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New York Cops: Still the Finest
Bucking a national trend, Gothams crime rate keeps dropping. Heres why.
New York City has shattered criminologys central myth, but criminologists remain in denial. Policing, they still insist, can do little to lower crime. Economic inequality, demographic trends, changing drug-use patternsthese determine crime levels, they say, not police tactics. Nevertheless, since 1994, New York City has enjoyed a crime drop unmatched in the rest of the countryindeed, unparalleled in historyand only Gothams revolutionary style of policing can explain it. Yet rather than flooding the city to study this paradigm-breaking phenomenon, most criminologists are busy looking the other way.
The dimensions of New Yorks crime rout are breathtaking. From 1990 to 2000, four of the seven major felonieshomicide, robbery, burglary, and auto theftdropped over 70 percent. Crime fell across the country during this period, but in New York it plummeted at twice the national average. By 2000, New Yorks crime profile looked more like that of a small suburb than a big city, notes University of California sociologist Frank Zimring, whose forthcoming The Great American Crime Decline is the only major study so far that acknowledges the significance of the citys crime turnaround. Gothams homicide rate in 2000 was half that of the big-city average; its robbery rate, which started out 50 percent higher than that of other big cities in 1990, was 10 percent below the average.
The national crime decline flattened out as the new century began. Some cities that were darlings of the media and the criminologists in the nineties have seen sharp increases in murder. Boston, lauded by the New York Times and others as the kinder, gentler corrective to New Yorks allegedly overaggressive policing approach, has suffered its highest murder rate in a decade this year. Milwaukee and Memphis had double-digit homicide spikes in 2005. Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, and Kansas City are also seeing their nineties crime gains erode.
Not New York. From 2000 to 2005, the citys crime rate fell another 30 percent. New Yorks twenty-first-century experience is distinctive in the breadth and the depth of the continued decline. Even San Diego, the other favorite unNew York policing success story of the nineties, has not kept up with New York. While Gothams crime rate clocked in at 71 percent below its 1990 level in 2004, San Diego mustered a 55 percent decline. Something qualitatively different is going on in New York, says Zimring.
That difference is policing. Throughout the nineties, critics of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the assertive policing that he championed tried to explain away the New York crime turnaround as a mere reflection of the national crime picture. That effort wasnt persuasive then and has been even less so since 2000.
True, something mysterious happened to crime across the country during the nineties. Violent and property crime went down 22 percent from 1991 to 2000, to reach the lowest rate since 1972. The American crime drop is the biggest sociological fact of the second half of the twentieth century, maintains Northwestern University political scientist Wesley Skogan. Yet it remains largely unexplained. What drives us [researchers] crazy, Skogan says, is the declines ubiquity across very different environments. Economic hot spots and economic laggards, policing backwaters and policing trendsetters, states with high incarceration rates and states with low onescrime fell in all of them.
To the extent that overarching causes drove the national decline, they undoubtedly influenced New York Citys crime rate as well. But none of the favored criminological explanations can really explain what happened in New York, Zimring believes. The citys economic recovery in the nineties was weaker than that of other major metropolitan areas. Gothams population of young black and Hispanic menfar and away the chief perpetrators of street crimeshrank, but less than the national average. Incarceration went up in New York, but it surged much more elsewhere. The big boom in New York prison construction and population occurred from 1985 through 1994, under Governor Mario Cuomo, without a significant downturn in crime. (Whats more, since 1999, New Yorks prison population has shrunk by some 9,000 inmates, more than in any other state; yet crime has kept falling.) And though crack and cocaine use did wane in New York City during the nineties, New York arrestees remained by the end of the decade more deeply involved [in the drug] than elsewhere, reports Andrew Karmen, a sociologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
What did kick into high gear in late 1994, when New York crime began its dramatic dive, however, and what continues today, is the most focused form of policing in history. Zimring estimates that up to half of New Yorks crime drop in the 1990s, and virtually 100 percent of its continuing crime decline since 2000, has resulted from policing. And credit for keeping Gotham on the path of ongoing crime reduction belongs to Ray Kelly, serving his second tour of duty as the NYPDs commissioner.
