City Journal

Peter Reinharz
The Crime War’s Next Battles
Completing the mayor’s legendarily successful war on crime means tackling guns, school crime, and a flare-up of subway robberies. Here’s how to do it.
Winter 1998

Nothing has inspired more confidence among New Yorkers than the reduction in crime since 1993, an extraordinary accomplishment that dwarfs drops in other large cities and, everyone agrees, results from the innovative policing and management strategies of the Giuliani administration and from its unwavering political will. For violent crimes, New York City ranked 157th of cities with populations over 100,000 in 1996—well below Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and even way below Orlando and San Francisco. Gotham's murder rate ranked 68th among the nation's largest cities in 1996, and as City Journal goes to press, the best guess is that 1997's murders will total around 750, bringing the murder rate down to where it stood in the mid-1950s, a goal undreamed of five years ago, when the annual body count soared to around 2,300. New Yorkers once again feel safe, not only in their own neighborhoods but even in sections of the city that many deemed hopeless, like the Brooklyn waterfront area now lined with new art galleries and nicknamed Dumbo. Gothamites also no longer feel that they live on top of a volcano: no New Yorker today worries that riots like those that raged in Los Angeles in 1992 could happen in New York on Rudy Giuliani's watch.

Attacking crime has paid big dividends to New York, kindling a new vitality throughout the city. Tourism is up, and for the first time in this century more people across America want to relocate to New York than to any other metropolitan area, according to a recent Gallup poll. Businesses are reaping big savings from the expulsion of the mob from the garbage-hauling business. More important, for the first time in years, New Yorkers feel optimistic about their town's future. Though that's partly due to the Wall Street boom, remember that even during the eighties' bull market, people expressed pessimism about the city's future. What makes the crucial difference, it seems, is the order and safety the first Giuliani administration has restored.

I watched this accomplishment unfold from my front yard, on the border between Queens and Nassau Counties. On my side—the Queens side—is a vest-pocket park that gives the neighborhood much of its charm. But during the early nineties, things often turned ugly at night: young people flocked to the park and got drunk and riotous. In those days, the police responded glacially to late-night calls to make arrests or issue summonses. The bulk of these offenders were juveniles, they told a home-owners' meeting with a shrug, and nothing could be done. When I replied that I was  in charge of juvenile prosecutions for the city and that something could be done, the officers merely dug into their bag of excuses to support their continuing inaction. One friend, a community affairs officer from a precinct outside Queens, told me that the cops' hands were tied and that if I wanted to get some sleep I should move.

At the time, cops told me that City Hall instructed them to concentrate on big crimes and ignore many quality-of-life crimes, because they are just part of city life. Equally important, City Hall didn't want to overburden the budget with a massive jail population. Recalls one NYPD veteran: "A few years ago, if you stopped a drunk, they'd stick you on a fixed post for punishment."

In those days, the former administration put into effect a new plan that sounded great. Dubbed "community policing," it put cops on an old-fashioned neighborhood beat, where, the theory went, they'd be highly visible and would know all the residents, merchants, and troublemakers in the neighborhood. But alas, the new community policing turned out to be mostly about police watching crime. The troublemakers in virtually every corner of the city soon learned that neighborhood cops were not routinely arresting for low-level crime, and community policing became an invitation to vagrancy and public disorder.

My neighbors eventually gave up on New York's finest. We learned that the way to deal with our problem was to call our friends down the block in Nassau County and ask them to call 911. The appearance of the Nassau County cops, invading Queens to get to the little park, put a swift end to the evening's mayhem. It didn't take much: only an air of authority and swagger as the suburban officers menacingly tapped their nightsticks and communicated that they would not countenance incivility.

But by the first spring of the Giuliani administration, the issue of a crime-plagued park had evaporated, without further help from across the county line. A few summonses, a few arrests, and drunken mobs became a thing of the past.

This seems like a small thing, but it goes to the heart of Giuliani-era police strategy. By tackling low-level crimes like drunken rowdiness in our park, or like fare beating, graffiti, and extortion by squeegee, New York's police force reduced the overall crime rates for violent offenses. By enforcing the law on every corner, the police department took back the authority it had all but lost in the preceding years. The cops who did it were largely the same men and women who had patrolled the city five to seven years ago, but now they knew that the department's leaders would support them when they challenged the city's criminals every day. After all, precinct and unit commanders heard weekly from top police brass at their now world-famous Compstat (Computerized Statistics) meetings that they were responsible for getting criminals off the streets and making sure that reported crime kept going down. In turn, rank-and-file cops were to make clear that they were on the watch and in charge—and criminals got the message.

