Crime/Police
Internet resources for what you need to know about NYC Crime and Police
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Crime/Justice" refers to relationships among criminal activity, the police, the courts and community life.
The Context
The decline in the NYC crime rate may be the greatest story of the decade. But in the wake of the police torture of Abner Louima and the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, the practices of the New York Police Department have come under scrutiny. Accusations of racial bias, abuse of power and infringement on civil liberties abound. What is the balance between civil liberty and civil order? Who decides?
The Reporter
Julia Vitullo-Martin, a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, is the former director of the Citizens Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. She is now writing a book entitled The Conscience of the American Jury.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Crime and Justice.

by Julia Vitullo-Martin

Crime Still Declines, But Why, And Will It Continue? In 1993 Mayor Giuliani's first police commissioner, William Bratton, announced their determination to take back the city: "We will fight for every street. We will fight for every borough." They fought and they won. Having last month hammered down temporary crime spikes one final time, Mayor Giuliani left office triumphantly on January 1, saluting his people like an exiting Roman general.

His parting gifts included yet another record decrease in violent crime--down 12.4 percent through mid-December 2001 from last year. All categories (murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and auto theft) declined, ranging from fie percent for murder to 16 percent for auto theft. In mid-December, the city had recorded 617 murders, compared with 651 through mid-December last year, and 672 for all of 2000. And despite several notorious killings, 2001 is expected to set yet another record low in police shootings of civilians.

MAYOR GLOATS

In his farewell speech, Mayor Giuliani took a moment to refute the conclusions of a March 4, 2000, New York Times story that heralded Boston's and San Diego's police strategies as "national models" for combining the crime reductions of New York with the community involvement that was lacking here. Many police chiefs and criminologists, said the Times, felt "a sense of sadness that a great opportunity has been squandered" here.

Over the last six months, said Giuliani, crime jumped 3.9 percent in San Diego while declining 7.6 percent in New York; the murder rate increased 67 percent in Boston while dropping 12 percent here. Overall Boston has 82 percent more crime and San Diego 16 percent than New York, the mayor calculated. "Which policing policy would you want to follow?" he asked. Or as the New York Post said, "It would be a crime not to gloat a little."

DO POLICE MATTER?

Exactly why so many people have stopped committing crimes remains a matter of contentious dispute, say George L. Kelling, Senior Fellow at The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and William H. Sousa, Jr., Director of Evaluation, Police Institute, Rutgers University. In a recently released report, "Do Police Matter? An Analysis of the Impact of New York City's Police Reforms," Kelling and Sousa argue that there has been no systematic attempt to statistically parse out the relative contributions of police actions, the economy, demographics, and changing drug use patterns on crime. This they set out to do.

By measuring crime trends in individual precincts, they conclude that the decline in violent crime correlates with arrests for misdemeanors--and that for every 28 misdemeanor arrests, the city had a decline of one violent crime. In other words, they conclude that what's called "broken windows" policing--the strategy of policing minor disorderly behavior like graffiti or fare beating in the subways--is strongly associated with the decline in violent crime. They also argue that at least on a precinct-by-precinct basis there is no association with the major competing explanations for crime reduction, such as the improved economy and labor market that created opportunities for youths previously tempted by drug dealing, the declining use of crack cocaine, the changing values of at-risk youth, and the increased legitimacy of social institutions such as the family.

While commending broken windows policing, Kelling and Sousa argue that an overlooked key to New York's crime reduction rests in a specific problem-solving strategy: accurate and timely intelligence, rapid deployment, effective tactics, and relentless follow-up and assessment. Precinct commanding officers are able to address and correct current crime problems immediately by combining timely analysis with proven and innovative crime-reduction techniques, including the ability to deploy patrol, detective, and specialized precinct units for crime control, rather than having to rely on centralized special units.

BUT PROBLEMS REMAIN

Still, the new police commissioner, Ray Kelly, has his work cut out for him. As George Kelling says, "The big drops--15 percent and more--have taken place. Now we're working on the margins."

And that's not all. Despite its many achievements, the Giuliani administration has left minefields for the Bloomberg administration.