It was by no means certain that New York would hold fast to its tough-minded crime-fighting methods when a new mayor took office in 2002. The department could have gone back to the feel-good but feckless community policing that it practiced in the crime-ridden pre-Giuliani period. Giuliani loyalists, perennially predicting le déluge, greeted Kellys appointment with dismay. Not only had he served as police commissioner during the last two years of the disastrous David Dinkins mayoralty (ending in 1994); he also had joined the chorus criticizing Giuliani-style aggressive policing. In 1996, Kelly told Time that attributing New Yorks crime turnaround to policing made no sense: Its like trying to take credit for an eclipse, he observed. A lot of people arent comfortable with this style. It goes to the question of what kind of policing we want in America. You can probably shut down just about all crime, if youre willing to burn down the village to save it. Eventually, I think, there will be a backlash, and crime will go back up.
But to his immense credit (and that of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has backed him), Kelly has maintained the heart of New Yorks policing revolutionthe now-famous accountability mechanism known as Compstat, a weekly crime-control meeting where top brass grill precinct bosses about every last detail of their commandeven as he has refined the departments ability to analyze and respond to crime trends. Kelly has also molded the force into a vital defense against terrorism. The NYPD now gathers more antiterror intelligence than any U.S. public entity outside the federal government, and probably shares it better, too (see box). The counterterrorism mission took 1,000 cops off their usual beats, adding to the loss of more than 3,000 officers through attrition during Mayor Bloombergs first term. Despite the force contractions, Kelly has kept crime rates moving downward.
Kelly is as intense a commissioner as the department has had since Giulianis first top cop, William Bratton. He rarely awards himself a vacation beyond a long weekend. With typical reticence, he refuses to discuss how his view of policing may have evolved over the years. That is ancient history now, he says curtly, in his large police-headquarters office. We have to do our own thing here. Compstat we still use, but we do a lot of things differently. For all his desire to distinguish himself from his predecessors, though, Kelly is now fully on board with the philosophy that policing can control crime. Asked if theres a floor beneath which crime cant drop further, he responds: We dont accept any crime increasewe will continue to drive it down with technology and tactics.
Kellys legacy will include a strengthened commitment to quality-of-life enforcement, new strategies for deploying officers, and better use of technology. The commissioners passion for urban order is manifest. He grabs a large book from his desk, filled with color photos of nuisance offenses throughout the city. Female drinking from an open container in public, reads one photo. Unlicensed vendor selling socks, says another. This [disorder] was something we knew we had to get a hold of, he tells me. Kellys squad of photographers roams the city, documenting illegal street behavior; Kelly then e-mails the snapshots to the responsible precinct commanders to goad them into action.
Nervous New York residents interpret every sighting of a disheveled bum as a sign that the city is sliding back into chaos. But in fact the NYPD has beefed up its defenses against urban decay. Kelly has boosted the size of the homeless outreach unit and told it to start arresting people for trespassing and other crimes. You have to lock up the right people, Kelly explains unapologetically.
Locking up, or issuing summonses to, the right people lies at the heart of the NYPDs broken windows policing. By going after misdemeanors like public urination or turnstile jumping, the police can intervene with a much broader segment of the population than if they only pursued serious felonies. Deputy Commissioner of Operations Garry McCarthy recalls the days when officials denigrated quality-of-life policing as a waste of resources. When we werent as concerned with the public consumption of alcohol, for example, we lost the opportunity to interact with someone who may be a criminal, he says. By eliminating conditions, were apprehending criminals and stopping crimes waiting to happen: if you let those guys on the corner keep drinking, by nighttime, they may be committing felony assault against each other.
