The New York Times

November 25, 2000

Behind the Success Story, a Vulnerable Police Force


Murders in New York City have been cut by nearly two-thirds since their peak in 1990, and violent crime over all has fallen to levels not seen since the 1960's. Nonviolent crimes like auto theft have also shrunk by huge margins. Thousands of people who fled what they considered a dangerous and dirty city have been replaced by families who regard the city as safe and revitalized.

Together, these crime-fighting achievements, and their role in the turnaround of the city, amount to a story of sensational success for the New York City Police Department and for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has wasted few chances to trumpet it.

But quietly, inside station house locker rooms and recruiting offices, a more troubling tale of the department is also unfolding.

The number of officers leaving the force, including scores of its most senior supervisors, is surging. The difficulty in attracting men and women to join the 41,000- officer department has become acute, and the latest classes graduating from the department's training academy have shown signs of being more prone to mistakes or misconduct.

Moreover, the special tax funds and federal grants that helped underwrite a huge expansion of the force during the 1990's have dried up, or are about to, raising the specter that the cost of maintaining the largest police force in city history will become an unwieldy burden if the economy slows.

The department's personnel struggles and the looming uncertainties about its financing, then, are posing unsettling questions about the future of one of the city's essential institutions.

The simultaneous realities far-reaching triumphs and deepening institutional problems make for a remarkable civic incongruity: a police force at the top of its game and yet perhaps more vulnerable than at any time in years.

Consider, for instance, what many regard as the department's internal cracks, as disclosed in department records and interviews with police and union officials:

More than 1,700 officers have left the department this year through retirement or resignation, a third more than last year. Of those, roughly half left before qualifying for a full pension. Further, because of a departmental demographic bubble, the overall number of officers eligible to retire will triple next year.

Three times as many captains have left the department during the fiscal year that began in July than left during the same period last year. Over the next five years, more than half of the force's 2,100 captains and lieutenants will be eligible to retire. The departure of senior officers threatens to accelerate a recent trend in which the experience level of senior supervisors has dipped. Three years ago, more than half of the force's captains had 20 years of experience or more; today, less than a third do.

The number of people taking the test to become police officers has fallen precipitously in recent years, to 12,000 in 2000 from 32,000 in 1996.

The rate at which recruits have been cited for infractions during their time in the academy tripled between 1997 and 2000.

A range of forces are behind the department's current challenges. The number of officers eligible to retire is climbing. A thriving economy has made it harder to lure candidates, especially when the starting salary is less than what a police officer makes in Bridgeport, Conn. The pressure to produce ever-declining crime statistics has left some of the department's most experienced commanders weary of ever-rising expectations. The perception that many citizens, and the news media, do not appreciate them, or even scorn them, has left officers demoralized.

Indeed, the growing number of departures and the dwindling number of applicants have raised this question: Is a department that expanded to meet a growing crime problem about to backslide in both size and supervisory experience, leaving the city more vulnerable?

"In 10, maybe 5 years, the consequences of losing so many good people are going to be felt," said Eli B. Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of "NYPD Battles Crime," (Northeastern University Press, 1999). "The consequence is that you may become far less effective as crimefighters, and the bad guys may reassume their ascendancy."

Others are even more blunt.

"It seems the next mayor is being set up," said John Driscoll, president of the Captains Endowment Association, the union that represents captains and other supervisors. "The guy can't succeed. The problems being left behind are mind-boggling. Morale is so low. People are leaving and there is no one to replace them."

Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik, who took over the department three months ago, has tried to address issues undermining the appeal of the job. He has said pay should be raised and ordered quick renovations to improve conditions at often decaying station houses. He has begun having dinners in his conference room with officers from various commands, prodding them to discuss their frustrations.

"Do they have issues?" Mr. Kerik said. "Yeah, they have some issues. But, you know what, they are not like major issues, and they are issues that can be addressed."

Mr. Kerik said much of the grumbling grew from the sort of cynicism that is endemic to the department, especially during contract talks, which are taking place now.

"If you look at the overall shape of the department, it is in good shape," he said. "Can it be tweaked? Yes. Could you focus in on certain things in certain areas to make it better? Yes. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't working in the first place."

Better Tactics, and Results

Many analysts agree that the department is a more effective crime- fighting agency than it was when Mr. Giuliani took office in 1994.

For decades, the analysts said, the department's approach to crime had been largely reactive. Resources were focused on responding to 911 calls. Many officers viewed crime as the outcome of social forces beyond their control. Commanders were evaluated more on their arrest numbers, or effort, than the crime rate, or results. Large numbers of officers never worked weekends, when much of the crime occurred.

Mr. Giuliani's police managers are credited with changing much of that. They created a system of accountability for commanders, mapped crime trends to detect patterns and promoted people on the basis of results, not seniority. They made sure suspects were questioned in case they knew something about an unsolved crime. They changed the way officers were deployed, placing more in narcotics units that were assigned to high-crime areas.

The police concentrated on violent crimes, while refocusing attention on minor, quality-of-life offenses that had often been overlooked. Misdemeanors not only bred a sense of disorder that could invite more crime, but also were often committed by serious criminals who had otherwise escaped arrest.

Most important, perhaps, the Giuliani team re-energized the rank and file, said Thomas Reppetto, a crime analyst and co-author of "NYPD: A City and Its Police" (John Macrae/Holt, 2000).

"The cops got what they had long sought," he said. "They regained the freedom to go out and be cops, to arrest criminals instead of driving past them."

Another Side of Success

The flip side of some of these strategies has been evident for some time. Residents in neighborhoods both affluent and impoverished have complained about what they interpreted as overly aggressive police work. What was quality-of-life enforcement for the police was often seen as harassment by residents, and the number of misdemeanor arrests has swamped the city's criminal courts with defendants of every race and nearly every economic class.

The shooting death of Amadou Diallo in the doorway of his Bronx home spurred outrage and a debate about whether the encounter was a result of reckless or racist patrol tactics, as some critics argued, or an isolated incident from a department that is otherwise showing greater restraint in using force. The torture of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house also prompted charges that the police had become an arrogant and sometimes violent presence.

Federal prosecutors in both Brooklyn and Manhattan are now weighing whether to push for the appointment of monitors to oversee some of the department's operations, including its disciplinary system.

But largely lost in the louder, more familiar disputes has been an appreciation of what is taking place inside the department itself: a damaging drop in morale, a rising tide of departures and a worsening struggle to recruit new candidates.

Opinion is divided over how much this internal uproar is tied to Mr. Giuliani's direction of the department.

The $3.2 billion budget he has afforded the department is its largest ever and has clearly been vital to its impressive work. Mr. Kerik said many in the department also appreciated the support Mr. Giuliani showed for officers in disputed incidents.

"When the mayor doesn't support the cops of this city," Mr. Kerik said, "you are not going to get worse morale than that."

But the contract Mr. Giuliani awarded the police several years ago was considered miserly by many officers because it contained a two- year wage freeze. They cite the low pay and pressure to produce as reasons that they have chosen to end their career, eager to work for other police departments or to be paid better for their expertise, in the private sector.

"The deal was take back the streets and I will do something for you," said one commander with more than 20 years on the force. "It was quid pro quo, and it was done, and then nothing happened and the cops got zero, zero."

The sentiments of those departing can be just as grim.

"Most of the people that were in my academy class are getting out," said Detective William O'Connor, a 19-year veteran. "The only ones who are staying are people who may have a child with an illness and they need the coverage."

`Nothing Was Good Enough'

Capt. John Costello, a 30-year veteran, and Officer Philip Halpin, who had just completed his third year, both left the Police Department this year. Captain Costello chose retirement. Officer Halpin took a better- paying job with the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island.

"Whether I should stay or not was not even a thought," said Officer Halpin, who spent three years patrolling Brooklyn and quit one week after getting the Suffolk job. "I knew the N.Y.P.D. wasn't paying me what I was worth and that the working conditions and morale weren't going to get better."

Captain Costello's primary complaint was not pay, but what he viewed as the numbingly relentless demand to top his own arrest or summons numbers.

"Nothing was good enough," said Captain Costello, who had been a commander in the Vice Enforcement Division. In 1997, for example, he recalled being assigned to crack down on public drinking at the St. Patrick's Day parade. His officers were fortunate to stumble onto a large crowd of teenagers drinking in a plaza along Fifth Avenue and issued hundreds of summonses. The following year, though, the teenagers were not there.

Still, he said, he feared he would be chastised if his summons number dropped. So his plainclothes officers found themselves skulking in doorways. Any container in a paper bag, anyone with a plastic cup was suspicious.

"You are so desperate to get these summonses, you are like sniffing their coffee," Captain Costello said.

These two former members of the force reflect the drain many fear is going on in the department.

A total of 937 members of the department have retired this year through October, compared with 736 during the same period last year. The increase stems in part from the fact that the number of officers eligible for retirement those who have completed 20 years of service rose sharply this year.

