Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Rudy Giuliani, he has been all over the news media of late as the go-to Trump surrogate on terrorism. Perhaps he is hoping to cement his legacy as the sympathetic New York City mayor touring the destruction at Ground Zero turned proponent of the ‘tough-on-terrorism’ stance of the Trump campaign. Perhaps he envisions that appointment to the Director of Homeland Security in a Trump White House. And perhaps even if you disagree with his defense of the Trump campaign, you might buy into this version of Giuliani as terrorist/security politician legacy. But if it’s a legacy predicated on the risk of violence and death to American citizens on American soil upon which Giuliani’s credentials and hopes are pinned, that legacy has already been firmly established. And it has nothing to do with radical Islamic terrorism.
If you want to see Giuliani’s real legacy on full display, simply read the recent Justice department’s report on the Baltimore Police department’s pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, and excessive use of force perpetrated against the black community in Baltimore City. It is born of and popularized by the ‘tough-on-crime’ mayor Rudy Giuliani from the mid-90s that shaped the lives of a entire generation of police training and policy across the United States based on ‘zero-tolerance’. Zero tolerance normalized aggressive policing. It also normalized police brutality.
Giuliani claimed that random stops, searches, and pursuit of nominal infractions–like ‘turnstyle jumping’—by police would bring down crime rates. Crime rates in New York City went down when he was mayor which, he argued, was a result of his new tough policy. And he became an overnight national star in law enforcement circles. Most police departments across the U.S. bought into zero tolerance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They trained new officers in that approach to policing.
There was only one problem—Giuliani was wrong. Crime rates did go down in New York when he was mayor, but largely because of demographics and economics rather than aggressive police tactics. In fact, if the Baltimore report makes anything clear, it is that the zero tolerance policies adopted by most police departments in the late 1990s and early 2000s based on Giuliani’s ‘success’ in New York City have led not to reduced crime rates, but to broad scale patterns of abuse on the part of police against citizens they are sworn to protect. And these abuses were never evenly meted out but perpetrated almost entirely within black communities and against minority citizens.
Of course, New Yorkers know this. Most people don’t remember Giuliani’s campaign for mayor as prosecutor champion and darling of the New York police department who opposed citizen oversight of police brutality complaints. Most people don’t remember that he rode to power at the head of a massive, racially charged police riot against then Mayor David N. Dinkins after Dinkins established a Civilian Complaint Review Board (Giuliani stood on a car as police ‘marched’ to City Hall to protest the review board, looting along the way as they shouted down their ‘nigger’-mayor). New Yorkers who endured Giuliani remember. When he was elected in 1993, he first gutted the review board, stacking it with former prosecutors then drastically reducing its funding. But crime rates went down and his tough-on-crime persona as well as promotion of zero tolerance as the explanation first made him wildly popular. He won reelection.
But police brutality cases and complaints were ignored and went unchecked. Then the brutal assault of Abner Louima by police—with a broken broom handle—and shooting death by four police officers of Amadou Diallo made national headlines. Into his second term, Giuliani continued to extend his pro-law/enforcement policies and overreached into seemingly strange territory, including even the ban of street vendors as part of zero tolerance. Eventually he incited the ire of most New Yorkers (they love their street vendors). At the end of his second term, his claims about the effectiveness of zero tolerance in reducing crime rates were widely questioned and discredited while increased attention to police brutality in New York eventually led Giuliani—perhaps as an effort to restore his fading reputation—to do a complete about face on the review board in early 2001.
By the time 9/11 happened, the Giuliani brand had lost most of its shine. In the wake of 9/11, he again rose to national prominence as the mayor of Ground Zero. His popularity again soared, just as he was leaving office. It’s no surprise that Giuliani would like to fashion his legacy upon the ashes of ground zero rather than the now widely discredited policies of zero tolerance.
But his more far-reaching, long lasting legacy, when all is said and done, is rooted in the cases of Abner Louima’s brutal assault and Amadou Diallo’s death during his tenure as New York’s mayor, cases that foreshadow Ferguson, Baltimore City, and Baton Rouge. And it’s a legacy that has destroyed trust between American citizens and law enforcement as well as contributed to the violence against and, indeed, death of American citizens on a scale far broader than any foreign terrorist threat.