March 20, 2005

Has the mayor put clamp on crime?

BY SEAN GARDINER STAFF WRITER As Rudolph Giuliani's third year as mayor was ending, he stood in Times Square in the shadow of the glass ball that would usher in 1997 and crowed that there were fewer than 1,000 homicides citywide that year -- a first in three decades. "It's an historic year for us," Giuliani boasted, as all four major city newspapers carried the story. "The city is as safe, or safer, than it has been at any time since 1968." In December, with two weeks left in his third year as mayor, Michael Bloomberg held a news conference at the 77th Precinct station house in Brooklyn's Crown Heights to announce the third straight year of crime reductions under his administration. Although the city would end the year with only 571 homicides, 400 fewer than 1997, and the fewest since 1963, only two of the city's dailies wrote about it. Both stories included the same measured quote from Bloomberg: "I think it's fair to say the city is on a roll."

A different perception

By all statistical accounts, Bloomberg's public safety record should be the cornerstone of his re-election bid. Major crime has continued its downward plunge -- 14 percent since Bloomberg took office, leaving New York 14th-lowest in crime among the nation's 217 largest cities. Still, he isn't perceived as the tough-on-crime mayor. "It's amazing," former Mayor Edward Koch said of Bloomberg. "He has done better than Giuliani with fewer cops. The crime rates are down and there are two or three thousand fewer cops. But in my view, he doesn't get enough credit for it." Part of the reason for that is perception. Whereas Giuliani became mayor after a career as a mob-busting prosecutor, Bloomberg has handled the job as the businessman he is -- and one who inherited a huge budget shortfall at that. He's far more hands-off than Giuliani in policing the city, many observers say. "I think Bloomberg is less of the police commissioner than Giuliani was," said Eli Silverman, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "His style here reflects his general style, which is to get good people and give them the authority to run things, which I think is appropriate." The man Bloomberg has entrusted to keep driving crime down is Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Though Kelly is criticized by some as a micromanager, few question his ability to run the Police Department. He joined the Bloomberg administration with a resume that included 30 years in the NYPD, including a previous stint as police commissioner under Giuliani's predecessor, David Dinkins. What has followed is three successive years of crime reductions. This past year, there were 22,566 fewer major crimes -- murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, grand larcenies and auto thefts -- than there were in 2001, Giuliani's last year in office. These continued decreases come at a time when the average head count for uniformed NYPD officers dropped by nearly 2,400, from 38,740 when Bloomberg took office to 36,372 last year. Bloomberg also has reduced the Police Department budget by nearly $280 million, shrinking it to 7.2 percent of the total city budget, compared with 8.7 percent two years ago. The downsizing of the force, coupled with the fact that the last raise the cops received was 21/2 years ago, have made Bloomberg enormously unpopular with the largest police union. "It has become tougher being a New York City police officer during the Bloomberg administration because of the dangerous downsizing of the NYPD and the failure to recognize the need to pay police a competitive salary," said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. With a starting salary of $36,878, an NYPD officer averages about $59,880 over a 20-year career -- about 10 percent less than the average pay of other big-city cops, PBA spokesman Al O'Leary said. The low pay makes it difficult to attract new police officers, he said, and is the primary cause that about 4,200 officers who were not yet eligible for a pension have quit the department over the past five years. Just as the standard for crime reductions was set during the Giuliani administration, so too was the officers' current money woes, according to O'Leary. The last contract settled during Giuliani's tenure -- one that became known as the "Zeroes for Heroes" contract by cops -- called for officers to receive no pay raise for the first two years of the five-year contract. The city and PBA are in arbitration seeking a new contract.

Dealing with terror threat

The budget and manpower reductions also have come at a time when the threat of terrorism has overshadowed traditional public safety concerns in the city. Bloomberg has remained typically low-key in speaking about the terrorist threat. In February 2003, his response to yet another warning from the Justice Department of an impending attack was to "leave the worrying to the professionals and live your lives." That's what he was doing, he said. "When it comes to public safety, Michael Bloomberg defers to Ray Kelly on pretty much everything," said Jerome Hauer, former head of the city's Office of Emergency Management. Hauer credited Kelly for taking some very "innovative and progressive" measures to counter the terrorism threat. Most notably, the training for NYPD officers and "coordination with the private sector" are programs that other departments are now emulating, said Hauer, who also credited Kelly for the Republican National Convention going off "without a hitch" last summer. But Kelly's tendency to be "police-centric," said Hauer, "has hurt the other agencies," such as the Fire Department and the Office of Emergency Management, in preparedness for potential terror attacks. "Public safety as an entity still hasn't come together yet," said Hauer, who three years ago supported Bloomberg's opponent, Democrat Mark Green. "Communication issues are still not resolved. OEM has really got no authority anymore. I think at the end of the day that will catch up with them after an incident." Bloomberg spokesman Ed Skyler refuted Hauer's assertion. "Every agency, whether it is the Police Department, Health Department, Fire Department or OEM, is much better prepared to respond to man-made emergencies because of Mayor Bloomberg's leadership." Skyler said Bloomberg's total public safety record stands on its own. "Our quality-of-life has never been better, and when you consider that we now have to deal with protecting New York from terrorism as well as from criminals, this record of accomplishment is even more impressive," he said.

Higher expectations

Success offers its own challenges, though. "I think Bloomberg is now confronted with very high public expectations that crime will not go up," Silverman said. "He has to keep things moving in the same direction, and his Police Department has to continue to squeeze juice out of the same orange." John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's coordinator of criminal justice, said the administration is meeting the challenge of bringing crime down even more with "a very targeted and surgical approach involving the entire criminal justice system." While Operation Impact relocates patrol officers to the most crime-prone neighborhoods, Operation Spotlight has identified mostly low-level drug dealers and shoplifters throughout the city. In June, the mayor also unveiled Operation Safe Housing, a program aimed at cracking down on sex offenders, drug dealers and gun possessors in housing projects through closer monitoring, new trespass laws and expedited evictions, Feinblatt said. Other Bloomberg criminal justice strategies: Efforts to enforce the mandatory 1-year jail term for illegal gun possession. Indictment of as-yet-unidentified samples of DNA obtained in unsolved sex crime cases under "John Doe indictments" to avoid problems with the statute of limitations. Use of digital photographs and recordings to provide prosecutors with pictures of domestic violence victims and their 911 calls, to be used to request stiffer bail terms. Norman Adler, a political consultant, who gives Bloomberg a grade of "somewhere in the B-plus, A-minus category" for public safety thus far, said mayoral challengers will be hard-pressed to attack Bloomberg on that front. But three years into his term as mayor, Bloomberg is somewhat limited in making too much political hay from that accomplishment. "My view is that when people are afraid of crime they look to City Hall," Adler said. "When they're not afraid of crime, I don't think they evaluate whether Giuliani or Bloomberg is to credit for it."