Crime, lead, and Rudy

Yes, getting the lead out of gasoline no doubt explains a large share, maybe even the bulk, of the crime drop from 1990-2005. But that doesn’t meant that more and better police services didn’t count. Only the liberal (and libertarian) Bourbons, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, still regard law enforcement as a bigger problem than crime.

Lead exposure in childhood greatly increases the probability that a child will become criminally active. It’s quite plausible that the removal of lead from gasoline in the 1980s had more to do with the crime collapse of the late 1990s than any other single factor. Lots of things probably contributed: smarter policing, more cops, more prison cells, fewer unwanted children due to legal access to abortion, the tightening low-wage labor market that went along with the late-90s boom.

Kevin Drum is right: if we can get rid of most of the remaining residential lead for $30 billion, that’s a huge bargain. (Right up there, I’d say, with nurse home visits for first-time mothers and literacy programs for prisoners and probationers.)

None of that provides any excuse for this dim-witted Washington Post story by Shankar Vedantam. Of course Rudy Giuliani doesn’t deserve all of the credit for New York’s crime drop; he gets points for hiring Bill Bratton, but loses points for firing him because Giuliani wanted to hog the limelight. And of course policing wasn’t the only factor that led to the decline, and of course the growth in the size of the police force, and some of the “quality-of-life”-focused tactics, started under David Dinkins and his police commissioner (also the current commissioner) Ray Kelly.

Still and all, even if those policies were responsible for only 10-20% of the crime drop (a figure Vedantam quotes from a study by Rick Rosenfeld and Steven Messner) that’s not chopped liver. There are about 1500 fewer homicides each year in New York now than there were at the peak. Fifteen percent of 1500 is 225. Saving 225 lives a year, year after year, is worth bragging about.

But it’s the final graf that’s most annoying. Vedantam says, in his own voice, that the finding about the correlation between lead and crime

…implies a double tragedy for America’s inner cities: Thousands of children in these neighborhoods were poisoned by lead in the first three quarters of the last century. Large numbers of them then became the targets, in the last quarter, of Giuliani-style law enforcement policies.

Even if we ignore for the moment the fact that police shootings of civilians in New York dropped right along with the crime rate, Vedantam seems to be assuming that law enforcement has only costs and no benefits for residents of high-crime inner city neighborhoods. Just precisely who does he think would have been the victims in all those murders that didn’t happen? Yuppies? Not likely. And it’s not the residents of apartment buildings with doormen that benefit most when burglary drops and the streets become safe.

If Vedantam wants to see a bad example, he doesn’t have very far to look. I don’t know the statistics on lead exposure in Washington, DC, but I do know that one reason DC still has stratospheric murder rates (35 per 100,000 population in 2005, compared to New York’s 6.6 per 100,000) is because it never had a Bill Bratton as police commissioner.

There are lots of reasons to pray that Rudy Giuliani never achieves his ambition. And I fervently hope that Democratic candidates pick up the theme that there are lots of things that control crime other than hiring cops and building prison cells. We can and should get rid of the pointless cruelty that now defaces our criminal justice system. But that’s perfectly consistent with keeping our sympathy focused on the victims of crime rather than the “victims” of law enforcement. On crime as on national security, the right critique of the Republicans isn’t that they’ve been too hawkish, it’s that they’ve been grossly incompetent, ideologically blindered, and bound to special interests, and have consequently neglected important opportunities to make us safer.

Footnote Lead was banned from gasoline during the 1980s. The job was done by the Reagan Administration. Vice President George H.W. Bush and his “regulatory reform” task force had proposed loosening lead limits, but a brilliant analysis spearheaded by my friend Joel Schwartz (then at the EPA, now at the Harvard School of Public Health) managed to turn the proposal around; even the folks at OMB couldn’t deny the data when they had their noses rubbed in them. Such deference to fact would be unthinkable today.

That’s the difference between old reactionary Republicans and contemporary reactionary Republicans. As a friend of mine at DoJ said to me in the summer of 2001, “I never thought I’d look back on the Reagan Administration as the good old days.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: