Opportunity Costs in the War on Crime: The High Impact Anti-Crime Program in Newark

This post by Andy Grim is our third entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. Grim’s essay exams a moment in which the city of Newark “struck gold” by winning a High Impact Anti-Crime Program grant. The lucre, however, proved a mixed blessing…

In January 1972, the Nixon Administration announced a new, $160 million crime fighting initiative. The High Impact Anti-Crime Program—operated by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) of the Justice Department—selected eight medium-sized cities with high crime rates, each of which would receive $20 million over three years to combat “stranger-to-stranger” street crime, focusing in particular on murder, rape, robbery, assault, and burglary. LEAA administrator Jerris Leonard touted the potential of the program, declaring it “will revolutionize crime control.”[1] Newark, New Jersey—one of the cities selected to participate in the program—took this call to revolutionize crime control further than any other city. Earl Phillips, a 38-year old psychologist selected to run the Impact program in Newark—and the only Black Impact program director in the country—proposed allocating most of the funds not to the police or to other established criminal justice agencies, but to community groups and social service programs. For the LEAA, which prioritized allocating federal money to beef up the capacity of local police forces, this creative, non-punitive approach to combatting crime represented a direct challenge to their “law and order” way of thinking.

In the years leading up to its selection for the Impact program, Newark experienced more than its share of hardship. Its economy had been declining for decades, as manufacturing and service industries moved out of the city in large numbers, leaving scores of unemployed men and women behind in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, when Kenneth Gibson was elected the city’s first Black mayor, Newark faced daunting budget deficits, high rates of unemployment, surging crime rates, and a nascent heroin epidemic. The homicide rate in Newark was four times the national average.[2] Many city and state officials saw the High Impact program as a way to breathe new life into the ailing city. New Jersey Governor William T. Cahill expressed his desire to see the funds used to modernize police equipment and enlarge the police force in Newark, saying that a grant-funded expansion in crime control measures “will contribute to the rejuvenation and revitalization of the City of Newark.”[3]

Mayor Gibson, for his part, expressed his appreciation for the LEAA’s purported commitment to let cities develop their anti-crime programs as they saw fit. “For the first time,” he declared, “the City of Newark will be able to decide what its needs are to fight crime without worrying if those needs fit into some specific federal guideline.”[4]

Earl Phillips press conference

Phillips, whom Gibson selected to run the program, did not come to the High Impact program from a law enforcement background. Rather, he had most recently served as head of the Essex County Urban League, working on prison and housing reform among other issues. He brought a social science-oriented approach to his work with the Impact program. Phillips assembled a team of social workers, lawyers, and criminologists to craft the city’s proposal to the LEAA for how they planned to allocate the funds. Phillips and his team conducted a months-long analysis of crime in Newark, which had the highest crime rate of all Impact cities, followed by St. Louis and Baltimore.[5] In the process, they consulted with community groups and attended community meetings at which residents complained about the problem of crime in their neighborhoods and the lack of adequate police protection; residents openly explored the idea of establishing their own patrols to make up for the inadequate police presence. Phillips supported this idea and included it in his final team’s proposal.

Beyond inadequate policing, his team also found that high school dropouts committed a significant portion of crimes in the city. Consequently, they proposed establishing alternative schools for dropouts.[6] For drug users who had been convicted of a crime, Phillips proposed establishing treatment programs rather than merely incarcerating them.[7] Many of Phillips’ proposals sought to find preventative and non-punitive responses to crime in the city. And many of them involved allocating money not to the police or to courts or jails, but to community groups and social service programs. Phillips’ emphasis on community involvement reflected the ethos of the Community Action and Model Cities Programs, federal anti-poverty initiatives established under the Johnson administration, which mandated “maximum feasible participation” of residents of the areas being served.

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Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, Sanborn Map Company Volume 4, 1892, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

This community-oriented and preventative approach marked a departure from the way the LEAA tended to operate. As scholars like Vesla Weaver, Elizabeth Hinton, and Julilly Kohler-Hausmann have observed, the LEAA typically took a purely “law and order” approach to the crime problem. Rather than addressing root causes of crime or exploring non-punitive methods of enhancing public safety, they facilitated the militarization of police forces, providing departments with costly and unnecessary equipment, including an airplane for the Indiana State Police and, for the police in Birmingham, Alabama, three tanks.[8] For the LEAA’s critics, such expenditures seemed wildly out of sync with the agency’s purported goal of reducing crime. Phillips had no intention of implementing this flawed approach, and no intention of reflexively shoveling more money to a police department that many saw as hostile to large swaths of the city’s population.

Newark had a long history of tension between its police department and Black and Puerto Rican residents. In the postwar era, activists had agitated continuously for policing reforms and sought to draw attention to police mistreatment of Black and Puerto Rican Newarkers. In 1967, a police beating of a Black cabdriver sparked a rebellion in the city during which 26 people were killed, many by police officers.

When Mayor Gibson came into office in 1970 he promised to reform the notoriously corrupt and brutal police department. However, the Gibson administration failed to fully deliver on this promise. Within a year of his inauguration the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a scathing report indicating that accusations of police brutality by Black and Puerto Rican Newarkers had actually risen under Gibson.[9]

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Neighborhood Youth Corps, Newark, N.J, photography Thomas O’Halloran, February 16, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In their High Impact proposal, Phillips and his team addressed the tense relationship between Newark police and citizens. The proposal noted “There is presently a feeling on the part of the community that the police ‘don’t care.’ They are unresponsive to the crime problems of the city and apathetic to the concerns of potential crime victims in high crime areas.”[10] In the previous year, police had failed to respond to approximately 15,000 calls for service, leading many in the city to feel the police department had abandoned them.[11] “Citizens,” Phillips observed, “while crying out for more police protection, often do not trust or cooperate with the police.” Rather than ignoring this lack of trust or hoping that years of police-community tensions could be resolved simply by giving the police department more money, Phillips chose to focus on empowering the community to take the issue of crime control into their own hands without having to rely on a historically unreliable police force. Phillips proposed allocating 34% of Impact funds to community groups, with 27% to the police, 14% to juvenile areas, 15% to corrections, 8% to narcotics, and 2% to the courts.[12]

Before Phillips’ plan could be implemented it had to be approved by the LEAA. Unfortunately, the plan received a chilly reception by LEAA officials, who complained: “The plan tends to be critical of the system, especially the police, and describes the development of the community as the core of the overall strategy.”[13] They conceded that community involvement was a necessary component of crime control initiatives, but objected to Phillips making such involvement the linchpin of Newark’s anti-crime strategy. The response also criticized the proposal for dealing too much with crime causation. LEAA administrators preferred a short-term, police-oriented approach that could be shown to have immediate impact on crime rates.

The LEAA did not simply reject Phillips’ proposal. They demanded that Mayor Gibson fire him or else lose the $20 million in Impact funding. Gibson initially defended Phillips and tried to negotiate with the LEAA but the agency stood firm. Phillips chose to resign rather than risk Newark being removed from the High Impact program.[14]

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Parkhurst at Pennsylvania Ave., Newark, 1979, photograph by Camilo J. Vergara, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In late November 1972 Phillips held a press conference in which he announced his resignation and criticized the LEAA for their treatment of him and their approach to the crime problem. As the only Black High Impact director in the nation, Phillips said his ouster smacked of “institutional racism.”[15] The LEAA had rejected his plan, he said, “because our programs took a preventative, not a police-type approach and because members of the community were to be actively involved.” Despite promises that local Impact agencies would be able to run their programs as they saw fit, the LEAA, according to Phillips, was now seeking to establish “total administrative control” of Impact programs. “If the old ways of pouring money into existing institutions are followed and community needs go unheeded,” he warned, “the program will go right down the drain and we’ll go back to business as usual with more arrests, more incarcerations, more crimes.”[16]

Ultimately, the Newark Police Department received 55% of Impact funds while a paltry 17% went to community groups like the ones Phillips sought to aid.[17] Newark’s High Impact program funded a number of expensive police projects, including a new, state of the art communications system.[18] These projects, however, did not reduce crime rates in the city. In 1976, two separate studies of the High Impact program found that crime had actually increased in the eight Impact cities. One study, conducted by the National Security Center, slammed the program as an “irresponsible, ill-conceived and politically motivated effort to throw money at a social program.”[19] We will never know whether or not Earl Phillips’ plan would have been more effective. It is entirely possible that it have done little to actually empower ordinary Newarkers. Historian Elizabeth Hinton has explored at length the ways in which community-based crime control programs during the War on Crime—although operating outside the traditional criminal justice system—“normalized the presence of law enforcement authorities and crime control technologies in the everyday lives of young Americans living in segregated poverty.”[20] Programs touted as efforts to empower communities ended up merely reinforcing the power of the state. Nevertheless, the Phillips plan represented an earnest effort to address rising crime rates without relying solely on the police. It was a missed opportunity to fund non-carceral alternatives to “tough on crime” policies that left communities no safer, empowered deeply flawed policing institutions, and drove mass incarceration in the proceeding years.

IMG_9070.jpgAndrew Grim is a history PhD Candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he studies 20th century American social and political history and the Carceral State. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyLeeGrim

Featured image (at top): Ariel view of Newark, NJ, 1964, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress  

[1] “U.S. To Aid 8 cities in Fight on Crime” New York Times, Jan 14, 1972; pg. 21

[2] Dorothy H. Guyot, “Newark: Crime and Politics in a Declining City,” in Heinz et al., Crime in City Politics (New York: Longman, 1983), 70-78.

[3] “Governor Foresees US aid to Newark” The Star Ledger, Jan 11, 1972; pg. 9

[4] Robert W. Maitlin, “Newark Getting $20 million to Combat Crime” The Star Ledger, Jan 14, 1972; pg. 1

[5] Eleanor Chelimsky, High Impact Anti-Crime Program: National Level Evaluation Final Report, Vol. II (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, 1976), 105

[6] “Street Crime in Newark and Elsewhere” Washington Post, Nov 28, 1972; pg. A18

[7] Treatment Alternative to Street Crime, A proposal Submitted by High Impact Anti Crime Program and Addiction Planning and Coordination Agency October 1972, Box 4 folder 9, Kenneth Gibson Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[8] “Street Crime in Newark and Elsewhere” Washington Post, Nov 28, 1972; pg. A18

[9] “Brutality Rises With Black Mayor” New Pittsburgh Courier, May 22, 1971; pg. 2

[10] Project Application: Citizen Crime Prevention Units. Submitted by High Impact Anti-Crime Program, Newark, Box 4 folder 9, Kenneth Gibson Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Review of the impact city plan Law enforcement assistance administration regional office And New jersey state law enforcement planning agency, Box 4 folder 9, Kenneth Gibson Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Richard J.H. Johnston “Newark Crime Foe Quits, Charging Fund-Cut Threat” New York Times, Nov 22, 1972; pg. NJ74

[15] Charles Q. Finley “Chief Quits Newark Crime Project” The Star Ledger, Nov 22, 1972; pg. 1

[16] Ibid.

[17] Guyot, 82.

[18] Ibid., 84.

[19] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 161.

[20] Ibid., 99.

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