Gotham Gazette

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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.


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."


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.


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.

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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