George W. Bush
President George W. Bush during his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill on January 29. 2002. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)

I am riding through Richmond, Va., with Sergeant David Wallis of the city police, and it is raining at a nearly biblical level—silver-dollar sized fat splats of water slapping against every surface. It’s one of those late afternoon summer thunderstorms that starts out looking like it’s got to be over in half a minute, and somehow just lasts and lasts. The city’s streets are deserted and, Sgt. Wallis says, it’s a good bet anyone still outside is a threat to pub- lic safety. We find them, camped outside an impreg- nable-looking housing project called Whitcomb Court. A few teenagers are standing spaced sentry-like, every thousand feet or so, along the project’s main road. They have umbrellas cocked over their shoulders, but are still getting drenched. They’re street-level crack dealers, says Wallis, the advance guard for the municipal menace. Even in these conditions they stay outside, like hardy weeds, peering jumpily down the road, hoping for a sale. Wallis drives by slowly, but the scrawny, soaked dealers don’t scamper away, they just shoot him pugnacious you- can’t-touch-me smirks. This is usual, Wallis says: “They know we’ve got no backup, and so they’re not even scared of us anymore?”

It wasn’t always like this. Ten years ago, Wallis and a 25-officer narcotics squad cleaned out Whitcomb Court. They set up surveillance teams in the elementary school that abuts the project and staged regular raids, cops piling out of a suddenly arrived line of six, eight, 10 cars to snatch all the dealers and guns they could. Within three months, the dealer pyramid in Whitcomb Court had been broken, its principals in jail and the project quiet.

Richmond’s police were praised from all points on the political spectrum–from the Clinton administration to the NRA–for halving the city’s murder rate in the 1990s. One hundred and sixty people were killed in Richmond in 1994, and 70 in 2001. Richmond’s method was simple: a concentrated program of aggressive beat policing and strict enforcement of gun laws.

But now, Wallis and many of his colleagues report, they simply can’t mount such focused campaigns. Richmond is in the throes of a manpower shortage that has stripped cops off street beats and forced the city to change its neighborhood policing strategies. “All we’re able to do right now is respond to calls which come in,” the department’s chief, Andre Parker, told me. “We don’t have enough men to do any proactive policing. It’s very worrying.”

Aggressive programs like the ones Richmond used to bring down crime require extra officers, so that while some cops are responding to ongoing crimes, others can stalk crooks. Now, Richmond deploys 90 fewer active officers (the department has 670 total) than it did when crime was plummeting. It’s no coincidence, police officials here and criminologists nationwide argue, that the city’s murder rate, after seven consecutive years of decline, jumped by 20 percent in 2002 and by another 15 percent in the first six months of 2003. With fewer detectives, fewer of Richmond’s murders can be solved–only 22 percent of murders were solved last year, compared to 35 percent in 2000. Other crimes, particularly robbery, are also increasingly common–trends, say community leaders, that are endangering inner-city Richmond’s fragile revitalization.

Richmond is a dramatic example of a trend that is beginning to appear around the country. After eight straight years of decline in the 1990s, the murder rate has begun to increase: by 2.5 percent in 2001, and then another 0.8 percent in 2002. Those two slight increases have meant hundreds more violent deaths each year.

Dips and surges in the crime rate, locally and nationally, depend on many complicated factors, from the health of the economy to the number of criminals in prison to the abundance of guns and drugs on the street. Criminologists have said that the present surge in many cities’ crime rates is due in part to the recession and in part from a simple law of averages–crime can’t go down forever. But more police on the street is one of the most effective ways to keep crime down–it’s also the one factor that lies immediately within the control of government.

Tellingly, those cities, like Richmond, that suffer from the worst cop shortages are also experiencing the most dramatic spikes in crime. Police in Portland, Ore., which is 64 officers short of its full 1,000-officer staffing, have noticed a rise in crime across the board in the first four months of 2003. Chief Mark Kroeker says he thinks the “scariest” jump in violent crime is yet to come. Minneapolis, normally a 900-officer department, is some 200 cops short, and crime is up 46 percent since Sept. 11, 2001. Los Angeles is more than 1,000 cops short of full staffing. Crime there jumped by 7 percent in the last half of 2001 and by another 1 percent in 2002, a year in which the murder rate jumped by 11 percent.

