April 16, 2003

Cops: Cutbacks Could Be Disastrous

By Sean Gardiner and Melanie Lefkowitz Staff Writers

With more than 300 officers retiring every month and a worst-case scenario budget plan calling for delaying the next recruit class, the number of cops in the city could dip to 32,000, the lowest since the crime-ridden days of 1991, officials said Wednesday.

"We remember 1991," said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., chairman of the Public Safety Committee. "Crime was running rampant in our streets. Businesses were fleeing. [Utah tourist] Brian Watkins was killed on a subway platform defending his mother from a gang of thugs. It was a nightmare."

The grim picture was painted as Vallone, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch and others held a news conference at City Hall Wednesday to say the Police Department can't endure the $60 million in cuts Mayor Michael Bloomberg seeks in the department's $3.4 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

And the department certainly can't afford the loss of about 1,300 recruits who were to enter the Police Academy in July -- a cut that will take effect if state funding for the upcoming fiscal year is insufficient.

"These potential cuts if they happen will be absolutely devastating to the New York City Police Department," Lynch said. "We will not be able to stay up on crime."

Lynch and Vallone credited the federally assisted Safe City/Safe Streets program -- begun in 1991 when homicides hit nearly 2,300 -- with bolstering the force to 41,800 officers and driving down crime.

According to police statistics, the seven major felonies -- murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, car theft and grand larceny -- are down 9 percent so far this year.

Nonetheless, Vallone and Lynch predicted a return to the bad old days if the size of the force shrinks below its current level of 36,000.

"We had enough police officers to overwhelm that crime," Lynch said of the 1990s. "Already there's a spike in homicides, year to date homicides are up. There are not enough police officers to man the radio cars in our community precincts. We are losing 300-some-odd police officers every month ... We cannot continue this trend."

The $60 million in cuts will force the department to discontinue Operation Condor -- an overtime fund used in the past to pay for drug enforcement, livery cab robbery probes, arrest warrants, quality of life offenses and other police operations. Operation Condor was started three years ago and grew to more than $100 million.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said he'll try to use another overtime initiative, Operation Impact, to pick up the slack for Operation Condor's initiatives, even though Operation Impact has been downsized in the past few weeks.

"We have to do everything we can with less," Kelly said echoing an oft-repeated Bloomberg theme. "There is just less to operate with. We have 4,500 fewer police officers than we had three years ago.

"Obviously we would prefer to do more with more," he said.

Thomas Reppetto, of the Citizens Crime Commission, said the problems a smaller police force will face are exacerbated because traditional crime isn't its only responsibility now.

Wednesday, for instance, while the rest of the country reduced its terrorism alert status to yellow, the city remained on the higher orange.

"I don't think at that level [32,000 officers] they could carry out their responsibilities the way they're doing it now because they've got all this additional work of fighting terrorism and that's not going to go away, unfortunately," he said.