The twenty-first-century NYPD combines Kellys belief in quality-of-life enforcement with a new method of deploying rookie cops to cool down crime hot spots. Rather than divvying up the 3,000 Police Academy grads each year among all the precincts, as it once did, the department now puts them in 21 high-crime areas, where they walk beats. You cant move 50 yards in a so-called Impact Zone without crossing paths with an officer or two. Besides deterring crime by their mere presence, Impact cops hand out scores of nuisance summonses, helping to restore safety and order to their beats.
Eagerly sought by community boards, the rookie-saturated zones have almost always produced crime drops of 30 percent or so over their six-month spans. While our Impact Zone was there, it was like heaven, recalls Johnny Klein, a member of the clergy-affiliated Community Action Project in Flatbush and a resident of the 71st Precinct. This huge weight gets lifted from the community; no one can do anything on the street thats illegal. Everyone can see that the officers are green, but they outnumber the bad guys.
Impact exploits one of the departments greatest advantages: massive size. Policing is the one area where New Yorks appetite for big government pays off. The citys 37,000 officers add up to twice the per-capita average of other large cities; the departments annual graduating class alone is larger than nearly every police force in the country. New York can throw officers at crime problems in a way that most departments can only dream aboutthough obviously it must throw them intelligently, with a plan and constant follow-up.
The NYPD tries to use its size to create the impression of omnipresence in would-be offenders minds. Talk to at-risk youth, and you get a sense that the effort is working: all report cops stopping and questioning them. Billy, an 18-year-old from high-crime East New York in Brooklyn, says undercovers stopped him three times last summer, looking for suspects. Theyll give a ticket for throwing your cigarette on the ground or for standing on the corner, he grumbles. Jay, a 17-year-old from Crown Heights on probation for violent attacks at his school, complains about a stop from the previous week, while he was hanging out in front of his apartment building. They [the undercovers] came up to me and asked my name, he says. I was like, Excuse me? I dont give my name to strangers.
An ongoing decoy operation in the transit system also seeks to reinforce the sense that the cops are everywhere. Operation Lucky Bag plants abandoned backpacks and purses in the subwaysand then nabs the thieves who take them. In a March sting on Coney Island, a group of four roving teens grabbed the decoy bag off a bench, tossed it onto an arriving train, and started dividing up the contents. A swarm of undercover officers suddenly materialized, seemingly out of nowhere, and arrested them. That gang will send the message to their friends that plainclothes cops may lurk anywhere. Lucky Bag also illustrates the broken-windows truth that petty offenders and hard-core criminals are often one and the same people. Among the serious thugs it has apprehended is one who tried to kill an officer in 1994.
Kelly understands the direct correlation, as he puts it, between the size of the department and the amount of crime. He will add 800 officers to the force, partially restoring post-9/11 cuts.
He sets equal store by technology and has two signature projects under way. The $12 million Real Time Crime Center applies data mining to crime solving. When a murder or shooting comes in over the police radio, analysts in the flashy downtown center get on their computers and search for all relevant info on the crime location, suspects, and victims. A mobile data van zooms to the crime scene and prints out the downtown centers analyses, enabling detectives investigating the crime to track down relevant clues while theyre still hot. Whether the center will revolutionize crime solving remains to be seen, since some of its capacity, such as the mobile computer vans, remains underutilized. But the data banks that the department is developing could prove a bonanza to researchers seeking to understand who commits crimes, and why.
Its a certainty, though, that Kellys second technology planto install over 500 cameras across the citywill increase the departments ability to prevent and solve crimes. Anyone who still disputes that cameras deter criminals and terroristsACLU, that would be you!should read the testimony of the Pakistani immigrant convicted in May of plotting to blow up New Yorks Herald Square subway station. Shahawar Matin Siraj told an informant that he had cased the station for surveillance cameras but had found none, making it a prime target.
The key to the NYPDs crime-fighting success remains Compstat, however. Policing skeptics rarely bother to study Compstat closely. If they did, they would be hard-pressed to explain how it couldnt have an influence on crime and public order. The biggest problem in police departments is maintaining focus; in New York, Compstat keeps every commander monomaniacally zeroed in on lowering crime.