How can cities be so foolish as to cut their police forces and spark an inevitable rise in crime? Part of the problem is the state and local fiscal crisis that has hit communities across the nation. But faced with the need to trim budgets, most cities have first cut health, education, and transportation spending, and tried to preserve their police forces. The real cause of the police shortage is not in City Hall but in the White House. The Bush administration’s first budget eliminated all direct funding for street cops. The war in Iraq, fought largely without allies, has required the call-up of huge numbers of reserves, many of whom are cops. And instead of using the men in blue as eyes and ears on the domestic war on terrorism, the administration has, in effect, used them as glorified security guards. The federal government’s repeated directives to local police to beef up patrols at potential terrorist targets have taken officers away from their regular duties. And because the feds have not paid for many of these extra patrols, homeland security has stretched local budgets even further.

On his Sept. 14, 2001, visit to Ground Zero, the president famously addressed a group of cops and firemen through a bullhorn, from the top of a pile of mangled steel. When someone in the crowd called out that he couldn’t hear the president, Bush said, spontaneously: “I can hear you. The rest of the world can hear you.” But now many cops feel they’re not being heard. During an interview in late July, Richmond’s Chief Parker told me he’s been “dismayed at the current administration’s attitude towards local law enforcement.” The administration, he said, has not “seemed to grasp what we face.”

The Thinning Blue Line

If the sudden disintegration of police forces and, in Richmond and so many other cities, the correlative return of crime have not yet caught the attention of most of the public, it may be at least in part because after eight straight years of declining crime in the 1990s, most of us have come to assume that the issue has been defanged. Much has been written about that dramatic drop. Criminologists, journalists, and criminal scientists ascribed crime’s decline to the decade’s sustained economic boom, the subduing of the crack epidemic, and a profound national shift in policing–a change often described as community policing. The new model, which emphasized a tangible police presence in the community, solving neighborhood problems, and talking with residents, became working doctrine in the nation’s precinct houses.

In many ways, community policing was a return to the neighborhood-based model that developed after large, urban departments first began to be formed around the turn of the 20th century. For the next 30 years, policing was local: Officers walked beats on streets they frequently had grown up on. Complex criminal investigations were rare, so cops responded to calls about crime and community disorder–from vandalism to robbery to brawls. Urban police departments, which tended to be highly politicized and run by party bosses, were also frequently tools for dispensing social services and other forms of political patronage.

By the 1940s, this model was on the way out. As city bosses lost their firm control over police departments, cops moved towards a more professional, military model. They were more frequently armed, and more likely than not were riding in cruisers rather than walking the streets. Their focus became understanding the criminal mind and thwarting its ambitions. The archetype had shifted from the half-corrupt Irish beat cop, swiping a peddler’s apple while driving loiterers off the sidewalk, to Joe Friday’s just-the-facts-ma’am crime solver, who believed that the citizenry should be dealt with at an always-suspicious distance.

With the emptying out of the urban middle and working classes and a bulge in the populations of black and Hispanic young men–a tough set of demographic changes for the nation’s police–crime began to balloon in the 1960s. An influx of Vietnam veterans into the policing ranks only strengthened the existent culture–hardened and Army-like. Jim Bueermann, who is now the chief of the Redlands, Calif., police department and is considered a pioneer of community policing, joined up with this generation, as did most of the officers now in what cops call “command positions.” The dominant culture in the 1970s ” was very purely law and order,” Bueermann said. “There are bad guys out there who were disrupting the community, and our job was to catch them.”

But as the Vietnam-veteran generation climbed through the ranks, in the 1970s and 1980s, the militaristic reputation of police officers preceded them into the neighborhoods, and more and more citizens began to view patrol officers as agents of fear, not trust. The 70s and 80s had seen corruption scandals, baton-wielding cop thugs standing at ready attention at protest marches, and finally, in 1991, the Rodney King beating, and the riots that followed. Cops in movies and on television, even when they were depicted heroically, were Dirty Harrys clearing out ghettos with guns, and playing fast and loose with the rules. “[The police were] isolated from the people,” and “people were afraid of their police,” Lee Brown, the former Houston and New York police commissioner credited with introducing community policing in both cities in the mid- and late 1980s, told the Los Angeles Times.

