Gotham Gazette

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Public Safety

A Dwindling Police Presence

Photo of police officers in riot helmets

Photograph (cc) 2006 Rabih Nassar


Imagine walking alone along a dark street at night, perhaps heading back to your apartment after picking up some groceries. All of a sudden, you notice a pair of footsteps behind you clapping on the pavement, growing faster and faster. You turn to see a figure briskly walking between the shadows of street lamps, one hand held behind his back. Would you feel scared? Threatened?

Now replay the same scenario with a New York City police officer standing at the end of the block. Whether or not this shadowy figure was about to commit a crime, wouldn’t the presence of an officer make you feel calmer and safer? Of course it would, and it should, because the chances of anyone being mugged are much less where there’s a strong police presence. It’s a fact backed up by both scientific data and common sense.

Sadly, while the number of street corners in New York remains the same, the number of officers standing on them is dwindling. And our sense of security will soon dwindle with it.

Since reaching a high of 41,000 police officers in 2001, the ranks of the NYPD have shrunk to less than 36,000. Since 9/11, no other major metropolitan police department has reduced its staff. I find it sad and strange that we alone have allowed our police force to decrease, especially considering New York always sits in the crosshairs of terrorists.

More Police, Less Crime

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This drop is particularly troubling if we remember our recent history. Over the past three decades, the novel title that would best describe New York would be "A Tale of Two Cities." In the 1970s and 1980s, crime was rampant, drugs were plentiful, and economic development had come to a halt, leaving the government bankrupt. Today, we are the safest big city in the country, residents and businesses are scrambling over themselves to move here, and our coffers are plush with surpluses.

The remarkable change in New York City can be directly tied to the drop in crime – a decrease of 75 percent since 1990 – which can be directly tied to a decision to flood the streets with more cops. The Safe Streets, Safe City initiative, started by my father City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. and Mayor David Dinkins in 1991, increased the police department from 31,000 to 41,000 officers over 10 years. Although police departments were expanding around the country, that jump was three times the national average, and, in turn, crime rates here plummeted more than in other metropolitan centers.

If you don’t believe me, ask the experts. In fact, New York City has been the focus of many academic studies concerning the unprecedented national decrease in crime during the 1990s, including one by noted economist Steven Levitt. In his bestseller "Freakonomics," which was co-authored with Stephen J. Dubner, Levitt proves that more police means less crime even when other factors are taken into account. Combined with more aggressive prosecutions, Levitt argues, New York’s influx of officers enabled it to outpace the rest of the country in lowering its crime rate.

Of course, having been a prosecutor for six years, I could have told you the same thing without the complicated economic analysis. More officers mean more patrols to canvas and protect our neighborhoods. It means more low-level criminals will be caught and sent to prison before they commit worse acts. And it means more eyes and ears to spot suspicious activity before a terrorist can carry out a deadly plot.

A Shortage of Officers

Unfortunately, we are expecting the NYPD to do more work with fewer resources. Not only is our city expanding and growing every day, but our officers now need to be the city's first line of defense in the war against terror. I led the fight in the City Council for more police, and last year the mayor listened, adding funding for 1,200 additional officers in the budget. Yet today the Police Academy cannot produce classes large enough to meet the attrition and retirement rate of active officers, let alone out pace it at a rate needed for this expansion.

The root of the officer shortage seems to be the poor compensation package given to rookie cops. New York City police officers have a difficult and dangerous job, one they deserve to be paid handsomely to do. The initial base pay of $25,000 does little to attract quality recruits, and the maximum pay of $59,000 does little to keep quality officers when other counties offer twice as much.

Also contributing to the shortage is the low esteem many of our elected officials hold for our police. While critics have pointed to the disproportionate number of members of minority groups stopped by police, according to recently released police statistics, they have neglected other data. (See related article.) For instance, those statistics showed that police stop minorities in almost the exact same proportion as the race cited in criminal complaints by citizens. The information on stops was distorted and many irresponsible elected officials loudly proclaimed that these statistics were proof that the entire NYPD was racist. It would be naĂŻve at best to assume this attitude does not negatively affect police performance and recruitment.

Without more recruits it will not take long for police performance, and our way of life, to suffer. For example, if the ranks continue to hemorrhage officers – and sadly, they show no signs of stopping – Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a recent Public Safety Committee hearing that he will have to abandon Operation Impact, one of the department’s most successful programs. That initiative brings the same general principle – more cops means less crime – to the local level, flooding high crime areas with an infusion of cops. Police officials credit Operation Impact for virtually saving several crime-ridden neighborhoods, where the quality of life has since improved dramatically.

Public safety has been the catalyst for almost every positive development in New York City. No one would open a store if they and their customers were being robbed. No one would invest in housing if tenants were being attacked. Our police force is the dam that holds back the waves of squalor and danger that characterized the old New York.

That dam is weakening, and we must reinforce it before it is too late. We must ensure our officers are fairly compensated and fairly judged for their noble work, allowing the ranks of the NYPD to swell to past levels. Because the next time you’re walking down the street, a blue uniform on the corner could make all the difference in the world.

Councilmember Peter F. Vallone, Jr. represents Astoria and is the chair of the City Council's Public Safety Committee. He has sat on the council since 2002.


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