Crime and Punishment


Let's Take Back Our Streets!, by Reuben Greenberg, with Arthur Gordon, Chicago: Bernard Geis Associates, 225 pages, $16.95

Reuben Greenberg is proud of defying expectations. As he reminds us repeatedly in this combination biography/crime-fighting manual, his unusual identity as a black Jew is especially anomalous for a police chief of Charleston, South Carolina, the cradle of the Confederacy. Greenberg has further distinguished himself through his performance in Charleston, where the crime rate has declined dramatically during his seven-year tenure.

Greenberg's approach is innovative in a number of ways, and he offers sensible advice on how to prevent crime. He also comments candidly and insightfully on problems in the black community that are underplayed or ignored by mainstream leaders. His views on drugs and the criminal-justice system are about what you'd expect from a police chief.

There's no question that Greenberg's record is impressive. Between 1982, when he arrived in Charleston, and 1988, armed robberies in the city declined by more than 60 percent; burglaries and homicides were both cut in half. Car thefts and aggravated assaults also dropped, while the population rose.

Even so, some law-enforcement officials in neighboring towns consider Greenberg a show-off. He certainly is conspicuous, whether appearing on the national news or rollerskating through the city in uniform. But even if it also serves his ego, high visibility is part of Greenberg's strategy. To be successful, he says, the police department must establish a presence in the community that warns off criminals and reassures citizens.

Greenberg stresses the need to overcome the antagonism between police and residents that, especially in the black community, makes a joke out of the notion that cops are public servants. His efforts to build trust between the department and black residents of Charleston were assisted by the reaction to a brazen robbery that occurred shortly after he took his post. The crime, in which a minister was shot outside his church, shocked the black community out of its apathy and helped establish a positive relationship with the police.

Once cooperation has been achieved, Greenberg recommends various ways to preserve and expand it. These include an attitude of respect, honesty with the press, and compensation for property damage that occurs during searches or arrests. Greenberg also argues that the good will generated by sending cops out on every call, even those that could be handled over the telephone, makes the extra effort worthwhile.

For Greenberg, successful law enforcement depends less on sheer manpower than on effective deployment. His officers work in three overlapping 10-hour shifts each day to maintain constant coverage. He has divided Charleston's police force into two major sections, one to handle calls and one to "confront the criminal element directly." The latter, which consists of more experienced officers, includes a "Flying Squad" of good runners in sneakers who chase suspects down alleys and through yards.

In describing the task of restoring order to a crime-ridden neighborhood, Greenberg uses the unfortunate analogies of Roman conquests and U.S. campaigns against Native Americans. But his point is well taken: The gains of an initial, massive show of force can be maintained by a relatively small continuing presence. Greenberg suggests tactics for accomplishing this, including legal (but questionable) methods of harassing "known criminals."

Greenberg sees his task as convincing criminals to move on to "pastures that look greener." Indeed, he has boasted of chasing crooks up into North Charleston, a nearby city where the crime rate has climbed while Charleston's has fallen. He makes no apology: "I want those crooks someplace else. And that's where we drive 'em: someplace else." But Greenberg's admission reveals a basic truth of crime fighting. Like a homeowner who buys new locks or a fancy alarm system, a city trying to protect its citizens makes crime harder to commit, but not impossible. Both rely on the relative vulnerability of their neighbors.

Although Greenberg implicitly acknowledges the overall persistence of crime, he scorns environmental explanations. Not surprisingly, he has little patience with the "psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, chaplains, and other optimists" who propagate the "Great American Myth" of rehabilitation. His message to prisoners is simple: "You are here because, exercising your God-given free will, you chose to commit certain antisocial acts, you were caught and convicted, and now you are being punished." (Although he unabashedly supports punishment as retribution, Greenberg pays disappointingly little attention to restitution.)

Greenberg's insistence on personal responsibility leads him to condemn complacency in the face of black-on-black crime. He notes that in 45 percent of all homicides, the victim is black, nearly always killed by another black. "We act as if this state of affairs is inevitable, almost normal," he says. "We blacks are not going to be able to convince many people that we consider black lives to be valuable if we react with indifference when our own people cut, beat, stab, and shoot one another." He also decries the "ghetto logic" that tells young blacks to scorn honest work and look for a fast buck instead.

