New Yorkers have been congratulating themselves for the low level of looting during August’s blackout. This feel-good story of a kinder, gentler New York leaves out a critical factor behind the city’s respect for the law during the crisis: a highly trained police department. Had the NYPD not deployed as masterfully as it did during the power failure, many more storeowners would today be counting their losses, and the reputation of New York would not be riding as high.
Looting is the quintessential crime of opportunity, and the police made sure to deny would-be looters their big chance. When the first window shattered on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue, less than five minutes after the lights went out, the department immediately erected barriers along the avenue and maintained a highly visible presence there for the rest of the night. It did the same in other areas hit by thievery during the 1977 blackout, as well as in neighborhoods marked by recent shootings—a sign of a criminally disposed population.
The cops started making arrests soon after the power stopped, and in large numbers—up to two-dozen hoodlums at a time. Getting these early-birds in custody stopped them from wreaking further havoc and sent a strong message to copycats that lawlessness would not be tolerated. Admittedly, some of the looters weren’t much of a challenge for the police. For example, 23 would-be sneaker thieves cut into the roof of a Brooklyn Foot Locker store and dropped to the floor below, intending to walk out the door with their booty. They hadn’t noticed the locked gate blocking their exit. The police picked them up like bugs trapped in a Roach Motel.
Two key strengths allowed the NYPD to protect the city during the darkness: training and manpower. Since September 11, the department has rigorously prepared for a catastrophic attack. When the electricity went off, top brass responded as if it were a terror strike. They gave full authority to the commanders of all eight patrol boroughs: an anti-terror precaution in case One Police Plaza became incapacitated. The NYPD has been drilling this so-called stand-alone plan obsessively, so when a disaster finally struck, commanders knew how to get their officers in the right places quickly. The borough commanders promptly called in all off-duty officers and extended shifts to 12 and 16 hours.
None of this deployment could have happened, however, without a critical mass of officers available to the force. In 1977, the city had 15,000 fewer cops than now, a consequence of its economic meltdown. Disturbingly, the force is once again shrinking, though the losses are nowhere near those of the 1970s. The mayor and city council should take note: numbers matter. They must not let the department drop below its current staffing.
Liberal criminologists also have a few things to learn from the city’s recent relative calm: policing keeps streets safe. The academic world continues to deny the role of policing in New York’s record-breaking crime drop in the 1990s, wedded to the idea that only social services and full employment can affect crime.
While the true story of why New York was spared the paroxysm of lawlessness seen in 1977 may not be as heartwarming as the hypothesis of a suddenly respectful, law-abiding populace, it should be just as reassuring for New Yorkers to know that their police force responds so capably to catastrophe.