Commissioner Kelly left in place the previous administrations two hard-charging heads of Compstat, Chief of Department Joseph Esposito and Deputy Commissioner of Operations Garry McCarthy, whose expertise gives the city a crime-fighting brain trust. For each weeks session, Compstat analysts pore over every statistic in the precinct scheduled for reviewoutstanding warrants and wanted cards, fingerprint hits, parolees in the area. They may drive to the precinct in an unmarked car at 3 am to monitor how officers respond to 911 calls, or comb detectives files to determine if theyre tracking down witnesses and perps as tirelessly as they should. A detective who has overlooked an opportunity to nab a robbery suspect at an unrelated court appearance, for example, will face an unpleasant time at Compstat. Have a precincts domestic-violence officers been visiting high-risk offenders at night and on weekends? If the officers have slacked off, supervisors will hear about it. And before a Compstat session, smart executive officers will go to the scene of every recent shooting to make sure that they know all its details.
After a thousand meetings since its inception, Compstat still possesses the capacity to terrify even those not on the hot seat. I have literally perspired from my armpits to my waist after viewing an acrimonious Compstat grilling, says one captain. But however grueling, Compstat is an unmatched mechanism for disseminating the departments cumulative knowledge about tactics and for evaluating what does and doesnt work. Theme-based meetings might review how to infiltrate pawnshops during burglary investigations, for instance, or how best to fight subway theft.
The results can be striking. The 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn, found itself called into Compstat after a bad week in January, when eight thefts of iPods and cell phones had pushed its monthly crime numbers up 19 percent. Two weeks later, after the Compstat session, crime had fallen nearly 21 percent.
The reason? Thanks to new deployment strategies developed at the Compstat meeting, the precinct had caught every one of the robbers. The commanding officers had also relearned long-term lessons at that Compstat session, such as not closing a case before the arrest of every assailant a victim identifies and ensuring that an arrest leads to an indictment. Compstat fights fatalism about the judicial system by demanding that commanders take responsibility for the entire course of crime fighting. I squeeze the sergeants, explains the 83rd Precincts Lieutenant John Viscardi. I tell them: When you go to court with an arrest, make sure you have everything you need for an indictment. Do you need backup from other officers or information from us? If the case is thrown out because of our negligence, that robber doesnt just go back out on the street; he goes back emboldened.
Under Kelly, the department has used Compstat to target multiple crimes committed by a single perp or group of perps. Because solving such pattern crimes produces a considerable bang for the law-enforcement buck, they receive intense attention until cleared, even if lots of time passes. If the Compstat analysts downtown decide that several robberies in fact are related, and the commander hasnt identified the pattern, he will suffer.
Despite Compstats accountability safeguard, Deputy Commissioner McCarthy remains haunted by the specter of flagging performance. Asked what he worries about most, McCarthy responds: That we start missing a step. Were not yet at 100 percent efficiency. Do we lose track of things? We know what we have to do to keep it going; we have systems set up, but sometimes we fail because theres a break in the link. We have to make our processes automatic. The department is getting diminishing returns from its efforts, he says. When we started out, if there were a hundred things we could do and we did ten, wed get a 10 percent drop in crime. Now if we dont do all 98, well see an increase.
Behind the worry is the sense that crime could shoot up again instantly. The criminal culture hasnt changed, many officers believe. Its a struggle all the time, says Michael Farrell, deputy commissioner of strategic initiatives, whose office conducts research on policing and crime. Its not simply a matter of fixing the problem five years ago. New cohorts of offenders are appearing all the time. You have to constantly create a sense of deterrence and order, so as to change the formulation that young people make about their likelihood of getting caught.
