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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

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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

Aiming High-Tech, Ivy Recruitment

The police department has become famous worldwide for its successful, computer-driven assault on crime, but when detectives file their investigative reports, they do so in triplicate, using carbon paper. In its daily work, as Police Commissioner Ray Kelly sums it up, his department has no internal email, no computer network, no access to sophisticated outside data bases. It is like a Porsche with the engine of a Volkswagen.

The whole system is inadequate, said Kelly, speaking at a lunch sponsored by the Manhattan Institute at the Yale Club. Those triplicate files that detectives create, DD5 forms, are sent to three separate offices--precinct, command, and borough--where they are stored in standard file cabinets to be retrieved manually when needed. Kelly paused for a moment to let it sink in that the data contained in those cabinets is essentially inaccessible.

The drive of analytic policing today, particularly in combating terrorists, is to connect the dotted lines, to pick up the relationships among seemingly disparate occurrences. Terrorist cells, noted Kelly, often finance crimes through petty crime, such as breaking into cars, identity theft, burglary. Since September 11 the details of certain petty crimes have developed an importance out of all proportion to the individual crime itself.

Kelly knows what technology can do for routine productivity because he had it in his last few jobs, including as head of the U.S. Customs Service. The New York Police Department needs a computer system, he argues, that allows "all case information to be entered in one data base for cross checking." Customs uses the Treasury Department's Treasury Enforcement Communication System (TECS), which links all the Treasury enforcement bureaus with one another, including Customs, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. TECS may still be 1980s technology, says Kelly, but it is leagues ahead of the New York Police Department. Customs is now exploring an Internet-driven investigative database that would permit the storage of surveillance footage, wiretaps, and interviews together in a digital file.

The other half of the technology problem is, as always, personnel: "We need our senior people to have the basic tools and technologies needed to lead any organization today."

There's no easy fix for this, but one route is more sophisticated recruitment.


Interest in police work is at an all-time high, and the NYPD is at the top of the food chain. Mayor Bloomberg's 2003 budget calls for a reduction of 1600 police officers, though Kelly seems to regard that as something of a phantom number. He says that 40,110 officers is the "preferred head count," and that the NYPD is now down to 38,000 through attrition. Its target is to have 39,000 officers on July 1 of this year.

The department is trying to make it easy to apply. The application form is online and it's free. Kelly thinks New York is the only major metropolitan police force in the nation to do this.

They are also sending recruiters to schools that have never seen NYPD recruiters before, such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. According to the New York Times, the effort was not very successful ("Police Recruiters Draw Little Interest, Good or Bad") at Columbia. Himself a graduate of the JFK School of Government at Harvard, Commissioner Kelly says the recruitment campaign is as much symbolic as substantive. Which is a judicious position to take since, as the Times points out, the NYPD's starting salary of $31,305 is less than the annual cost of attending Columbia. Rather like trying to buy a Porsche at a Volkswagen price.

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.

Visit the Topic Archives!

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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