Right before Christmas Commissioner Bernard Kerik announced 227 last-minute and generous promotions in the police department. Not only do the promotions entail immediate budgetary implications, they increase the likelihood of expensive retirements since police pensions are based on the last year's salary.

Meanwhile, an organization called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, representing black police officers, announced it was suing the city, saying the Police Department had secretly and illegally monitored its political activities by reviewing telephone records and following members in order to intimidate officers who had been critical of the department.

A Giuliani-appointed commission, the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, found that increasing numbers of rookie cops have faced disciplinary problems. Disproportionate numbers have also been flunking out of the Police Academy--the failure rate of the September 2000 class was twice that of the 1997 class. The cause of both problems may be lower recruiting standards.

Kelling, for one, is hopeful, however. He makes three points about the future. First, if Giuliani is right--and Kelling thinks he is--he has shown that crime reduction doesn't have to be held hostage to economic change or, indeed, any holistic societal reform.

Second, in his first term as police commissioner Ray Kelly devised the plan for dealing with squeegee men that subsequently became the cornerstone of the Giuliani-Bratton assault on quality-of-life offenses. "There's every reason to assume," says Kelling, "that we're going to be fortunate in having Kelly. He will maintain, even intensify, the quality-of-life campaign."

Third, the critical policing problem is going to be balancing vigilance against terrorism with the needs of street policing. But even here Kelling is hopeful, arguing that under Commissioner Kerik the police department had started developing good relationships with neighborhoods and communities. "The same vigilance we're going to need in the frontline battle against terrorism," says Kelling, "is the vigilance that helps the police become aware of bad things happening in neighborhoods." In other words, the collaboration with neighborhoods will be crucial both to the war on crime and the war against terrorism.

And since Ray Kelly made his reputation the first time round by working well with neighborhoods, Bloomberg probably has the right man for the job.


Five Sites For Beginners:

  • New York Police Department - Hoaky design but good substance, particularly the feature that allows you to check out your own neighborhood. The department has begun posting crime figures for each of the city's 76 police precincts on both its own and City Hall's official websites. The commissioner hopes to post precinct maps showing where crimes have recently been committed by the end of March. One drawback: the only official you can email is the commissioner. Still, that's better than nothing--if the commissioner reads and answers his email. Let us know what happens when you try.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation, Unit for Crime Reports - The FBI's uniform crime reports are the nation's most useful tracking system for both violent crimes (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) and property crimes (burglary, larceny and theft, car theft, and arson.) In December, the FBI released the good news that the national Crime Index, composed of both violent and property crimes, had decreased by 0.3 percent during the first six months of 2000 when compared to figures from the first six months of 1999.
  • Vera Institute of Justice - Vera is a nonprofit organization, founded in 1961, that works collabortively with government officials to develop innovative approaches to problems and to improve the quality of urban life both here and abroad. It is currently working with both the New York City and New York State police departments to strengthen police accountability through civilian complaint review, community policing, and computerized management systems. A study called "Respectful and Effective Policing," which Vera released in March 1999, examined two Bronx police precincts where commanders, counter to trends in most of the city, had reduced civilian complaints about police conduct while still sharing the city's success in reducing crime.


Other Recommendations:

  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving - Long on policy positions and recommendations, short on data. If you want data, go immediately to the bottom of the home page and click on statistics, which will yield four drop-down windows: general statistics, fatalities, statistics by youth, statistics by race. Fairly cumbersome to get local and state data but can be done.
  • Families Against Mandatory Minimums - With the slogan "Let the punishment fit the crime," this national organization of citizens uses an effective combination of hard data and individual stories and photographs to argue for the abolition of state and federal mandatory sentencing laws. Its frequently updated "Latest News" section offers a concise, efficient way to learn about and track the issues of mandatory sentencing.
  • Community Justice Exchange - works to being together citizens and the criminal justice system to solve neighborhood problems. Their site is austere but well-organized. It provides information and asisstance to comunity justice planners across the country, and carries a useful section on Best Practices that includes project profiles, problem-solving strategies, and a recommended reading list. It works as a pretty good do-it-yourself course on effective community activism.

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