Crime Drops Despite Fewer Officers in Lean TimesBy AL BAKER
New York Times
July 18, 2009
At a recent meeting at police headquarters in New York, debate erupted among the gathered commissioners, commanders and chiefs about the urgent question of the deployment of officers in a Bronx precinct.
The borough commander made his case for keeping intact the 52nd Precinct’s cadre of specialized officers, suggesting that removing them now would allow the most violent crimes — shootings and robberies — to surge back in the Fordham section of the borough. The bosses disagreed. Their analysis called for shifting the officers to a precinct that had seen some of its own troubling developments.
The participants mounted arguments, calling on history and fresh data both. Maps of crime trends — first for the entire borough, then down to the streets surrounding St. James Park — were flashed on a wall. In the end, the 52nd Precinct would keep its special contingent of officers, but the question of how long they would remain was kept open.
There are tensions, though, many of them imperceptible to the public, in a force hurtling toward its lowest head count in memory: The New York City Police Department is set to shrink to 34,304 officers within a year, which is 16 percent fewer than the department’s high of 41,000 nearly a decade ago.
Cash for police work is dwindling at City Hall and in Washington. Civilian members of the force are facing layoffs. Station houses are not ideally staffed. More than 1,000 officers remain assigned to counterterrorism duties. At 1 Police Plaza, every transfer and promotion now requires the approval of Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. At the Police Academy, the flow of new recruits has slowed to a trickle.
Yet despite these challenges, crime is down in New York — more significantly than in several other big cities around the nation. Murders, which hit 200 at the midyear point, are heading toward a new low. (The peak was more than 2,200 in 1990.)
That accomplishment has impressed many observers.
“The stress that his department is under right now is enormous,” Peter Vallone Jr., the chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, said of Mr. Kelly. Mr. Vallone said it was, then, remarkable that the police had been able to maintain, and even improve upon, critical aspects of crime fighting in recent years.
Given the reduction in the force’s size, and the intensity of its efforts to combat everything from global threats to outbreaks of car thefts, the Police Department might well be at something of a crossroads. So far, though, there have been no obvious outward signs of problems.
That said, not even the department’s most senior officials deny that they have had to adjust and improvise as they have faced shrinking numbers of officers and civilian personnel. One measure of that has been the department’s increased reliance on a tactic known as predictive policing, trying to use crime statistics and other information to forecast where crime may pop up next.
“It puts pressure on the need to be as precise as you can be, because you want to make the very best use of the limited resources you have,” said Michael J. Farrell, a deputy commissioner.
After the meeting at Police Headquarters in June, Mr. Farrell and two other commanders — Joseph J. Esposito, the chief of department, and Phil T. Pulaski, another deputy commissioner — continued the exchange of viewpoints over the use of the specialized officers.
The debate eventually was settled by Mr. Kelly, in a compromise verdict. The specialized officers in the 52nd Precinct would not stay for the six months they had been assigned; they would remain for 28 additional days before the matter was taken up again.
“If we had 1,200 recruits graduating, instead of 250, we might be able to staff both zones,” said Mr. Farrell. “Never mind the ideal. You have to deal with the real.”
Mr. Kelly’s consideration of staffing issues goes beyond graduation day at the police academy. Every day, he reviews charts that map crime and quality-of-life conditions, ranging from graffiti to murder. He looks at electronic screens that show daily staffing levels in all 76 precincts and in the subway and housing commands. Those levels have stabilized recently, as attrition has slowed in part because of the economic downturn.
By using these tools — what Mr. Kelly calls “dashboards” — he makes decisions about how, when and where to deploy officers.
If reductions in head count create shortfalls that jeopardize operations in a certain precinct, Mr. Kelly draws officers from another area. Mr. Kelly has compared his ethos to that of a 19th-century military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, who advised massing forces at certain important points, instead of deploying scarce personnel thinly along an entire enemy line.
But the city’s ranks are stretching thinner with each month.
Last month, the department canceled the planned hiring of 125 traffic enforcement agents. It is facing the loss of 395 police administrative aides — clerical workers who push the paperwork that makes the department run. If $20 million in alternate savings cannot be found within 90 days, and the jobs are lost, many of those responsibilities would have to be assumed by uniformed officers.
In the struggles over less federal money flowing from Washington, Mr. Kelly, has personally been lobbying members of Congress.
Recently, a federal budget bill eliminated $40 million in anticipated grants for a program called Securing the Cities, which would create links with law enforcement agencies within a 50-mile radius around the city, and would outfit officers with radiation detectors to spot a nuclear or radiological threat long before it reaches its intended target.
Mr. Kelly called two members of Congress — Peter T. King, a Republican from Long Island, and Yvette D. Clarke, a Democrat from Brooklyn — to push for the restoration of the federal money. But he believed he needed more support, aides said. So on June 23, as he sipped a diet soda in a conference room, waiting to inform one of his commanders of a pending promotion, he squeezed in a quick but intense phone call with George A. Dalley, an aide to Representative Charles B. Rangel, who is the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Two days later, news came that the grant was restored in the House of Representatives, though the issue was still unresolved in the Senate.
Away from the department’s nerve center, field commanders are under increasing pressure to be more creative.
For instance, to handle the rush of students who flood mass transit systems on weekday afternoons, Chief James P. Hall, the head of the department’s Transit Bureau, is continually refining plans to put officers on subway platforms and along the corridors between subway stations at those times. He has also found ways to use New York City Transit safety regulations to zero in on and arrest robbery suspects on trains. As a result, subway crime has kept dropping (to 5 crimes a day, on average, from 10 a day in 2002) and the department can still afford to assign more Transit Bureau officers to counterterrorism duties, like securing vulnerable tunnels and ventilation systems.
Seven years ago, when Mr. Kelly came aboard for his second stint as commissioner, things were similarly difficult. The economy was ravaged in the fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks; the police head count was beginning its decline; and some pundits predicted that the departure of Rudolph W. Giuliani as mayor would usher in a return of the “bad old days” of crime. The starting salary for rookie officers then dropped to $25,100 for the first six months on the job — a figure that helped decimate the department’s recruiting efforts.
But crime kept dropping; the salary problem seemed to pass; and a series of terrorism plots were foiled.
“I think that there is a danger of a beleaguered force,” said Dennis C. Smith, a professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, who has studied and written about the police for decades.
But of the department’s current predicament, he added: “I don’t think snapping is in the cards.”