Police leaders, criminologists, and local politicians huddled in the late 80s to try to figure out what they could do against a frighteningly fast-rising national crime problem, which was driving even middle-class blacks to the suburbs and turning once-prosperous downtowns into dead zones. They seized upon the idea that the best place for policemen to be was not in their cruisers, hiding behind windshields and tough-guy sunglasses, but out talking to their people–the people they were assigned to protect–reminding them that the police didn’t have to function as a garrison.

This new paradigm, community policing, depended in part on technological advances, which allowed departments to map emerging crime patterns and high-crime areas and shift officers accordingly. But a crucial component of this policy was what came to be known as the “broken windows” theory of crime, whose most prominent proponent was the neoconservative political scientist James Q. Wilson. In ghettos, Wilson argued, the persistent presence of quality-of-life problems like vandalism, abandoned cars, and graffiti had profound psychological effects: It showed residents that the police had lost control of the streets to drug dealers and criminals, shuttering economic activity, signalling to criminals that it was open season on the neighborhood, and keeping residents from calling police when they saw crimes unfolding. Wilson said police should develop a more expansive set of goals, and not be content with simply busting murderers and drug dealers. By vigorously prosecuting small-change crimes like vandalism and graffiti, and by performing social-service functions like helping to get collapsing buildings condemned, cops could give law-abiding residents a sense of neighborhood ownership. By pursuing and jailing criminals for small crimes, the police reduced the number of thugs out on the street likely to commit more violent acts. And when cops won back the streets, residents became less scared about ratting on neighborhood bad guys, which meant the bad guys got arrested more frequently. Wilson’s idea turned out, during the late 1990s, to be astoundingly correct, but it came at a cost: Such extra functions required extra enforcers.

The movement took hold in some cities in the early 1990s, with dramatic, well-publicized drops in crime in Boston, New York, and San Diego. But the idea went national in 1994, when President Clinton convinced a supportive Democratic Congress to pass the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) bill, which promised federal grants to help local departments put 100,000 new cops on the street. By 2000, COPS had helped departments hire about 70,000 new officers (upping local police strength by 12 percent nationally), and required that all of the new cops be out on street beats. In those six years, violent crime declined by 46 percent nationally, the most sustained, dramatic decline in the last hundred years.

But it wasn’t just the sheer number of cops–by changing the incentives for departments, the COPS program helped change police attitudes. Now, in order to compete for grants, in order to be politically viable, in order to drive down crime rates, in order to look effective and competent, police chiefs had to embrace the principles of community policing. In half a decade, this new approach became gospel for police management seminars and executive sessions. Some larger departments began to require, for the first time, college degrees of recruits– new officers no longer had to be able to simply follow orders, but were expected to deal with a broad range of community problems intelligently and sensibly. “We’re talking about a subtle change in the whole culture of policing,” Bueermann said.

Richmond was typical. Like many cities, it had a long history of racially charged antagonism between police and residents. By forcing cops out of their cruisers and into the street, the new model made them shake grandmothers’ hands and chase down vandals and small-time thieves. It changed the public image of the cop in the city. For the first time, says Major Daniel Goodall of the Richmond police, “It let us show the people in Richmond that we were on their side.” Because community policing entailed hiring new patrol cops, more crimes got solved and more criminals got put away. The crime rate began to drop dramatically, and residents, who now knew their local beat cops personally and trusted the department to put thugs in jail, were much more inclined to give tips on criminals and crimes in their neighborhoods.