What should the mayor do in his second term to build on his extraordinary success so far? First, he should hold steadfastly to the policing policies that have worked so well. In the wake of some recent incidents of police brutality, critics have tried to discredit the strategy, charging that it incites police to abuse their powers. Not at all. True, just as occasional instances of corruption turn up in all parts of government, renegade cops sometimes cross the line and join the ranks of marauding thugs. But the department has strengthened its already intense efforts to root out bad cops by using the Compstat meetings to hold commanders responsible for the conduct of the officers under their command as well as for crime reductions in their precincts. The vast majority of cops are appalled at the actions of their rogue colleagues. Proud to have put the brakes on New York's crime wave, several officers expressed concern to me that, in the wake of one particularly gruesome act of police brutality, their commanders may become too tentative about letting them challenge criminals and control the streets. The right way to deal with officers who assault citizens under the color of police authority is to put them in jail, like any other part of the city's criminal population—not to change the successful strategy of the whole department.

Mayor Giuliani has a ready answer to critics who, in the name of civil liberty, attack the new policing as discriminatory against minorities—as a war on the inner city. Inner-city communities are precisely the ones that can least afford an increase in violent crime rates. In a national survey, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found black households three times as likely as white households to cite neighborhood crime as a major concern in their lives. Inner-city black households named crime as a concern more often than any other issue, while white households never mentioned crime as a dominant factor in everyday life. Nothing could improve the lives of the law-abiding citizens of inner-city neighborhoods more dramatically than a reduction of violent crime that makes them so constantly apprehensive. And indeed, from 1993 to 1997 crime fell by 39 percent in central Harlem, 42 percent in East New York, and 45 percent in the South Bronx.

Second, one of the few places where crime fell much less than in the rest of the city during the last four years was the school system, and that troubling fact should make the mayor press all the harder for something he proposed during his first term: putting the Board of Education's Office of School Safety under police department control. Uniformed school safety officers, who man the school metal detectors, patrol hallways, break up fights, and even arrest students, play a police-like role and ought to come under police supervision—to be, officially, cops. The NYPD can give them much better training in law-enforcement techniques than they currently receive, provide the intense pre-hiring background checks they ought to undergo, and, through its internal discipline units, offer the kind of oversight of their conduct that they need. A police department commander is more likely to ensure better day-to-day performance and discipline than a principal.

Scholars of crime warn of a renewed crime wave in the next millennium as a new breed of "superpredators" enters adolescence. The jump may start as early as 1999, when the first crack babies—those born addicted to crack cocaine—turn 13, the age at which violent crime escalates dramatically among young males. If the schools really are the first line of socialization for many of New York's children, we need to make sure they do the job effectively. Having school safety officers who can keep schools safe and orderly becomes more important than ever—for all of us.

The Board of Education and the chancellor have opposed this idea. They want school principals to retain ultimate control. Trouble is, principals sometimes impede school safety rather than facilitate it. Seeking to improve crime statistics in their schools, they will tell safety officers not to file cases or incident reports. Over the years, I have conducted countless training forums with school safety officers. During these sessions, officers repeatedly told me of principals who block their efforts to ready a case for prosecution—or even for an initial referral to the prosecutor's office—out of a wish to limit the number of crimes reported at their schools. One officer told me about a principal who "administratively handled" a gun in a school; another recalled a principal who let a student out the school's back door when police arrived to arrest him on a felony warrant. Other officers have said that as long as the principal remains in charge of law enforcement within a school, they cannot seek help from outside police agencies—even when the principal is covering up crime. In this respect, compare the state of affairs in many Texas school districts, where police officers have complete authority for school safety, can go to students' homes to investigate allegations of crime or neglect, and can call in other police or prosecutors for help.

In their defense, the Board of Ed and the chancellor point to a 17 percent drop in serious offenses in the schools between 1995 and 1997. But this statistic crumbles on inspection, since the Board of Ed reclassified many crimes from the serious into the non-serious category, producing a 10 percent increase in non-serious cases. For example, some infractions formerly labeled "assaults" now fall into the non-serious "harassment" category, which rose a troubling 19 percent in the high schools and an alarming 38 percent in the elementary schools over the two previous academic years.

