efficiently through the system. You’ve got to deal with this on two levels. The next question is: is justice being dispensed? We might efficiently dispose of 100,000 cases, but if, in a sense, nobody is treated seriously in terms of the antisocial conduct that they engaged in resulting in some sanction that is serious and meaningful, well, then the system can be as serious as you want, but it’s not accomplishing its goal, which in the broadest context is punishment and deterrence.

Heffner: Commissioner, if we had a man from mars here joining us today, he’d say, “How and why in the world, Police Commissioner, honest, concerned, concerned as you’ve suggested and your predecessors too, district attorneys who’ve seen the same problems that we’ve outlined here, judges who must be just as aware as we are of these problems, what happens, what in the world happens?

McGuire: Well, again, you’re sort of asking…

Heffner: I think the breakdown is…

McGuire: Well, you’re asking something from the criminal justice system that it’s not capable of delivering. The criminal justice system does not any longer coerce societal behavior, appropriate societal behavior. That is what it’s supposed to achieve from a law enforcement perspective from, in terms of the carrying the stick, from the stick perspective. Twenty-five years ago, if you committed a crime, you felt, justifiably, that you would probably be arrested, somebody would know about it, and that you would be prosecuted and go to jail if you committed a serious crime. That is not the perception anymore, nor is it the reality anymore. And, for example, we have an income tax law. If 50 million Americans decided not to file their income tax returns any longer on April 15, the system would break down. IRS could not possibly deal with that breakdown. If all the young people who are supposed to register for the draft don’t register, we could pick out isolated and specific kids and prosecute them, and unless that coerces everybody else to conform and to register, you’re going to have a breakdown in that system. And that is what’s been happening in our society in the last 20 years for a lot of reasons. People no longer conform to the constraints of society. They do what they want, what they feel like doing. Whatever makes them feel good at the time.

Heffner: Yes, but…

McGuire: If they want to take your car, they’re going to take your car. So that the end result is an overwhelming number of criminal cases coming into a criminal justice system which is not particularly efficient, which does not have the resources in terms of manpower, in terms of facilities, prisons. We have 24,000 state prison cells in New York State, 24,000. We have 170,000 arrests each year in New York City alone. Now, you don’t have to be a mathematician to understand you can’t incarcerate even a small percentage of the people who are committing serious crimes in New York City.

Heffner: Then what do you do?

McGuire: Well, I think you have to face up to that issue, number one. I think you have appropriate the resources on a crash, emergency basis to expand your criminal justice system in terms of prisons, in terms of correction officers, in terms of district attorneys and judges. I think we have to demand that each part of the system work far more efficiently than it has been in the past. I think we have to deal with the necessity for more cops. But again, you’re dealing with an overtaxed public.

Heffner: What do you mean, Commissioner, what do you mean, “overtaxed”?

McGuire: Well, New York City residents are the highest taxed people in the United States.

Heffner: Maybe. Undoubtedly. I didn’t mean that. That may be the case, accept that as the case, but what do you mean “over” taxed?

McGuire: Well, it’s not overtaxed in the sense that your security and your survival are far more important than anything else in your life.

Heffner: No?

McGuire: That’s my feeling. And I’m certainly prepared to make any financial sacrifice that I have to to ensure that my wife and my kids can walk on our city streets. I feel most other people the same way. But it’s very difficult to translate that subjective feeling on my part into a meaningful, quick program that will now have certain positive consequences in terms of additional facilities being built immediately, just hiring more cops. And the mayor has put on more cops this year in New York City. He’s authorized 2,300 more police officers. It takes about 12 or 15 months to get them on board. You have to give a test, you have to process them, you have to put them through the police academy. So you don’t even begin to feel it until a year, 18 months after it’s all authorized.

Heffner: When they’re on board, do you feel that you’ll be maneuvering and assigning those resources appropriately? Are you satisfied with the ways in which you, you command this department, are able to allocate your resources and the jobs they have to do?

McGuire: Well, I have a great amount of freedom in terms of the allocation of my resources. I am fairly satisfied with our deployment. I think that too much of our resources go to responding to 911 calls. And the reason for that is that we have a computerized system and that we have educated the public, the citizens of New York, to expect a radio car for a lot of calls. We go to two and a half million 911 calls each year, with 9,000 fewer cops. And so I’m a little frustrated that I can’t have more cops out on foot posts, which I believe we should have. I like cops walking the street. I like cops in uniform talking to people. I like store owners to know the name of their cop. And it’s very difficult to accomplish getting gore cops on foot posts and out in the communities when you have so few and so tremendous pressures or so many tremendous pressures on to get 911 calls answered when people are in their homes and something happens and they’re waiting for a car.