Community policing also changed the way cops behaved. To win promotion, officers had to internalize the same philosophies that the department needed to display to win grants. And what was most remarkable, nearly stunning, about the Richmond police with whom I spent time last month was the thoroughness with which the department, from chief down to beat officers, had embraced the community policing model–a model almost entirely academic just 15 years ago. It has brought into being a new sort of officer. Lieutenant John Hall talks about cultivating respect from the residents: “The best way to fight crime is to have people trust you enough to report it when it happens, and tell you who did it –who did a particular crime is never a secret within the community.” Sgt. Wallis, who is white, thinks his department sometimes focuses too much on the largely black housing projects, where the most visible crime occurs: “We may not be as fair in delivering justice everywhere as we’d like,” he says. We’re a long way from Mark Fuhrman.

But from the start, President Bush sent a very different message. In the new president’s first budget, when the economy had not yet gone entirely in the tank, he zeroed out the funding for the COPS program entirely. (Congressional Democrats were able to restore some funding, but the COPS program’s funds for hiring street cops are less than one-sixth the average during the Clinton administration.) For local departments, the cuts could not have come at a worse time. The lousy economy meant state and local governments had a hard time making up the federal funding cuts, and in many cases, city and state funding for cops has been slashed, too.

Caught in a crunch, local departments, understandably, came to see community policing as an add-on; it was more essential that they be able to respond to emergency calls about ongoing crimes. Departments no longer have the extra officers to staff community policing initiatives, and so even those departments most committed to broken- windows principles have had to abandon their programs. “What we’re seeing now is broken windows in reverse,” says nationally renowned criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University.

In Richmond, with 90 fewer cops on the streets, criminals have gotten more brazen and crime has gotten more public. When the murder rate here was at its lowest, officers say, every murder stemmed from the drug trade or domestic disputes. But with fewer officers on the streets, thugs are less scared of a spot search and more willing to carry guns, and Richmond murders have gotten more senseless and surreal. This past June, a man was shot and killed after he jostled a pistol-packing tough while they were waiting in line at an ice cream truck. Detectives searched for some prior connection between the men, but it turned out there wasn’t any: The murdered man really had been killed for jostling. That same week, a young mother made a wrong turn and drove into a housing project, her two children in the back seat. A group of young men hanging out in the middle of the road blocked her passage; when she honked for the crowd to move, one of them shot and killed her dead. “It makes you feel like you’re losing control, when you get these murders that make no sense,” Goodall said, in a softer moment. It also makes local cops feel like they’re slipping back into the 1980s.

But police departments now also have new burdens that didn’t exist in the 80s. The Bush administration’s choice to go to war without a broader coalition has put a huge strain on U.S. military (half of the army’s combat troops are now deployed in Iraq). And large numbers of reservists are cops. The Honolulu police department, which is already 291 officers short of full staffing, is sending 150 more officers overseas with the National Guard. San Antonio sent 50 cops off to war. And even one cop can sometimes be crucial to a department. The lone detective in the Crystal River, Fla., police department is back in fatigues, which has seriously hampered law enforcement in Crystal River. Worse still, departments are barred by law from replacing reservists while they’re away on military duty–leaving short-handed departments with no option beyond hoping, hard, that they get their people back soon.

At home, too, the war on terror has eroded the strength and effectiveness of local enforcement. Each time the administration brightens the homeland security light from yellow to orange, police departments around the country go into a state of heightened tension–not just in New York and Washington, L.A. and San Francisco, but also in tiny towns like Richmond, Calif., where officers huddle around their port’s unloading docks and their chemical plants and oil refineries, their eyes eagle-sharp for suspicious activity.

Not only are such demands eating away at local police budgets, but the security deployments are taking officers away from their primary responsibility: preventing crime. A Hartford Courant report found that the Connecticut state police had been forced to cut overtime for its homicide detectives while a sergeant assigned to a homeland security detail had racked up $15,000 in overtime for duties such as baby-sitting the Georgia Tech University football team during a stopover at Bradley International Airport. And a story in Crain’s Chicago Business suggests that the problem can only get worse: It concluded that most of the police departments in the Chicago area will have to lay off patrolmen because of the costs imposed by homeland security.

