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

Making New York Safer, Not Slower and Poorer

(Oct '01) In the opening frames of the 1989 movie, Working Girl, Melanie Griffith bounces through the canyons of Wall Street--chewing gum and looking gorgeously young and defiant--as Carly Simon sings:

"Let the river run
Let all the dreamers wake the nation
Come, the New Jerusalem."

New York as the new Jerusalem--an old theme, city of hope and destiny. That's what we used to mean. Not city of destruction and death.

New York will only regain its city-of-hope status if guided by strong mayoral leadership and judicious, intelligent policing. The debates over making New York safe again will be both theoretical--what is the right balance of security and liberty--and pragmatically detailed--do these measures make New York safer or just slower?

GUARDING OUR BORDERS

Whether the bomb threats are real or bogus, they are being taken seriously, as are the federal concerns for potential biological or chemical terrorism. Crucial bridges and tunnels, like the inbound Holland and the Brooklyn-Battery, are closed. The 150,000 drivers who normally use those tunnels must now feed through the other crossings. Every open crossing into the city is guarded, and trucks large enough to carry serious bombs are checked closely. Much of Lower Manhattan below Canal Street is shut off to all but official, limited traffic.

The result has been the worst traffic gridlock in memory--not just in New York City proper but miles back into Long Island and New Jersey.

New Yorkers are being amazingly cheerful and tolerant about the traffic delays--even onerous inconvenience can be endured in the short run. But very soon, businesses will have to start calculating costs. Many will close, some will move. Tourism has evaporated. Restaurants, theater, dance, and most forms of entertainment are suffering. If making New York safe also makes it poor, the terrorists will have won.

RE-ENGINEERING THE STREETS

Even before September 11, expensive new buildings were being developed with elaborate security that included street closings. The security plan of the tower to be built above the New York Stock Exchange, for example, had annoyed neighbors by proposing to shut off streets for security checkpoints. By disrupting normal traffic, street closings nearly always hurt restaurants and retail business. But closed streets are becoming an increasingly popular real estate tactic both as a status symbol and a security device--as are the ugly concrete barriers cropping up everywhere.

Which is another cost of re-engineering: sheer ugliness. Besieged Third World capitals look so ominous in part because their security is oppressively obvious--concrete barriers blocking important buildings, rifle-carrying guards, closed streets, even closed neighborhoods. Security experts do not like listening to design experts, but if they don't they will ruin the looks of New York. And as urban planner Peter Salins has often pointed out, in this post-industrial age a city's face is its fortune.

RACIAL PROFILING AND RANDOM SEARCHES

Democratic mayoral candidate Mark Green told the New York Times that he was prepared for random checks of people in public places such as Grand Central Terminal. Rival Fernando Ferrer told the Times he was worried about infringements on civil liberties. "We don't do this by tossing our values out the window," he said. "Look--if we abandon our values, the people behind these attacks will have won." Republican candidate Michael Bloomberg has fewer civil libertarian concerns. He long ago proposed video surveillance in high-crime areas, and suggested that his company's obscenity-censoring software program be installed on city government computers.

Both federal and local police forces are gearing up for random searches and racial profiling--the former, of course, often being a cover for the latter. New York has been through this with African-Americans, and public opinion had pretty much decided that the police had to be very careful. Is New York going to go through this again, but with Arab-Americans? Much will depend on mayoral leadership.

Meanwhile, the mayoral election has been thrown into disarray by Mayor Giuliani's proposals that he be kept on. He recently announced he would give up trying for a third term, but he continues to want a four-month transition--citing public safety. The New York Daily News reported that Giuliani feared that changing mayors now would "affect everything from the security of New Yorkers to NYPD morale." He argued that because both Ferrer and Green had been critical of the police in the past, they would have trouble gaining the rank-and-file's trust during the coming crisis, which will include American military action. Giuliani pointed out that one challenge for a new mayor will be to establish a trusting relationship with federal officials, including the FBI and military agents involved in the hunt for terrorists. Giuliani is certainly right about the challenge ahead, which makes it incumbent on the candidates to be fully explicit on their ideas about the police department and its leadership. Voters should not let them off the hook.

PUBLIC SAFETY WILL DRIVE PUBLIC POLICY

For better or worse--and a few things will be better--public safety will drive all other issues. Environmentalists have been urging mandatory carpooling for decades as well as rush hour restrictions on single-passenger cars. Now it's here: don't drive alone, says the mayor, if you want to come into Manhattan.

The New York Daily News has urged New Yorkers to regard public transit as a public duty. Environmentalists have long pushed this, but have seldom had so many allies. The News also now supports tolls on the four East River bridges, an old issue that has languished unheeded for years.

Similarly, the plans of New York City Transit to close token booths at 35 subway station entrances and reduce hours at 18 other entrances will surely be affected. As Bruce Schaller pointed out in his September Gotham Gazette column, GothamGazette.com/transportation/ transit officials have been arguing that safety concerns are misplaced. "With an 85 percent decline in major subway felonies since 1995, there is less need for station agents (formerly called token clerks) to oversee turnstile areas," wrote Schaller. "The New York Police Department Transit Bureau reviewed the proposal and offered no objections."

But the argument that is likely to prevail is the Straphangers Campaign's that station agents provide essential eyes and ears at subway entrances, call 911 in an emergency, and deter loiterers and thieves.

SEEING THE ISSUES CLEARLY

The nation has a history of imposing harsh but irrelevant sanctions following terrorist acts. After the Oklahoma City bombing, which was committed by domestic terrorists from Michigan, Congress authorized the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport immigrants based on secret evidence. Congress also made it a crime to provide support to any foreign organization designated as a terrorist group by the State Department, even if the support is used only for lawful activities. These measures, pushed through a Congress that sought to look forceful, have serious implications for New York City, a city of immigrants.

Similar legislation--called by Governor Pataki "the toughest laws in the nation to combat terrorism"--has just been passed, without public hearings, in Albany. The legislation creates five new crimes for acts of terror, defined as "intimidation or coercion" of civilians or units of government, and two more crimes for "soliciting or providing support" for terrorism.

In a New York Daily News op-ed, Donna Lieberman and Robert A. Perry of the New York Civil Liberties Union argue that the legislation is largely duplicative of federal law, and sets state and local police in competition with federal security agencies. They are also worried about how enforcement officials will be trained to distinguish between people holding unpopular political views and those supporting acts of terror.

Noting that the legislation might indeed be "overkill," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), nonetheless argued that "It's important to show the unity of our purpose and not question political motives."

Not questioning political motives is fine, but New Yorkers should be questioning the effectiveness of these measures. Will they make the city safe? Or will they so curtail the city's sense of freedom and movement that its economy--including tourism, theater, dance, and the arts--will be crippled beyond recognition?


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 for 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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