Even if school crime really has fallen, the drop hardly compares with the city's overall crime decrease. Last year, as burglary fell 16.7 percent in the city, for instance, burglaries jumped 34 percent in the high schools and a whopping 58 percent in the elementary schools. In the last two years, possession of controlled substances increased 45 percent in the city's elementary schools—but even as the city begins the biggest antidrug initiative in its history, schoolchildren most at risk of drug abuse will not benefit fully, because their schools will have prevented meaningful participation.

Several years ago, when a former school safety director agreed to let school safety officers arrest felons in school when they failed to appear in court, then-chancellor Ramon Cortines balked. Schools, his office opined, should be places where kids feel safe, including safe from arrest. It took a while for the chancellor to grasp that students wanted on felony warrants might understandably make the majority of the student population feel distinctly unsafe.

Students grasp this point instantly. They worry constantly about safety in school, where they see students smoking marijuana without interference from nearby teachers, or hear rumors of firearms brought into the school undetected by lax security. They speak of being afraid to use the school bathrooms for fear of thugs who might lurk there, and they force themselves to wait until they get home—a state of affairs unconducive to concentration on math or social studies. Despite efforts to get computers into classrooms, build more schools, and develop curricula of "inclusion," students will not learn effectively if they are more concerned about safety than schoolwork. And middle-class students of all races will continue fleeing Gotham's public schools for suburban safety. For the law-abiding majority of students, just as the cop on the subway leaves riders reassured, so too would police officers in schools create the same sense of order and security.

And with good reason. Under the police department's aegis, safety officers would share the NYPD's technology, its gang intelligence units, and its Compstat process. Student safety would no longer be transferred from one force to another as students cross the threshold from school to street. The best defense against a gang that is active both in schools and on the streets is a police agency operating across the divide.

Of course, educators, not cops, should handle normal student unruliness, and routine disciplinary concerns mustn't get confused with violations of the law. NYPD's oversight of the Office of School Safety must guarantee that the training of school safety officers leads them to react appropriately when kids are just being kids. School officials must remain in charge of routine internal discipline, but students will have to know that criminal behavior will invoke a law-enforcement response.

Third, the mayor ought to sharpen his strategy for stemming the flood of guns inundating New York. He should make suppression of gun trafficking and illegal handguns a priority, just as he has made narcotics enforcement a major initiative for the new term. Though New Yorkers feel much safer overall, they still fear that most dreaded of criminals: the conscienceless kid with a gun.

And they are right to do so. While most categories of crime have fallen dramatically, juvenile crime has abated only modestly. Juvenile robberies declined about 8 percent during 1996, but that small drop followed an increase of nearly 11 percent the year before. The overall increase from 1986 to 1996 was 155 percent. Lots of these are crimes with guns: the number of gun possession cases among kids under 16 rose more than 81 percent during that same decade. According to the FBI, the number of teens under 17 arrested for firearms-related murder jumped 158 percent from 1985 to 1994, and teenagers accounted for 23 percent of all the nation's  weapons  arrests in 1994. According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, kids with guns are such a large part of the crime problem that four out of every ten illegal guns used in a crime are taken from someone under 24 years of age. In fact, guns and kids are so linked that the office prosecuting juvenile crime in Manhattan had to purchase a safe six times larger than the old model to hold the arsenal seized from kids under 16 years of age.

On the other side of the barrel, the City Council found, in a compelling (albeit unscientific) recent survey, that 44 percent of all children interviewed knew someone who had been shot, and 37 percent knew someone killed by gunfire. Over 50 percent of the children questioned by the council reported gunshots while at home, and nearly one-third of the youths indicated that they knew where to purchase an illegal handgun.

Police and federal ATF agents should work together to intercept the guns being brought into town as well as to arrest dealers in other states who participate in smuggling illegal handguns into New York. They should focus on hubs like the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where, police say, young "mules" get off buses every day from West Virginia, Florida, and other southern states with duffel bags filled with firearms that their bosses sell to criminals. Authorities might use dogs trained to sniff out traces of gunpowder residue, which factory test-firing leaves even on brand-new guns.

Federal law allows officers to search someone if he fits the profile authorities have developed of a gunrunner, but New York law, as defined by the state courts, does not. The city ought to work out an arrangement with federal prosecutors, as it has in the past with narcotics smuggling cases, that would allow NYPD officers to search people who fit the profile and process them through the federal courts if they are smuggling guns. The federal courts could also prosecute young gun mules, who face no more than 18 months of incarceration in a youth facility if convicted in the state's Family Court but could be incarcerated up to their 21st birthday if prosecuted under federal juvenile delinquency statutes.