But Greenberg draws hope from his observation of life in rural areas, where crime rates among blacks are low despite greater poverty. "The answer has to lie in the realm of values," he says, citing the influence of the church, family cohesion, and a strong tradition of holding people accountable for their actions. He suggests that inner-city education should show kids why good behavior is in their self-interest. "Above all, we blacks should know by now that if our lives, our communities, our values, and our standards are going to change for the better, that change is not going to come from the government or from other racial groups. It must come from us."

Greenberg fails to show the same sort of courage in his discussion of drugs. He acknowledges that prohibition creates tremendous potential for corruption, that there is no principled distinction between legal and illegal drugs, and that the vast majority of drug consumers are recreational users who neither harm nor steal from others. He even notes, in passing, that "selling drugs is one of the few ventures outside of gambling and prostitution where neither the vendor nor the customer wants the police involved." But he fails to draw the logical conclusion from these facts.

Greenberg has a narrow and confused vision of legalization that rests on the startling assumption that the government would monopolize the distribution of drugs, dispensing them for free to addicts. "The argument runs that free drugs would reduce crime, would put pushers out of business, would leave police free to deal with non-drug-related crimes," he says. "There may be some truth to such claims, but do we really want our government to supply ever-increasing quantities of drugs…to ever-increasing numbers of addicts?…Can we be comfortable with the thought that the officials who supply those drugs will actually come to control those people's lives?"

And so on. Greenberg imagines that legalization would involve increased government interference in the drug market. He ignores the possibility of a free market, with the attendant benefits of competition and information, and so misses much of the economic argument for legalization. Having cast aside a straw man, Greenberg declares that "something can be done about the drug problem," but he offers little more than tactics for disrupting purchases.

Greenberg also panders to popular sentiment in his assault on the criminal-justice system. His calls for harsher sentences and abolition of parole and routine probation come cheap, especially when compared with the cost of building the prisons that would be necessary to meet those demands. Greenberg argues that the costs of locking criminals up are outweighed by the avoided costs of crimes they would otherwise commit. But he apparently does not consider that his enthusiasm for the drug war, which crowds our prisons, is incompatible with the other items on his agenda.

As the book's title indicates, one of Greenberg's persistent themes is the need for righteous indignation. He defends Bernhard Goetz and a Charleston shopkeeper who pistol-whipped a robber. His chapter headings include "Invitation to Wrath" and "Off with Their Heads!" But while anger may be useful in prompting action against crime, it can easily become a substitute for reason.

After telling people to get "mad as hell" about crime, Greenberg provides them with a target for their wrath: defense attorneys. "A lawyer feels very uncomfortable if procedures aren't strictly followed," he says. "But justice? That's secondary.…I suppose at the bottom of my antipathy to lawyers lies the stubborn conviction that we should be allies in the war against crime, that they should constantly be doing things to make my job easier. But by and large, they do not seem to share my burning desire to put crooks where they belong—behind bars."

As an experienced police officer and a former political science instructor with a master's degree in public administration, Greenberg certainly should understand that attorneys work for their clients, not for him, and that defendants could hardly expect justice from a legal system in which everyone conspired to put them in prison. Yet he does not even bother to qualify his tirade, giving the impression that we would all be better off if we could just get rid of those damned lawyers.

The chapters about Greenberg's childhood and his attraction to Judaism are more illuminating. He vividly describes life in segregated Houston through several well-chosen anecdotes. In one intriguing passage, he recalls that he and several friends, as a form of protest, tried to gain entry to an amusement park that was restricted to whites.

Unexpectedly, the park, which was doing poorly and needed customers, let them in. "The walls had come tumbling down—but for economic reasons," he notes. "There was a lesson in that.…On a much larger scale, these same reasons brought an end to segregation in Houston almost overnight."

Such observations confirm that Greenberg can be both thoughtful and perceptive. They give the reader a reason to tolerate the surrounding prose, which seems to have been heavily influenced by the "Dragnet" style, full of staccato sentences and cornball clichés. When he adopts a more natural voice, it's clear that Greenberg sees some interesting things from his unique perspective.

Assistant Editor Jacob Sullum was formerly a reporter at the Post-Courier newspapers in Charleston.