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


(Sept '01) As the symbolic capital of the globalized economy, New York will loom as a target of those with grievances against the new order for a long time to come. New York can do little to ease those grievances, though it can do a great deal to protect itself. But there must be a balance: Enough security to stop further attacks, but no unnecessary measures that weaken the city.

The problem is that every increment in security will come at a cost. Worse, the costs will be more than financial. They will be social and political--and will threaten to undermine the city's very being and sense of itself as free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, and invincible. New York's strategic problem will be safeguarding itself as effectively but as unobtrusively as possible.

For better or worse, it will not be alone in this crisis. Its new partner, the federal government, showed a fairly light hand in past criminal events, treating the city and its police department with the respect normally due a sovereign. While touring the ruins of the World Trade Center President Bush seemed to defer to Mayor Giuliani as guest to host.


But the days of federal deference to New York may be over. A safe America requires a safe New York--no president can permit New York to remain an island. Will this be good or bad for New Yorkers? The answer will depend in part on how strong the next police commissioner is, how capably he leads his department, and how effectively he negotiates with federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice.

No one thinks that the FBI, based in Washington with a staff drawn from around the country, can direct security in New York better than the New York police. But the bombing of the Trade Center shows that ensuring New York's safety cannot be an exclusively local function. The FBI and the New York Police Department will have to work these matters through--and it probably won't be pretty.

Thus the NYPD commissionership may become the most important job in New York. Luckily for him, the next commissioner will start with a revitalized department. Today the New York Police Department stands strong, resilient and respected. Most pre-September 11 arguments about police issues--even serious ones like racial profiling--now seem petty and distant, as if that was a different department in a different city. In these days of crisis, the police have performed heroically and professionally. They have been on duty round the clock, a reassuring, protective presence.

As fire Captain Kennenth Erb told Larry King, "They had a recall for all police officers and fire officers as soon as the news struck. And we all, one way or the other, got in, through hitchhiking, get in your car or whatever." Crime was down 34 percent last week over the same week last year--a tribute to the cops and perhaps to some decency even among criminals.

At least 23 police officers are missing, most from the elite Emergency Service Unit. All were (presumed) killed while trying to rescue others.


One practical consequence will be the end of the police department's recruitment crisis. The department's recruitment poster that had offered a "career of heroism and public service" now rings true.

Here's the background. While the department had been trying to maintain a head count of 41,440 officers, its numbers had fallen to about 39,800 in August. Part of the problem was retirement. About 3,000 cops were expected to retire this year, or about a third more than last year. That number may now shrink.

But the other part of the problem had been the department's unsuccessful recruitment efforts. It did not fill its last graduating class at the Police Academy in September 2000, and had been unlikely to fill this year's class despite strenuous recruiting efforts and incentives, like eliminating the $35 fee for the civil service exam.

In a New York Times op-ed former Police Commissioner William Bratton summarized the problem in a national context: "From Los Angeles to New York City, from Cincinnati to Miami, many of the nation's police forces face intense scrutiny and criticism for corruption, racial profiling, racial insensitivity, brutality, unresponsiveness to community concerns and professional incompetence." Declining public respect for cops, justified or unjustified, was taking its toll.

Bratton went on to say that the causes of the recruitment crisis, "both at the entry level and at the top of the profession," were fairly clear. Starting pay is relatively low. (New York City's is $31,305.) Policing is less a family tradition than it was a generation ago. Young people have little appreciation of the complexity and variety of police work.

Much of this will change for the better. City officials had been prepared to raise police pay substantially, and public opinion will agree. The complexity and variety of police work has been on display for all to see--and the police department is likely to have its pick of excellent young recruits for the first time in years.


The police department--and to some extent New Yorkers--will have to think through the right balance of security and efficiency in everyday life.

The public had already become accustomed to the measures deterring the common thug--metal detectors, photo IDs, bag searches, checks of electronic equipment. The devices are often primitive and the training of the personnel poor, but routine security checks prevent at least some crime and perhaps some terrorism. At their most effective, such as in the eight New York criminal courthouses, they prevent a lot of crime. In a Labor Day piece, the New York Times said the 631 criminal court officers had confiscated a "staggering collection of 20 boxes of weapons" this year alone. Violent incidents in the courthouses are few--and not for want of trying by criminals.

