NYPD view: New procedures credited with crime drop
It isn’t easy to shock New Yorkers — especially with good news. But when, at a New Year’s Eve press conference in Times Square, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced the biggest three-year crime decrease in the city’s modern history, jaws dropped.
“When the ball comes down in Times Square tonight, it will be coming down in one of the safest cities in America,” Giuliani pronounced.
It has been a while since the words “one of the safest cities” and “New York” shared a sentence. But the facts support Giuliani. The city has seen three straight years of double-digit declines in crime numbers. As measured by the seven major felonies — murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft — New York’s crime fell 15.7 percent in 1996. That represents 48,016 fewer crimes than were committed in 1995.
Overall, Giuliani said, the city has seen 163,428 fewer felonies since 1993, a drop of almost 40 percent. Additionally, 1996 saw the city’s lowest number of crime complaints in 27 years. The big crime, murder, dropped 16 percent in 1996 and has fallen by nearly half since 1993. And just 19 percent of murder victims were killed by strangers compared with 37 percent in ’93. That means the rest of the murders were largely drug-related or the result of domestic violence, both easier to target than the random shooting.
Clearly, something is happening in New York. And just as clearly, it’s something that can be easily replicated in every major city in the country.
Crime reduction was a central tenet of Giuliani’s 1993 mayoral campaign. Of course, crime reduction is, and has always been, a central tenet of every New York mayoral candidate’s campaign. But Giuliani, a tough-talking, straight-shooting former federal prosecutor, had done his homework. Long intrigued by a theory advanced by Harvard criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling, the newly elected mayor decided to put academic musings to the test on the streets of New York.
The theory, called “Broken Windows,” posits that tolerating minor violations of the law — jaywalking, public urination, spitting, “the squeegeemen,” as Safir calls them — creates an environment of lawlessness that inevitably results in increases in major crime.
Arrest the litterers, goes this quality-of-life argument, and you’ll have fewer murders. It sounds far-fetched, but it has powerful adherents.
To implement the theory, Giuliani lured William Bratton away from the Boston police department. Bratton not only agreed with the Broken Windows theory, he took it one step further by targeting specific crimes — gun and drug possession, for instance — on the assumption that guns and drugs lay at the heart of most of New York’s crime.
Giuliani also beefed up the police force’s numbers by rolling the city’s transit and housing police into the NYPD. Next, he hired John Linder, a highly regarded “management consultant,” who was charged with “re-engineering” the New York City police.
Then there was Compstat. That’s when things in the New York Police Department started getting bloody. The NYPD had long operated with no real system for rewarding good results or punishing bad ones. Giuliani and Bratton realized that until that system was changed, there was little hope of changing things on the street. So Compstat, in which computer-generated crime statistics are used to measure police effectiveness, was born. The brainchild of Deputy Commissioner and chief anti-crime guru Jack Maple, Compstat is the key piece in the NYPD’s accountability campaign.
“The idea,” says Safir, “is to reduce crime. Like the mayor says, an arrest is a failure. We are preventing crime and measuring that prevention.”
Precinct commanders meet every five weeks in a room with a map of the city dotted with pins indicating crime. A commander whose precinct has too many pins is asked two questions: What are you going to do about it? and How can we help? The unprepared commander is roasted. The unprepared commander whose precinct has too many pins for several meetings running is replaced. The commander who makes significant progress is given unprecedented autonomy. In the years since Compstat was implemented, more than three-quarters of the city’s 76 precinct commanders have fallen victim to the pin map.
Conflict was inevitable, both inside and outside the department. Still, Bratton’s fatal flaw, according to a number of news reports, was his affinity for the limelight, an affinity naturally shared by the mayor. There was speculation that Giuliani was growing tired of sharing that limelight with the popular — and photogenic — Bratton.
To no one’s surprise, then, Bratton left the commissioner’s post in June 1996 to start his own security business. Maple and Linder left to create The Linder Maple Group, a consulting firm, and are currently assisting the New Orleans Police Department, suffering from a nasty reputation and a city of increasing violence, in an attempted turnaround.
Safir, who took over the commissioner’s post after Bratton’s departure, is less confrontational but no less devoted to the new NYPD. Crime was down, he knew, but public perception was still a problem. So one of his first initiatives was CPR — Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect — a training program that emphasizes cultural awareness and includes a media campaign. CPR, Safir believes, is largely responsible for the reduction in civilian complaints lodged against the department this year.
Like Bratton, Safir is also targeting drug crime. “Eighty percent of New York crime is tied in some way to drugs,” he says. “Our plan is to attack it on all levels. We’re not just going after the major traffickers; we’re gonna harass the little guys on a daily basis.”