But what most worries criminologists is that the momentary problem of higher crime and shrinking forces may institutionalize a retrenchment in policing tactics. The Bush administration’s recoil from the philosophy of community policing by choice, coupled with the local police departments’ backing away from the practice by constraint, are already undermining the last decade’s paradigm shift. It took a decade for the nation’s cops to accept community policing, proponents say, and acceptance only came grudgingly, spurred on by a federal-funding carrot. Now that the feds have changed their tune, this revolution may collapse. “The generation I came up with had to have community policing drummed into us,” Bueermann said. “I’d hoped the next generation would just sort of assume that this was how policing ought to be conducted. But if we continue to backtrack, that same assumption might not be there any longer.”

Homeland Security Guards

For more than a year, the FBI poured its formidable resources into a search for a terror suspect who’d been at the top of its Most Wanted list. The search for the suspect, Eric Rudolph, wanted for deadly bombings of abortion clinics, had narrowed to a rural area of western North Carolina, and the feds were determined to catch him. They sent 200 agents into the area, combing woods over and over. They posted a $1 million reward, hoping that someone in that poor area would rat Rudolph out. They came up so famously empty-handed that their failed search inspired two country-and-western songs and a best selling t-shirt: “Run Rudolph, Run.”

A 21-year-old rookie cop in Murphy, N.C., caught Rudolph after he saw him moving evasively behind a Save-a-Lot grocery store. Federal faces stayed red in the arrest’s aftermath, as editorialists from local newspapers to the “Today” show pointed out that mundane police work had done what the nation’s finest could not: caught one of the country’s most wanted terrorists.

Policing experts say there’s an important lesson here. The terrorists whom federal agents are most concerned with now may be more likely to come from Afghanistan than Murphy, but terrorism is also a local event–an attack on a local object, by men who have lived in local communities in preparation for the attack. By keeping cops out of the loop on terrorism, the feds may be wasting rare and crucial chances at nabbing terrorists.

Each of the 19 hijackers lived in the United States before the attacks and some of their names ended up in local police notebooks. By failing to link intelligence work with police work, the federal government is needlessly limiting the ways terrorists might be caught–the in-the-course-of-duty door-to-door work of local police can turn up neighborhood leads with national implications.

“Twenty-five years ago, I was a beat cop in the South Bronx, and I knocked on the door of everyone who moved into my neighborhood and introduced myself–the ones who reacted like they had something to hide, I’d keep an eye on,” says Joseph Daly, now chair of Criminal Justice at Pace University in New York City. The way to catch terrorists, Daly says, may be similar.

Federal law enforcement leaders have long struggled with the knotty problem of exactly how much to tell local cops, and now this tension is further heightened by the new questions terrorism raises. The feds need to give local cops enough information to let them solve crimes and make arrests, but they have to be careful not to be too loose with crucial security information. If one local cop happens to be buddies with an al Qaeda sympathizer, the whole American intelligence apparatus could be compromised.

The solution that DHS and the FBI have arrived at makes sense, at least in theory. They’ve asked each department to designate a homeland security liaison (usually a command officer who’s not the chief who then goes through the FBI’s most rigorous background check and, if he passes, is cleared to take part in local FBI-run terrorism task forces, which the feds use to spread intelligence and discuss tactics.

In practice, cops say, it doesn’t really work–officers are not given names of terror suspects to investigate; the feds wait until they can devote enough resources to an investigation and then run it themselves. Local cops insist this frequently means that leads are tracked too slowly or by investigators sometimes shockingly devoid of local know-how. In the winter of 2001, the FBI used what later turned out to be a dubious tip to stage a sensational, headline-grabbing raid at the Chester, Pa., home of a Pakistani immigrant. The immigrant was the city’s health commissioner, whom the feds eventually cleared of any wrongdoing and gave a profuse apology. Policing leaders have frequently made the point that there are 800,000 local policemen in the United States, compared to 11,000 FBI agents. If the feds let local cops take the initial steps in tracking more leads, policing experts have repeatedly argued, the FBI would have more time to follow up on the most promising investigations.