The future, however, lies with high-tech solutions that are independent of human judgment, such as the X-ray machines that reveal weapons. The cutting-edge versions do so at a distance.

Accustomed as they may be to routine security lines, New Yorkers are far less comfortable with what the security trade calls Israeli tactics--traffic-stopping checkpoints, intrusive questioning, random identification checks, intimate searches, and racial profiling. These are ostensibly meant to deter crime, but they are also meant to remind the public often and aggressively of the presence of terrorists and to get the public to accept the authority of the police and military. The inconvenience that accompanies these tactics is deliberate.

Daniel Williams recently gave an excellent summary in the Washington Post of how this routinely works in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside: "Control-through-engineering has become a major activity under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Soldiers periodically cut off large towns from one another. Commerce comes to a virtual standstill. Even when traffic is permitted, the wait to get in and out of major urban centers can be time-consuming. Not only do the Israeli soldiers generally provide only one exit from town, they also keep military inspectors to a minimum, so vehicles pass only one by one."

Former Police Commissioner Safir actually introduced a few of these ideas to New York, and Commissioner Kerik has continued them. Traffic-stopping checkpoints ostensibly for drunk-driving or seat-belt use were first used in Upper Manhattan and minority neighborhoods. After an outcry about racial profiling, Safir expanded the checkpoints to Manhattan neighborhoods below 96th Street.

The pedestrian-controlling concrete barriers introduced by Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Safir in 1998 also represent an Israeli tactic, a re-engineering to encourage people to go only where they are directed and to accustom the public to accepting restrictions on their movements.

Were these Israeli tactics introduced by the city because they appealed to Mayor Giuliani's sense of order, or because the city had been alerted by Washington about serious terrorist threats? No one is saying, although former commissioner Bratton said on television that there had been two serious unreported terrorist threats during his term.

The most important question among all these tactics is, however, what works?


Much as it will seek to protect itself, New York will only be safe insofar as others protect it as well. The plane that flew into the World Trade Center took off from Logan Airport in Boston, an airport that the Federal Aviation Administration has repeatedly cited for safety violations.

Everyone wants whatever went wrong at Logan Airport in Boston fixed. But what was it that failed? And will the FAA's new proposals and restrictions on passengers work?

Arthur Wolk, an aviation safety expert, argues that the new FAA rules, such as the ban on steak knives in first class or the abolition of curbside checking, are ineffective and would have in no way prevented the hijackings. He proposes instead that sky marshals fly on most flights, that pilots be armed--most are former military officers--and that flight attendants be trained in martial arts.

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, argues that aviation security is a law enforcement function, and belongs with a law enforcement agency, not the FAA. Law enforcement officials would be far less ready to listen to concerns about the weight of new cockpit doors (additional weight would affect the cost of every flight), or the extra costs of sky marshals or deputized pilots.

New York has an acute interest in these issues, and in all matters having to do with its air space. All but three private helicopters have been grounded, and those three have been given mandated flight plans. The FAA's previous ridiculous policy of refusing to regulate helicopters and small planes over New York has been reversed.


New York can do little about Third World grievances but it can and should protect its Arab-American residents with a full police presence. Attacks on Lebanese stores on Atlantic Avenue are not only despicable, some of the attackers have been in this country for a far shorter time than the owners of, say, Sahadi's, who are on their third generation. As James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said: "We are in the midst of a national nightmare of unimaginable proportions." Arab-Americans were among those killed in the Trade Center.

Arab-Americans should feel as fully welcome as the many groups that have come before them. This crisis will only be eased by the help of Arabic-speaking Americans using their language and contacts in the Arab world to track down terrorists and set the world back on course. This is not a time to drive loyal Arab-Americans away. New Yorkers should patronize Arab businesses as they always have, including the restaurants that now stand empty, showing support for decent, hard-working immigrants who came here for a better life. It's the New York way.

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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