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Back To The Bad Old Days?

by Julia Vitullo-Martin, May 01, 2002
 

Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days when the very name New York City was associated with crimes so brutal they entered the American lexicon. The Central Park Jogger. The Diana Ross concert. The March of Dimes Walkathon. Yet the past month saw shootings, assaults, and rapes shocking enough to provoke nine different articles in newspapers and magazines citing New York City's bad old days. A grandmother was shot on her way home from church, a young girl was raped in the elevator of her apartment building, a five-year old child was shot in the cheek while standing with her mother. After noting the reminiscent ugliness, most of the articles argued that we were not back in the bad old days yet.

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All the papers covered the story of the young engineer, Kirill Nekrasov, who was walking on April 13 with his girlfriend on West Houston Street, when he was accosted by muggers. They demanded his money; he refused and pushed one of them; they shot him in the face. He is in critical condition in intensive care, and has not awakened from a coma. The young men since arrested are said by the police to be members of the Bloods street gang.

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Nekrasov's carefree attitude, noted the New York Daily News, had been "shared by a growing legion of New Yorkers and tourists" and "reflected how far the city had come from the early 1990s, when there were an average of six murders per day."

HOLDING CITY HALL RESPONSIBLE

During last November's mayoral election, many New Yorkers listened apprehensively for any unguarded phrase or gesture that might indicate a candidate wasn't that serious about keeping crime down. Michael Bloomberg was elected in part because he made no mis-step on crime. But if violent crime goes up--or if the random violent assaults New Yorkers most fear continue--he will be held accountable, fair or not. Answering a press conference question about rising violence, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, "When you get eight million people together you're going to have crimes of violence and robberies--these sorts of tragedies--no question about it."

Pointing out the overall seven percent decline in crime and the steep 25 percent drop in the murder rate from last year, he added, "So things are certainly moving in the right direction. It doesn't mean we're not going to have crime and it doesn't mean we're not going to have instances of violence like this." Kelly has a point. After all, savage crimes have always been a part of big city life, even during the crime-fighting heyday of the Giuliani administration. Two sets of murder that will long be remembered for their depravity occurred in Giuliani's second term--the May 2000 murder of a Chinese deliveryman by teenagers who wanted free food, and the May 2001 Carnegie Deli slayings of three friends by a disgruntled small-time dealer.

Nonetheless, after listening to Commissioner Kelly one New Yorker muttered, "You know, I'd feel better if the police commissioner talked tough like one of those old sheriffs in the West. I want to hear him say that this is my town, and that nobody gets away with bad stuff in my town."

CRIME MAY BE DOWN, BUT SHOOTINGS ARE UP

The fact is, for whatever reason--and some blame the dismantling of the Street Crime Unit--people are getting away with more shootings than before. Murders through mid-April were a record low at 128, but shootings are way up. Since January the city has seen a 27 percent jump to 463 shooting victims or 405 incidents. The same period last year, which may have been a record low, saw 366 shooting victims and 341 incidents. The first week of April this year was particularly bad, with 41 people wounded by gunfire, up from 12 during the same period in 2001. The most troubled areas are Manhattan North, Brooklyn South, and the Bronx.

City Hall and Commissioner Kelly announced a doubling in the reward--to $1,000--that Operation Gun-Stop gives to tipsters turning in anyone who is successfully arrested for carrying an illegal gun. Kelly also said the police are making record numbers of gun arrests--some 1,200 arrests this year, up about 25 percent from last year.

So why is Kelly dismantling the elite Street Crime Unit that had been widely credited with reducing crime, drugs, and guns in once violent neighborhoods? Some conservatives think he's giving into community agitators; it was Street Crime Unit cops that killed the unarmed Amadou Diallo in February 1999. But Kelly offered legitimate reasons for this reorganization. For one thing, the department is low on officers. Kelly has only 37,680 police officers, down from 40,710 in late 2000. The number of detectives in neighborhood squads is the lowest it has been since 1997.

Further, his redeployment of the unit's remaining 180 detectives to precinct-run plainclothes anticrime teams and to understaffed neighborhood detective squads throughout the five boroughs is part of his strategy to return authority to precinct commanders. Some two-thirds of the detectives will be doing the same intensive, anti-drug and anti-gun work, but they will be doing it under precinct command instead of the centralized Street Unit's command.

The police department always suffers from tension between the police commissioner's downtown vision and the implementation of-- or resistance to--that vision by the department's 76 precincts. As George Kelling pointed out in a recent report for the Manhattan Institute, Commissioner William Bratton invested enormous authority in precinct commanders, devolving both resources and decision-making to the precinct level. Bratton used mandated weekly planning meetings to force precinct commanders to identify problems and discuss their plans for dealing with them. Once occupied with traditional bureaucratic politics at central headquarters, precinct commanders were reoriented by Bratton to focus on their precincts. These changes also reoriented borough chiefs and top commanders. As Kelling wrote, "If precinct commanders looked bad, it reflected on the borough chiefs, and so on up the line."

But centralized departmental politics--and the clout of elite central units--were gradually regaining an upper hand over the precincts. Kelly is signaling that his administration will be one of precinct command. And that's good.

He is also moving 150 detectives from the department's warrant division and nearly 100 police officers (one from each of the 76 precincts and 20 from the housing and transit bureau commands) into neighborhood detective squads.

CIVIL LIBERTARIANS CHEER

Of course, for many civil libertarians, the bad old days were during the Giuliani administration, when the city refused to release records under the Freedom of Information Act, routinely strip-searched people arrested for misdemeanors, jailed protestors overnight instead of issuing desk appearance tickets, and set up check-points to stop all people entering certain neighborhood, even low-crime neighborhoods. The city has been sued on all of these policies.

So civil libertarians welcomed the recent news that the Bloomberg administration is quietly settling contentious suits with the citizenry. The New York Times reported that the settling of lawsuits over city policies fulfills a pledge Mayor Bloomberg made shortly after he was elected. Last year the city paid out a stunning $582 million in lawsuit settlements and court awards, mostly for civil cases, an unspecified chunk of which were for police brutality.

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.


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