But chiefs around the country have said that the FBI still frequently discounts local police investigations. Testifying before Congress in October, 2002, Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, since retired, talked about an investigation his officers launched against six Middle Eastern men arrested on immigration charges in a bare northwest Baltimore apartment on Sept. 10, 2002. The found literature with references to jihad, brochures from flight schools and maps of Washington’s Union Station and New York’s Times Square. A federal judge released the men after the FBI did not press for their continued imprisonment. Weeks later, the bureau began to repeat the steps the Baltimore cops had already taken in their earlier investigation. Despite repeated FBI assurances that cops are equal partners in the war against terrorism, local cops say they frequently feel like second-class citizens.

The FBI has at least trusted cops to provide security for potential terrorist targets. But even in this area, liaison officers say, information is limited: They only hear that there’s a “threat” and that the local force should step up patrols around essential targets. When they ask how specific the threat was, they’re told that’s classified. Local police chiefs also say that they’re frequently not told when a threat ends, which leaves them running endless, costly patrols of all the local bridges and tunnels. “To protect ourselves adequately, we need to be given more information,” said Francis Monahan, a Richmond police major who is his department’s homeland security coordinator.

The situation has reached the point that many local police chiefs say they don’t trust the feds to be fully honest with them. Two years after September 11, local cops routinely say their best source for news on terrorism and terrorist threats is always “the morning paper, or CNN.” Bill Hemby, a retired San Francisco detective who now runs preparedness seminars for local cops, says that federal information comes in so late and is so vague that officers he works with often “doubt that their patrols are needed at all.” This spring, the Philadelphia and Seattle chiefs turned down personal pleas from Tom Ridge to increase patrols, on the grounds that the threats cited were too vague to justify the cost.

Local homeland security coordinators and cops further worry that the federal government is mismanaging the training of local officers. The current DHS training model brings single emissaries from local departments to one of four college campuses for four-day tell-em-everything seminars on terrorism. These trainees then act as trainers for the rest of their department. This is very useful for formulating policy; the trainees say they come back knowing enough to help set priorities for local homeland defense. But beat cops say that little useful information filters down to the patrol level. What departments need is not only one special officer federally versed in the ideological abstracts of the roots of Islamic fundamentalism, or how anthrax spreads. They also need each officer to know what to do if a friendly imam tells you he knows a guy who might be planning an attack, or how to respond if you come upon 10 people passed out face down in the middle of a city park.

In order to help instruct their rank and file, local departments have been relying in large part on the hundreds of private vendors who run for-profit terrorism training seminars. There’s likely no way that the federal government can directly train every policeman in the nation, so at least some vendors can perform a useful service. The problem is that with nearly all of these vendors new and without reputations in the field, police departments have few means of sorting out the effective programs from the hundreds of solicitations they get. Richmond police major Francis Monahan, in charge of his department’s homeland security, remembers a seminar in New York last year billed as comprehensive terrorism education. The instructors talked only about emergency centers, and when they ran out of material they sent the attendees on a tour of New York’s temporary Emergency Operations Center. The seminar hadn’t accounted for transportation, and so the attending chiefs had to pay for subway fare themselves. “We were command-level people attending, but it was an academy-level operation,” Monahan said. Local police departments also feel unprepared when it comes to terrorism safety equipment, where they are under a similar brochure siege but have very little expert guidance. Of all the problems presented by the specter of terrorism, this one might be the easiest to solve. Should DHS put vendors through a rigorous certification process, notifying local departments which training and equipment is effective and which isn’t, local police chiefs would be profoundly grateful.

Circling the Paddy Wagons

But while Republicans have consistently and actively undermined the ability of cops to catch crooks, Democrats have played enabler, using the opposition pulpit to sound like an echo of President Bush, only a little wimpier–the Democrats have mostly agreed with where the president is going, and are content merely to challenge him on some numerical details. Consequently, the national political debate on domestic preparedness has remained pretty resolutely banal, an outcome that is surprising, given the urgency of the topic. The whole jargoned political debate about “homeland security” and “first responders” has so far revolved around exactly how much protective gear to buy the nation’s firefighters and emergency crews. The consistent Democratic line, pressed most forcefully by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has been to call for about $40 billion more than whatever the Bush administration happens to ask for. It’s not a particularly useful debate. The truth is nobody really knows how many more hazmat suits is enough, and no matter what level of gear firefighters and other “first responders” have, someone will always be able to make a halfway compelling case that they could use some more.