And since the department lives by the numbers, it can also die by them. With crime so low, it takes only a few extra shootings or assaults to produce a large percentage increase in crime. One additional homicide can make a weeks citywide homicide numbers jump 14 percent over the previous year, for instance. The press will then seize on the percentage for the scary crime rising in new york story. Asked when they start to worry that crime really is going back up, most NYPD leaders deny the possibility. We will never say that crime is going back up, because it wont happen, asserts McCarthy. There are some precincts where crime is so lowten incidents a weekthat that may be all we can do. Well try to hold the line there, and push down on the big dogs like the 75th, 44th, and 46th Precincts [in Brooklyn and the Bronx]. The department should be responsible even for one extra crime a day. Well find ways to fix it by building a better mousetrapthrough deployment, quickly apprehending criminals, and good sentencing work with the district attorney and probation.
In most areas, the departments performance justifies such bravado. Earlier this year, NYPD brass eyed the shooting numbers with concern. After dropping precipitously in 2004 to their lowest level in decades, shootings rose by 50 incidents, or 3 percent, in 2005. As of February 26, 2006, they were up 5 percent, or nine additional incidents, over the same period in 2005. Yet by June 18, shootings were down 3.7 percent compared with the previous year, and at 598 incidents since January 1, looked likely to come in even under the 652 incidents through June of the historically low 2004.
Opinion on the street varies on whether more New Yorkers are carrying guns. An undercover sergeant in East Harlem says hes definitely not seeing more guns. Criminals are getting smarter; they are not carrying. But 17-year-old Russell, a student at Harlems parochial Rice High School, claims that since 2003 guns have rapidly gotten into the hands of 16- to 17-year-olds like a plague. If you have enemies, you will get a gun immediately. Buying a gun was once hard, he claims. Now its quick and easyhe could get one from friends for just $250 to $400, he says. The Bronx is the hotbed of gun possession, this 11th-grader asserts. Like everything in New Yorks underclass culture, its already happened in the Bronx when it comes to Harlem.
Yet if teens are carrying guns more often, theyre not yet more prone to shoot, Russell observes. A lot of teens are petrified to use them. They point it to scare people away. And they worry all the time about the police. Russell and his friends believe that if the cops catch you with a gun used in previous crimes, youll face charges for all those crimes, even if you didnt commit thema useful fiction.
Though shootings have stabilized, murder and rapes in 2006 have been bouncing around above their 2005 numbersup 9.1 percent as of June 18 for murders and 4.8 percent for rapes, even as overall crime fell another 5.1 percent. But its premature to sound an alarm. Homicides rose in three of the seven years between 1998 and 2005, yet by 2005, they were 14 percent below the 1998 level. Over the long run, the NYPD has managed to squelch incipient crime increases through its laser-beam management. As yet, theres no reason to believe that the current uptick is any different.
By now, the department has a powerful partner in its crime-fighting efforts: a revitalized city. Talk to residents of former high-crime neighborhoods and you hear a multipronged explanation for the crime drop: policing gets the criminals out, development keeps them out, and the upgraded neighborhood reinforces the new order. The housing and commercial boom in areas once synonymous with violence is of a magnitude that no one, even up through the late 1990s, could have predicted. In the 1970s, hundreds of people would line up at the corners of a ten-block stretch of Eighth Avenue in Harlem and sell drugs. Today, the dealers are gone, and in their place are housing renovations and new construction worth millions of dollars. The citys high-end realtors have set up shop on 116th Street, among cafés and Parisian bakeries. Corporate America wants a piece of the action, planting chain stores in former domestic war zones as fast as it can find space.
Billy Proctor has seen the change on his block. A middle-aged shoe salesman in a camel-hair coat and an NYC cap, he greets a rookie officer patrolling 123rd Street as part of a Central Harlem Impact Zone. As recently as last December, squatters occupied a graceful limestone apartment building on the street; Proctor heard the thud from his apartment next door when one of them was thrown off the rooftop in a dispute. Today, a busy gut renovation of the formerly colonized building is in progress. This street has a long history of drugs, Proctor says. A couple of years ago, a guy came back from prison and declared: Im going to run this neighborhood. He was selling crack and cocaine. His rivals killed him right on the block. Today, though, the block is peaceful, through a combination of ongoing police patrol and population turnover. They [the dealers] have got the message; those guys had enough smarts to get out. Some former residents, too, have movedto wherever they can find subsidized rents, he says.
