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Eye on the News

Judith Miller
The State of the NYPD
Technology and private philanthropy help keep the department at the top of its game.
18 January 2012

Less is more. That was the message that New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly gave the Police Foundation Tuesday morning as he offered an upbeat report on the department’s accomplishments and innovations over the past year.

In a speech billed as his annual “state of the NYPD” assessment, Kelly touted crime statistics showing not only that the city was the safest it has been since 1963, but also that his department was operating at its leanest. Despite having 6,000 fewer cops on the street than six years ago, the NYPD has continued, Kelly said, working to reduce crime, combat terrorism, and improve community relations—the NYPD’s three top priorities.

Speaking to 100 supporters and guests of the Police Foundation at its annual fund-raising breakfast at the Regency Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Kelly said that a key to the department’s success has been technological innovation—much of it financed by donations from the 40-year-old private organization. The commissioner highlighted two new and promising programs: “vapor wake” dogs, Labrador retrievers trained to detect airborne particles trailing behind someone who has been around explosives; and a new body scanner, still in development, that can detect a concealed weapon on people without frisking them. Not unlike body scanners at some major airports, the NYPD’s gun scanner is the result of a collaboration launched three years ago with the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. But so far, Commissioner Kelly added, the device works only at short range—up to three or four feet away. His goal is accuracy at a minimum distance of some 75 feet. Eventually, the department hopes to mount the fairly large devices, now about the size of a large flat-screen TV, on NYPD vans to scan an entire area.

The deployment of such technology would mean that the NYPD might be able to reduce its reliance on “stop and frisk,” an unpopular tactic among black New Yorkers and other minorities, which nonetheless rose by some 13 percent last year, department statistics show. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the gun scanner project “both intriguing and worrisome.” If technology like this works as the NYPD describes, she said, stop-and-frisk rates might drop “by a half-million people a year—but the ability to walk down the street free from a virtual police pat-down is a matter of privacy. We have no idea how this technology works, if it is effective, and what its error rate is.”

The New York City Police Foundation, established in 1971 to provide police vests and other innovations that even this well-funded police department cannot always afford, has invested over $100 million in such programs since its creation, said Valerie Salembier, the foundation chairwoman and publisher of Town and Country who is close to Commissioner Kelly and his wife, Veronica. The foundation’s donors, in general, constitute a veritable Who’s Who of New York’s entrepreneurs and philanthropists, making it a “destination” charity for the socially mobile. But it has institutional backers, too: in 2010, JPMorgan Chase donated $4.75 million in cash, technology, and other resources to the foundation, the largest gift in the foundation’s history.

In their remarks Tuesday, both Kelly and Salembier stressed the vital role such contributions play for the NYPD, which allocates 92 percent of its $4.6 billion annual budget to salaries and benefits. The NYPD, with its 35,000 uniformed officers and total of 50,000 employees, depends on private and corporate giving to sustain the technological edge that has helped it reduce crime to record-low levels—down some 34 percent since 2001 in a city that has grown by 1 million people since 1990. There were 504 murders last year in the city (down 6 percent from 2010’s total of 534), meaning that only six New Yorkers were killed per 100,000 people. Compare that with New Orleans, where 61 out of 100,000 were killed, or 15 per 100,000 in Chicago, or 24 per 100,000 in Philadelphia.

Foundation funds have also helped the department detect and disrupt 14 separate terrorism plots targeting New York since 9/11, two of these in 2011, Kelly said. For several years, the foundation has helped finance most of the NYPD’s $1.5-million-a-year International Liaison Program, in which 11 NYPD detectives are embedded in police departments overseas to explore potential New York ramifications of terrorist activity abroad. The foundation provided $300,000 in seed money for the department’s Real Time Crime Center, whose database now contains 800,000 mug shots and whose vehicle data helped the city recover over 1,200 stolen cars last year alone. The foundation has helped finance the city’s network of 2,000 (eventually 3,000) sophisticated security cameras, which feed information into a central monitoring system to detect suspicious or unlawful activity. Eventually, data collected from the department’s chemical, biological, and radiation detectors will also be fed into the system. A new police academy now under construction, also partly financed by the foundation, will be the nation’s most high-tech police-training facility, Kelly says.

Despite these kinds of innovations, or perhaps because of them, the NYPD’s critics have complained about potential invasions of privacy and disruptions of New Yorkers’ civil liberties. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, several reporters and citizens claimed to have been abused and arrested without justifiable cause. Several in the Regency audience asked about the corruption and other scandals that have rocked the department in the past year. Any department of this size, Kelly responded, was “bound to have some misconduct.” All of these problems—including charges of widespread ticket-fixing in the department and allegations that crimes are being underreported or downgraded to keep crime statistics low—had been detected, reported, and investigated by the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, he said.

The IAB, which critics accuse of being too soft on its own, has been strengthened following disclosure of the scandals, Kelly said. He has added 100 officers to the bureau, increased its budget, and brought in a tough former district attorney to enhance the training of its officers. Critics, however, deem these steps insufficient and call for more independent monitoring of the department’s activities. The New York Civil Liberties Union has sued the department to obtain more information about its crime reporting, arrests, and other disputed activities.

Kelly also defended his department Tuesday against allegations made in Associated Press stories that the department’s intelligence division has conducted widespread spying on the city’s Muslims. In protest, several Muslim groups announced they were boycotting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast in early January, which many of the city’s imams and Muslim representatives attended. (A mayoral spokesman said that several of the individuals who announced they were boycotting the meeting hadn’t been invited, anyway.)

Commissioner Kelly has repeatedly said that his department follows leads and tips and has not engaged in massive spying on any religious group. He stressed today that he and other senior NYPD officers were engaging in intensive outreach to the city’s Muslim communities, meeting with imams and Muslim civic organizations. “I do more outreach than anyone,” he said, “but there are always challenges.”

He defended the NYPD’s dismantlement of the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park last fall and its handling of the protests that threatened to block vehicular and foot traffic on city streets. Handling such demonstrations, said Kelly, was “a contact sport.” “Sometimes we overreact,” he conceded. “We make mistakes.” But by and large, he concluded, the department had done a “good job” of enabling social protest while also protecting the city against violent disruptions caused by a minority of what he called “anarchists.”

Kelly’s bottom line on the NYPD in 2011: “The era of public safety continues.”

The Police Foundation, itself, however, is not without critics. Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union expressed concern earlier this year not only about a private foundation financing a city police force, but also about the foundation’s lack of transparency about its activities. “This is not the kind of operation that should be funded by a private entity,” Dunn said. He’s not alone in his concerns. Peter Vallone, a pro-NYPD city councilman from Queens who chairs the public-safety committee and supports the department’s overseas programs, believes nonetheless that the foundation’s financing of these programs raises “uncharted” oversight issues.

But as federal and state funds for law enforcement shrink, the need for private foundation support seems likely only to grow. Police foundations modeled on New York’s have already been created in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, and other cities are considering them as well. And donations in New York are strong and growing, foundation spokesmen say.

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