Priorities

Megan McArdle wonders about why the District of Colombia as such a terrible record on crime:

it seems like a very good time to launch into a diatribe on the low quality of DC policing. DC has a lot of cops, a lot of wealth, and no excuse for its extraordinarily high crime rate. I was born on 94th Street and Broadway at a time when the Upper West Side above 86th street was considered a no-go zone by the town’s wealthier inhabitants. My father worked for the mayor during the blackout and associate crime wave, yet my mother has never felt as unsafe as she has since moving here.

Hell, I’ve lived in West Philadelphia during its 90s nadir. I’ve never felt as unsafe in a place as I do in DC. Almost everyone I know here has had some sort of personal contact with a criminal intent on robbing them, whether successfully or not. I’m lucky that I live near a well-lighted street–but frankly, the sheer menacing stupidity of a criminal who trails two people several blocks isn’t reassuring, it’s frightening. The fact that he thinks this tactic might work speaks to a certain lawless aura in the city. And I live in the safe part.

When DC does try to “do something”, it’s something stupid and quasi-fascist like locking down neighborhoods instead of putting more cops on the beat and using the advanced police tactics that are now the norm in every other city. From what I know, Fenty seems like a better mayor than DC’s previous disasters, but the city government remains corrupt and incompetent. No one should have to spend their lives feeling this afraid.

Crime in the district is certainly a problem, but, at least until very recently, everything was a major problem in the District. Tony Williams spent his entire 8 years in office getting the District back on reasonably decent financial footing, which was a pretty decent priority, given the circumstances:

The District was emerging from financial ruin and a federal review board still wielded power over its budget when a bow-tied political neophyte named Anthony A. Williams defied expectations and captured city hall in 1998.

Streetlights and fire hydrants were broken; potholes, unfilled; garbage, uncollected. Five city agencies — child welfare and mental health, among them — anguished in court-ordered receivership. At their desks, thousands of government workers still dialed rotary phones.

Eight years later, as Williams (D) departs office, Washington is a city transformed. The District’s reserves exceed $1 billion, and the financial control board is a distant memory. Entire neighborhoods are thriving with new housing and shops. Homicides have declined, along with infant mortality and teenage pregnancy rates. And although some agencies remain troubled, including the one overseeing the mentally retarded, none is controlled by the courts.

Williams, who did have some real faults, including some pretty bad corruption that went on under his watch, but overall he did an admirable clearing up the District’s financial mess.

Williams’ successor, Adrian Fenty, has chosen to spend his political capital on education reform, not crime issues. His education focus is certainly a debatable one, given that crime is a major problem in the district, but it is certainly a defensible one. DC probably has the worst school system in the country and it certainly has the least cost effective one. It’s just impossible to ask that a mayor completely reform all aspects of a city in one shot. Fenty has chosen to focus on schools, taking over the schools, closing 23 of them, firing a boatload of underperforming employees and turning around failing schools, while trying to keep crime under control, without investing substantial capital in police reform.

Would it be nice to see Fenty or the next DC Mayor bring in a New York Style Police Commissioner, like Cory Booker has done in Newark to great success? Absolutely. But it takes time to institute serious reform and Mayors have to have priorities. Williams did a pretty good job turning the ship around and Fenty has shown real poltical will in dealing with the schools, and taxicab drivers for that matter, but has tried to appease the police, including the questionable call of hiring Cathy Lanier from within a failing department. It sucks that DC has a crime problem, but given the myriad problems facing the city Fenty’s priorities seem well placed, at least from my safe perch on the Virginia side of the river.

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