The new, better-off residents bring a different expectation about public safety. Yasmin Cornelius, head of Community Board 10 in Harlem, gets calls about drug dealing every five minutes from people who just moved into Harlem. Maybe they thought it was no longer an issue, she says, somewhat contemptuously. These newcomers will put renewed pressure on the police to end the problem and be less likely to be caught up in the drug trade themselves. When people move in, they fight back, explains Nadine Whitted, director of Community Board 4 in Brooklyns Bushwick neighborhood.
Columbia University criminologist Jeffrey Fagan believes that population change has helped drive New Yorks post-2000 crime drop. Policing can only do so much. You have to look at the political economy, he suggests. If housing becomes more expensive, poor people move out, and the people who replace them will not be the same, he says. They will have or make more money. As people become stakeholders, their behavior changes. They are more inclined to engage in social control, such as being out on the street, helping the police, and engaging in regular public life.
These observationsfrom inner-city residents and academics aliketread taboo ground. They suggest that one of the most effective ways of reducing crime is to replace the urban underclassonly a small percentage of whom actively engage in criminal activitywith wealthier, more socially engaged residents. Fagan quickly distances himself from the implications of what he is saying: Im not arguing for gentrification as a solution to crime, he objects. But commanders who have witnessed New Yorks liberation from crime offer support for the theory. Neighborhoods with high concentrations of housing projects always have greater crime problems than the rest of the city, they say, because the local criminal population entrenches itself so deeply there.
But while population turnover may contribute to the ongoing crime decline, a renewed commitment to public safety by longtime residents also plays its role. Harlems 28th Precinct Community Council meeting in February exemplified the virtuous cycle that successful policing sets off: a neighborhood starts to come back, leading its newly hopeful occupants to demand even tougher policing. At the meeting, an older woman politely requested better quality-of-life enforcement around her home. Her building had gone co-op, and the owners were moving back in after renovation. Wed appreciate your helping us to make sure people are not loitering. There is a concrete curb outside the building. We noticed people sitting there. It should not be. Alerted to a potential problem, the police will now intervene before it gets out of hand.
Left-wing academics deny that law-abiding inner-city residents desire an orderly environment as fiercely as the wealthy. Enforcing loitering ordinances or open-container rules in minority neighborhoods, they charge, is simply a racist attack on the oppressed. Many such academics have obviously spoken to very few poor people, so as not to disrupt their fantasy of a revolutionary vanguard ready to attack bourgeois conventions. Andrew Karmen of John Jay College of Criminal Justice sees crime as a distorted form of social protest. Inner-city residents beg to differ. Asked what activities bother her constituents most, Nadine Whitted of the Bushwick Community Board bluntly replies: Drugs still being sold, youth crime, people hanging out, loud music.
Community redevelopment alone cannot keep crime down, however; assertive policing remains essential. Like New York, Boston in the 1990s saw renewal in neighborhoods that previously no one would touch (albeit at nowhere near the gale force of New Yorks gentrification). Crime has shot back up in spite of that new investment, because the Boston police lost their focus, according to David Kennedy, a crime researcher at John Jay College and an advisor to the Boston Police Department during the 1990s Boston Miracle. The NYPD never backed off from its fundamental response. Boston did, he says.
The conclusion is unavoidable: policing is the most powerful tool that society possesses against crime. Since the 1960s, New York has spent billions on redistributionist social programs designed to eradicate both poverty and the dysfunctional behavior of the underclass. Yet by the 1990s, packs of feral youths roamed subways and parks, maiming and murdering. Thugs armed with military weaponry ruled whole neighborhoods. Today, thanks to the NYPD, those neighborhoods thrive with commerce and family life. Urban government does not possess the power to transform character or to uplift residents beyond what theyre willing to do for themselves, but it can provide the most important basis of civil society: security. And in so doing, New York policing has helped the poor more than decades of welfare programs ever did.