In the mid-1990's, very few officers became eligible for retirement because virtually none had been hired two decades earlier, during the city's fiscal crisis. Last year, for example, only 218 became eligible to retire. Even this year, only 411 officers who were hired in 1980 are scheduled to complete their 20th year. But next year the number jumps to 1,501. Over the next five years, a quarter of the force will become eligible to retire.

The surge in departures is not merely a matter of increased eligibility. The number of officers who have resigned this year before serving out their 20 years has also increased remarkably. Some 801 have left this year, compared with 570 during the same period last year, an increase of 46 percent.

Some left simply because they were disappointed in the job. Many took advantage of a new benefit, effective this year, that awards partial pensions to officers who leave with as few as five years on the force.

Police officials insist that, looking forward, most officers will stay, even those eligible to retire. But the signs do not look promising. A total of 1,508 officers left the department during the fiscal year that ended in June, or 47 percent more than the number police officials projected in a 1993 attrition study.

Certainly, many members of the rank and file believe an exodus is under way. In station houses, billboards are awash with retirement party notices. Officers check off the days to their departure on calendars tucked in their desks. Pension seminars are filled to overflowing.

"The only people who know how much time they have left," said one lieutenant in the Bronx, "are cops and prisoners."

Losing Experience at Top

The outflow can be measured in different ways.

For instance, Officer Halpin will hardly be the only former New York City officer who becomes a Suffolk County officer when he graduates from Suffolk's academy next March. Indeed, a third of the 134 recruits in that academy are converts from the New York Police Department. And the Manhattan North homicide squad, which investigates murders north of 59th Street, lost 6 of 26 detectives this year, investigators said.

"We are losing so many senior people at the same time," said Thomas McKenna, who retired in June after 35 years. "It will be difficult for the young investigators to get the sort of on-the-job training that goes beyond what you might have learned in college."

Some of the urge to leave is economic. Even those who are retiring to an easy chair, not a second career, find that with tax breaks, their pensions nearly match their working salaries. And in some cases, the department's own policies appear to have given some supervisors an added incentive to leave.

Operation Condor, for example, an enforcement initiative financed through overtime, has raised the pay of some senior lieutenants and sergeants by more than 20 percent this year, officers and union officials said. As a result, several commanders and union officials said they knew officers who suddenly decided to retire because their pension would be calculated on the basis of their higher pay this year.

There, are, too, numerous seasoned supervisors who have left because of the pressure noted by Captain Costello.

But police officials, who describe the system they have set up as a meritocracy, said that they believe they enjoy broad public support in pushing for greater declines in crime. And Mr. Kerik said he had made a point of stressing that he expects supervisors to be civil and respectful when dealing with subordinates.

But so far this year, 85 officers who held the rank of captain or above have filed for retirement, according to police union officials. During all of last year, only 61 retired.

Police officials, asked if the departures might make for a more inexperienced tier of supervisors, said they were not worried. Supervisors with less time on the job, especially younger captains who came to the department better educated than their predecessors, are not necessarily less qualified, they said. Nonetheless, an official said Mr. Kerik was reviewing proposals to create additional financial incentives for officers who agree to stay past 20 years.

More Pay as Hotel Guard

Ernest Boyd was many of the things New York City looks for in a police officer. He was a mature man, 34, with a stable work record, a bachelor's degree in fine arts and a 97 average from the Police Academy. He was also a black man who would help to diversify a poorly integrated force.

But Ernest Boyd quit the force in April, after two months patrolling the streets of Brooklyn, saying he was disgusted with his salary.

To make more money, he said, he returned to his old job, as a security guard at the Marriott World Trade Center hotel, where from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. he watches the lobby, delivers packages and patrols the bathrooms. The $500 a week he takes home is more than the $411 he took home as a police officer, he said.

"I had to ask myself," he said, "do I want to hang around this neighborhood for five years and see what happens or make something of myself?"

Mr. Boyd's short tenure with the Police Department underscores the challenges it is facing in attracting and keeping new recruits.

In New York this month, only 12,000 people signed up to take the police test, despite an elaborate advertising campaign and many deadline extensions. Four years ago, the test takers numbered 32,000. And for the first time in memory, the department this fall came several hundred recruits short of filling its academy class.

The declining interest in police careers is a national problem, with many departments struggling to compete with an enticing private sector. Some, like Los Angeles, are operating several hundred officers short.