The nine Democratic candidates have evidently been briefed on homeland security to the point of Al Gore-ishness, and each has detailed a lengthy position. Howard Dean’s is representative, and telling. What we need, Dean argues, is a “circle of preparation, a circle of protection, and a circle of prevention”–words which sound consciously feminized, like they’ve been expertly focus-grouped with NPR listeners, but don’t mean anything operationally. He’s short on big ideas and long on detail, which makes his policy sound as if it was assembled from a mass email sent to favored interest groups. Dean wants to modernize Veterans Hospitals, restore $5 billion in Bush budget cuts to the Coast Guard, and more aggressively seek alternative energy sources, to reduce our dependence on bad actors like Saudi Arabia. The other candidates aren’t much better: John Kerry summoned a good bulk of the Washington press corps to a Bronx firehouse in early July for what was billed as a “major” speech on homeland security and told them that what America needed was more equipment for fire companies, which managed to make a good point sound like a play for the endorsement of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Kerry “strode to the plate like Babe Ruth,” wrote Salon’s Nicholas Thompson, “and laid down a bunt.” This full-court press of Democratic arguments is unlikely to fire even the most wonkish imagination. “The Democratic candidates start talking about where we have to spend money on cyber-terrorism and port security, and even I stop paying attention,” said Jose Cerda, a policing expert at the Democratic Leadership Council.

But while the Bush administration continues to turn cops into thumb-twiddling municipal security guards, and the opposition party uses its biggest platforms to call for the government to pay for more Kevlar vests and better night-vision goggles, violent criminals are growing more brazen and police forces are getting less and less able to check them. The problems have already begun to emerge, sporadically, in some cities around the country, and experts say they will only get worse.

Both the Bush administration and its critics have become fond of forwarding their particular policy proposals by warning darkly of terrorism: We don’t know where it’s coming from, they say, and we’re not even sure we can prevent it. The machinery of murder is far less mysterious. Good cops know where murder comes from, and they know–from long experience–how to reduce it. Over the past decade, terrorism has killed only one-fiftieth as many people as have died because of that standard menace, simple murder.

Working Alone

In Richmond, I’d talked to a shift commander, Lieutenant John Hall, whose patrol had shrunk from 13 officers to 11, and asked him how he’d redeployed his officers –simple, he said. His shift was responsible for eight neighborhood beats; given 13 officers, he had five beats covered by teams of two, and three beats staffed by cops working on their own. Now, two more of the same eight beats had only a single cop to cover them. I asked him whether this made the patrol officers’ jobs more difficult. “Well,” he said, “one thing we worry about is safety. If you’re going into a situation, it’s much more dangerous if you don’t have a partner there with you.”

One week later, just before 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 30, a routine tip came into Richmond’s emergency call center–young men were dealing drugs in a crime-heavy section of South Richmond. Douglas E. Wendel, a five-year veteran of the force, responded. On this shift, he was working alone. At Midlothian Turnpike and East 33rd Street, he got out of his cruiser to walk up on the suspected dealers on the corner. But an accomplice of the dealers walked up behind Wendel, took out a gun and shot him in the back of the head. Wendel didn’t have time to take his own gun out of its holster.

The crowd scampered away. Bleeding terribly, Wendel crawled back to his cruiser and radioed in. He needed some backup, he said. An hour later, he was dead. The two bullets had torn up Wendel’s face so badly that emergency workers at first assumed he’d been shot from in front. He left an 11-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.

Wendel was the first Richmond police officer killed on duty in five years. What was remarkable, in the news reports which followed Wendel’s death, was South Richmond residents’ sense that a cop’s death was in some ways inevitable: They knew, better than anyone else, that criminals were winning back the streets. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted one local homeowner as saying guns were easy to buy as soda. Another, a 35-year homeowner told the paper: “Police used to control [crime]. They can’t control it now. These young boys aren’t scared at all.”

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Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a staff writer at the New Yorker.