Even though New York has tough sentencing laws, supposedly ensuring that every person convicted of possessing a loaded illegal firearm spends at least one year in jail, in practice New York City judges find mitigating circumstances and tiptoe around the mandatory minimum sentence in more than half the cases, often placing convicted gun felons on probation. Upstate judges, from counties supposedly hostile to gun control, give gun offenders much tougher sentences. As a senior ATF agent put it, in New York, the sentencing of those who possess illegal handguns is "still a joke." The mayor needs to look hard at the judges who mete out such soft sentences. He should charge his advisory commission on judicial appointments with investigating why courts find mitigating reasons more often than not in order to reject a law of the state. Judges who ignore the legislative requirement for one year in jail should pass strict scrutiny before being reappointed to the bench.

Fourth, in August and September, robbery and grand larceny in the subway took a nasty turn upward, and in fact for the first eight months of 1997 the number of subway grand larcenies jumped 13 percent over the same period the year before. To stop this upswing at once, the police need to take swift, decisive measures. Above all, they need to send decoy officers back underground.

The police commissioner's response—sending 300 more cops into the transit system and other areas hit by the rash of theft—is sensible but doesn't go far enough. The reassuring presence of uniformed officers on patrol is not the same as the mayor's traditional aggressive response to crime—which, like so much of the new urbanism, depends less on using more manpower than on using manpower more effectively. As a seasoned transit-police veteran notes: "Uniformed cops are not a deterrent for a good pickpocket. In fact, it tells the pickpockets right where the police are. Besides, the presence of lots of uniforms causes people to let down their guard, and some pickpockets are brazen enough to take advantage of this vulnerability."

What works much better are the famous decoy units the transit police used to deploy. These elite teams consisted of a decoy officer and a backup squad. The decoy, often wearing a breakaway chain around his neck or having a wallet in his coat, would feign drunkenness or sleep in the subway train or on the platform. Would-be thieves saw these easy targets, moved in for the crime, and instantly found themselves arrested by the backup team—about three criminals per tour. So successful was the operation that even the television news program 60 Minutes, hardly known for its support of aggressive law enforcement, called it "most effective" in a glowing documentary it did on the unit.

Prosecutors love decoy cases because they are the legal profession's equivalent of a sure thing. Instead of civilian complainants, who eventually lose interest in coming to court, you have seasoned police witnesses, experienced at testifying. Fully 93 percent of all transit decoy arrests resulted in indictments, with conviction rates close to 100 percent. Best of all, the offenders the decoy squads arrested often had significant criminal histories: about 86 percent of them were recidivists.

The decoy unit strongly deterred subway crime. As a former squad member recalled: "Some guys were so afraid of the decoys that I overheard them picking out people they thought were decoy cops. Some of their picks were drunks just sleeping on the train or in the station. I heard guys say, `That's a decoy; leave him alone.' " Surely the decoy unit's success, along with a perpetrator's fear that there might be decoys around him, is evidence that the program can be an effective tool in preventing crime over the next few years, not only in the transit system but also around the city's major shopping areas.

Finally, the city should consider completely decentralizing the probation department. Traditionally, probation officers require offenders to report regularly to their offices—usually located in or near the city's courthouses—to check on the parolee's compliance with sentencing conditions like drug testing, school attendance, or employment. But a new program, Operation Night Light (based on a Boston model), has moved some probation officers into police precincts and patrol cars to be closer to the parolees they supervise. This is a good start, but all supervising probation officers should be moved into storefront offices in the communities where their offenders reside. Instead of having probationers report downtown, it makes more sense to be close to them so that you can check on their whereabouts and their compliance more regularly. A probationer caught strolling around his neighborhood when he is supposed to be working may have some explaining to do.

The decentralization of probation supervision would complement quality community policing. By closely supervising offenders in a neighborhood, probation officers would add another level of security to streets the police already patrol. They would give the community an extra set of law-enforcement eyes—fixed on those who most need watching. When a probationer violates his sentence, the local officer will be on the scene to begin violation proceedings right away—including obtaining and executing a warrant for the probationer's arrest. In short, community-based probation would pull law-enforcement's net a little tighter across the whole city.

The fact is, Rudy Giuliani already has done extraordinary work in making New York one of the world's safest big cities. For that, he has earned admiration and respect from around the world. Let's hope that New Yorkers support him as he continues to do what we all thought impossible only a few years ago.

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