But the problem threatens to become similarly acute in New York, where $20 million in advertising the past two years has not done much to drum up interest. For every person like Daniel Maher, 33, who gave up a teaching career last month to try police work, officials run into several candidates who will not take the job, even after they ace the entrance examination.

Eddie W. Santiago, for example, earned one of the 10 highest scores on his civil service exam in October 1999. But Mr. Santiago, 32, of Brooklyn, turned down the job. Although it paid better than his job as a typist for the United Nations, he said, "My mother was not so happy about my being a cop because it is so dangerous and they don't get respect from people."

Former Chief Aaron Rosenthal said the mystique of the New York Police Department had faded for applicants. "At one time, when you contemplated a police job, you thought only of New York," he said. "It was like being recruited by scouts to play for the Yankees. It was more a calling than a job. Today it's strictly a job."

Many analysts said the primary obstacle to attracting more police candidates was pay. The salaries of New York officers now lag behind not only Nassau and Suffolk Counties, where a disparity with the city has long existed, but also places like Newark and Jersey City. A five-year Newark officer, for example, earns $60,000, or $20,000 more than his New York City counterpart.

"The lack of pay is pathetic," said Gerald W. Lynch, president of John Jay College, which monitors the job market for its graduates.

In the past seven years, largely owing to the pay differential, more than 400 New York officers have left for police jobs on Long Island. It has become so routine that officials in the village of Rockville Centre have been to known to thank the city for training its officers.

"I say it in a positive sense," said Jack McKeon, the village police commissioner. "It's not meant to make fun of New York. It's just done to show the community what a quality product we have."

City officials say that salary comparisons alone do not measure the extent of compensation that New York officers receive through benefits like unlimited sick leave and pension supplements. One benefit, for instance, gives retired police officers a yearly bonus of $8,500 on top of their pensions.

But given the eroding interest in the job, critics have questioned whether the department will have to lower standards to gain recruits. Police officials reject that, noting that the average score on entrance exams has improved in recent years. But there are indications that some of the recruits in the last academy class of 1,321 had more difficulty in training than their predecessors.

For example, the number of disciplinary and rule infractions committed by that class, which graduated in October, was triple the number cited for the 1997 class. Similarly, 170 members of that class either dropped out or were dismissed from the academy, double the number in 1997.

Fears of Lower Standards

The age and education level of lower-ranking patrol officers have risen under Mr. Giuliani, whose administration raised the entry age from 20 to 22 and required new officers to have two years of college. But several weeks ago, to help with recruiting, the city dropped the minimum age by a year and said that applicants with two years as school safety officers or traffic enforcement agents did not need college.

Mr. Kerik said neither of these moves had lowered standards and that the increase in disciplinary infractions did not indicate a growing problem with new recruit classes. "I haven't seen standards drop at all," he said.

The city's recent recruiting campaigns have been as expensive as any in the country. This year, recruiters used $10 million to, among other things, visit seven military bases and to run their television ad more than 2,000 times. Teams of recruiters personally visited street corners and subway stations, focusing on neighborhoods where the residents were largely black or Hispanic.

The efforts have begun to attract a more diverse group of candidates, with 19 percent of the current academy class black and 28 percent Hispanic, the most minority recruits in history.

But in an unreleased report last summer, the Board of Visitors, a study panel appointed by Howard Safir, the police commissioner at the time, found that the department needed to hire more recruiters and do more long-range planning. The report warned that if recruitment continued to slump, the department would find itself unable to keep pace with attrition. "It is estimated," the board's report concluded, "that in the next five years there will be an attrition of thousands of officers."

That prospect does not loom as a calamity to critics who think the force has grown too large. Indeed, the force has grown by a third since 1990, even as the number of city employees has dropped by 4 percent.

Maintaining the force at its current level is expensive, but the city has barely felt the cost, in part because of prosperous times and in part because some costs were underwritten by federal grants and an income tax surcharge that expired in 1998. The economic climate has grown cloudier, however, and federal money that offset the cost of hiring 4,300 officers, about 11 percent of the force, began to expire last year.

This year, the city is paying $214 million to cover the cost of those officers, according to figures from the Independent Budget Office, a city agency. Next year, the cost jumps to $300 million, a figure that will rise even higher if the city gives officers a raise, as anticipated.

If the economy falters, the cost of carrying so many officers could become a burden. On the flip side, Mr. Kerik said, the appeal of a stable civil service job with good benefits would only improve in the midst of economic trouble.

"When the economy is horrible, " said Mr. Kerik, "people are jumping on these jobs."