The problem with fighting drug traffic, Safir says, is that, traditionally, police departments and state and federal agencies have had a “Turf” mentality. Consequently, he is pursuing links with those agencies. “One of the things drug traffickers have always had going for them,” he says, “was an ability to move freely from city to city, jurisdiction to jusrisdiction. We’ve been restricted. Now there’s nowhere they can go where we cannot reach them.” In fact, a recent joint NYPD-FBI operation resulted in the arrests of members of more than a dozen gangs that had been terrorizing a housing project in the South Bronx.
Safir also intends to use civil laws, like nuisance abatement regulations, to keep the pressure on.
“Those laws give us powers to go after the infrastructure of drug traffic,” he says.
Experts, including Maple, believe that an all-out assault on drug crimes, especially in the Bronx, the city’s most violent borough, can bring about significant additional reductions in overall crime.
A plan for a citywide attack on neighborhood drug traffic is currently being finalized.
So crime continues to plummet. But not everyone is convinced that the changes at the NYPD are responsible. Statistics-watchers point to drops in violent crime in nearly every major American city and argue that demographics, community-oriented policing and even requiring background checks on gun purchases are the reasons. Some have even theorized that crime is dropping because all the criminals are finally in jail.
“Everyone’s heard those arguments,” Safir says. “But do you mean to tell me that all the 12-year-olds just suddenly stopped committing crimes? Demographics might be a factor to some extent, but the results we are getting in New York prove that the police have something to do with it.”
And if the police in New York can do it, then it stands to reason that the police in New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles and Atlanta can do it.
“It takes an investment in people and money,” Safir says. “But more than that, the political will must be there. You can be the smartest police executive in the world, but none of this can happen without a committed chief executive. This mayor is fearless and totally committed to what we’re trying to do.” Which, of course, makes perfect sense. After all, murder victims never vote.
Detention center combines safety and aesthetics
Correctional facilities exist to ensure the safety and security of the community. But function does not always have to dominate form. The Manhattan Detention Center in New York City is proof.
The center, a 275,000-square-foot facility that expands the city’s detention capability by 500 cells, was built next to the criminal courts building and the existing jail.
Residents were wary of the construction plans, and, indeed, the $62 million facility initially drew significant community opposition.
In response, city officials suggested that a community task force be formed and its members meet regularly with the architects and other involved parties.
The meetings helped build community support by ensuring that the design would meet with residents’ approval. As a result of the task force’s involvement, the new jail was designed as a multi-purpose building with a community-oriented, non-institutional appearance.
It incorporates commercial storefronts on the street level, a clock tower and an entrance plaza that was created by closing the street between the new building and the original jail. Because of the unique design and location, the architects wanted to create a visually appealing structure that would complement the surrounding commercial areas. Still, the center needed to be constructed with strong materials that would ensure the safety of those same areas.
To meet those challenges, the architects specified glass blocks manufactured by Pittsburgh Corning, Pittsburgh. A total of 6,500 square feet of glass blocks was used in the design of window panels for the housing recreation rooms and the bridge connecting the new jail to the original jail and criminal courts facility. “The bridge is a very busy, high-traffic connection with a constant movement of inmates,” says John Grosfeld, president of The Grosfeld Partnership, the New York City architectural planning firm that designed the center. “We needed a material that would transmit light into the bridge from the outside because we didn’t want inmates being transported through a dark tunnel.”
The security status of the bridge was ensured when the glass blocks were installed within a steel grid.
But the bridge had to look good, too, since it is in a prominent area near pedestrian plazas and shops. The glass allows light to be transmitted outward to those commercial areas at night.
System improves sheriff’s department’s tracking
The Middlesex County (Mass.) Sheriff’s Department was looking for a way to improve its tracking system and reduce the costs of generating and maintaining criminal records. Its system was limited by the capabilities of its operating systems and did not allow for easy sharing of data between the Cambridge and Billerica prison facilities.
But a partnership between the department, The MCL Group, a local company that specializes in systems design, networking and information tracking systems, and Unisys Information Services Group, Blue Bell, Pa., is helping change that.
The department’s new system allows the county to take advantage of Massachusetts’ investment in a statewide criminal justice information system that allows data sharing with local, state and national agencies. When a prisoner enters either the Cambridge or the Billerica facility, text-based information, electronic fingerprints and photographs are entered into the Positive Identification and Tracking System. That information is stored permanently in the county’s computer databases and is shared by both facilities.
It can be easily retrieved and displayed in a Windows format by having the prisoner provide another fingerprint to be matched against the one in the files or by entering the first few letters of the prisoner’s last name. Information and photographs can be updated at any time.
Any pertinent data can be provided to court systems, other corrections facilities, law enforcement and human services personnel and other government agencies.
This eliminates the necessity for duplicate intake and booking processes and increases the productivity of guards and other officials.