News & Opinion » Columns

Taking on crime



It's hard to imagine a political campaign where crime is unimportant.

Certainly it took center stage in last year's mayoral race. But so far, it's taken a back seat to other issues in the race for governor. Maybe that's because Eliot Spitzer's rivals don't consider it much of a weakness for him, since he's the state's law top law-enforcement official. Even though in that position he's known for going after high-profile white-collar criminals, it's tough to brand a career prosecutor weak on crime.

But are crime and pubic safety really statewide issues, suitable for a gubernatorial race? Or do they become important political issues only on the local level?

During Rochester's mayoral election, crime and public safety were consistently one of voters' top concerns. But a recent statewide poll of voters by the Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research suggests that crime is less of a priority at the state level. The issue placed fifth on a list of important concerns voters thought a governor could do something about, with only 5 percent choosing it. Taxes, education, jobs, and health care all rated higher.

In the Rochester area in the CGR poll on state issues, crime ranked even lower: ninth overall, picked by just 1.5 percent of voters.

On the other hand, just to keep things interesting, the same poll asked state voters what New YorkState government's highest priority should be. "Keeping us safe" came in second, with 13 percent of the voters polled, behind only "Providing quality education."

Whatever the case, the silence of gubernatorial campaigns on the issue is beginning to be broken. None of the major candidates has unveiled a major policy speech on crime, but Spitzer's appearance in Rochester last Wednesday (and another in Buffalo on Thursday) marked the closest thing yet. And it offered a hint of what he may have to say; most of Spitzer's points match up with the positions described on the issues section of his campaign website.

The policy ideas Spitzer chose to highlight also underscore the tricky nature of campaigning on crime in a statewide race. Both have to do with using existing arms of state government to improve the ability of police and other law-enforcement agencies to gather and share intelligence on crime.

The first of these is the Organized Crime Task Force. OCTF is a joint project of the governor and attorney general's offices, which "does more wiretappings than just about anyone in the state," according to Spitzer. That gives Spitzer the advantage of having a track record of fighting violent crime in his current position. (Of course it comes with the disadvantage of having to share credit with Governor Pataki, at least with a tacit tip of the hat. "In many respects New York is safer that it was 10 to 15 years ago," he admitted in Rochester.)

In addition to the mob-related activities you'd expect, OCTF also works on gang-related crime. "It is organized criminal conduct," Spitzer pointed out.

Up until now, the OCTF has operated "primarily by making downstate arrests," he said, but that's beginning to change.

Now, OCTF will focus more attention upstate and help conduct investigations "that often a local department doesn't have the resources to deal with," said Spitzer. And if he's elected, he said, "we are going to redouble that effort."

A second state tool to fight crime, said Spitzer, is the Department of Criminal Justice Services. By tying some DCJS funding to the quality of locally gathered intelligence, the state can provide an incentive for good police work. Once again, this is already happening, Spitzer said, but "it has not been happening with sufficient intensity."

Both of these prescriptions make sense, assuming that gangs and other organized forms of criminal conduct represent the biggest threat. But do they? Spitzer seemed to think they might. When a reporter suggested that a recent rash of killings in Rochester might not be gang-related, Spitzer replied: "I don't think we know that."

Yet the research of a man standing right behind him during that press conference seems to suggest otherwise. In past interviews with City Newspaper, RIT criminologist John Klofas, who's studied crime in Rochester extensively, has downplayed the role of gangs in violent crime here (See "Rochester: Made for Murder?" April 12; "'What Would a Safe Community Look Like?'" July 27, 2005).

Less than 48 hours after Spitzer's press conference, police responded to three more shootings (none fatal), precipitated, according to a Democrat and Chronicle report, by a dispute over cigarettes. A few weeks earlier, a gun murder downtown was linked to a personal spat that began in a nightclub. It seems doubtful that police intelligence (short of constant Big Brother-style surveillance of everybody) could have anticipated such arguments, or prevented them from turning violent.

And if violence on Rochester's streets often has nothing to do with gangs, how much more so the vast section of rural upstate New York, where violent crime is more closely tied to domestic abuse than anything else? What will wiretaps or better intelligence do to stem such crime?

Spitzer's remarks here last week did contain one hint that he's taking a broader look at the issue of crime, and perhaps some of its underlying causes.

"Spasmodic attention to issues doesn't lend itself to long-term solutions," he said.

Add a comment