Heffner: Do you want to cut back on what public expectation is from the police? I mean, you know, I come from the day when you just assumed that cop was going to do everything. And you loved him.

McGuire: I don’t want to cut back. I come from that same era, and I believe that’s what people should be able to expect. My frustration, I think shared by almost everybody living in New York, is we don’t have the number of cops to be able to accommodate and give people what they want. I would hope someday we’re able to do that again. But I do think you have understand that in 1981 it’s not 1950, in terms of the crime picture. Somebody from one newspaper said to me, “isn’t this just a hysterical reaction, a cyclical reaction”? I really couldn’t believe the question, because we’ve gone from 300 homicides 20 years ago to pushing 2,000 in this city. It is not a hysterical reaction. The citizen has a right to be offended that they can’t walk on the city streets at night and they can’t be safe in their apartments and their homes. And I think that’s the first priority of government.

Heffner: Commissioner, if you had to make a guess, if you had to look into a crystal ball, if you had to take the experience you’ve had as commissioner, and your dad’s experience as a cop before that, what would you say is going to happen now? What’s going to happen in the next ten, 20 years? Are we going to have those state militiamen in our streets? Are we not going to deal with this sufficiently to avoid that kind of thing?

McGuire: I think if history is any teacher, Dick, what you’re going to have is a, perhaps, slowing down, but continual, incremental gravity seriousness to the problem, perhaps until it reaches a point of absolute crisis proportions when people have to just face up to it both in terms of what kind of a society they live in and…

Heffner: And then what?

McGuire: Well, I think then you’ve got to deal with reorienting your personal life. I think a lot of people have to say, “Hey, I mean, what are we raising our kids in? Pornographic films, violence, divorce, promiscuity, all accepted, drugs on the street, every park in this city, every disco”. That to me is ultimately the most important thing. Because law enforcement cannot change society’s views and shape an entire society. All we can do at the tail end is hopefully to coerce some social behavior and to dissuade people from antisocial behavior by sanctioning certain numbers of people. We can’t sanction four million people out of an eight million population in New York City. We can’t do it. It’s impossible. So I think you have to face up to that, face up to the fact that a great deal of the crime is being committed by a relatively small number of young people who have absolutely no stake in society, no concern about the value of human life, and face up to the fact that most of their parents are young girls who should not be mothering three and four children without a father, face up to the fact that these kids are lost in our education system at the age of six and seven, and face up to the fact that they have absolutely no job opportunities given their educational maleducation, and no family support, and face up to the fact that we’ve got to turn all of that around. At the same time, extend more resources and make more efficient the criminal justice system and make the sanction at the end of the criminal justice system far more meaningful.

Heffner: does that include capital punishment?

McGuire: I believe it does. I came into this job not believing across the board in capital punishment for the crime of murder. I’ve always believed in it for the crime of murder against a police officer. But I have come to believe that society needs it for its protection, however modest that protection might be from capital punishment. I do think it is a signal that society is outraged, that society has had it. And it offends me that somebody can brutally destroy another human being’s life and plead guilty and get 15 years or 20 years in prison. It’s not acceptable to me, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to most people. I’m offended that I have to say that as a…

Heffner: What do you mean?

McGuire: I am a Christian. I believe in salvation and rehabilitation. And it offends me that i have to say that the state should take a human life. But I don’t see any other way out. I think that we have gotten to the point that we are in a fight for our very survival as a society, as a civilization.

Heffner: In the half minute we have remaining, do you think we are going to be forced to other activities that are offensive for this?

McGuire: I don’t know. But I think that if you don’t do it with the civil authorities, you’re going to do it in far more repressive ways. And I think that all decent people – and I keep saying this; I sound like a preacher, and I get tired of hearing myself – but I think the good people of the world, black, white and Hispanic, have got to stand up together and say, “No more”. You know? “We’re not going to tolerate this level of crime in our society”.

Heffner: and they’re going to do it in terms of changing their patterns of living?

McGuire: I hope so. Changing their kids’ patterns, changing their own patterns of behavior.

Heffner: Commissioner, does this put you in the category of those who look optimistically to the future, or the opposite?

McGuire: I cannot say I’m optimistic right now. I don’t want to sound like I’m a total pessimist, but I see no great deal to be optimistic about.

Heffner: Thanks even on that sad and pessimistic note, Commissioner Robert McGuire.

McGuire: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”