The New York Times

January 12, 2003

News Analysis

Smaller Force Walks a Line Between Lean And Scrawny


Two years ago, when the World Trade Center still stood and New York City was flush with cash, city and police officials spent much of their time struggling to find enough people to staff the largest police department in the country.

Today the setting could not be more different. The New York Police Department, confronting possible layoffs for the first time in three decades, is grappling with two new questions: Can it forestall layoffs by finding other savings? And would a smaller police force be such a terrible thing?

The answers are crystal clear to many police officials now struggling to find ways, at the Bloomberg administration's request, to trim an additional $94 million from the agency's $3.4 billion budget.

The agency is already showing bone, the officials say, and any loss of additional manpower could damage a force that has been stripped of 3,500 officers — nearly 9 percent of its strength — in just over a year, even as it has assumed new tasks in the war on terrorism.

But analysts outside the 37,800-member department say that even after three rounds of budget cuts, there are still areas in the police bureaucracy, like its swollen overtime budget, that are ripe with possible savings. Other analysts, including former Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, say that while layoffs should be avoided, a smaller department would not necessarily lead to a more dangerous New York.

"You could certainly police New York with a smaller police force," said Mr. Bratton, who is now the police chief in Los Angeles. "Per capita, I now have exactly half of what New York has."

The predicament faced by New York's police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, as he fights to protect his agency, has been complicated by the fact that the department absorbed the earlier cuts this year without obvious strain. Crime in New York continues to fall, even as it climbs in most other big cities. Mr. Kelly has made it clear that this triumph has come despite a significant loss of resources. Asked several months ago to assess how the department would continue to function in the face of severe spending cuts, Mr. Kelly credited much of its success over the past decade not to innovations or strategies, but to sheer size.

"You need the resources, you need the horses, to carry out the policies," he said after a speech to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. "The department went up, in essence, 40 percent during that period of time. So we all know what has to be done. You need the resources to do it."

Given Mr. Kelly's perspective, aides say he never would have let the department lose so many officers if large pots of untapped savings existed elsewhere in the agency. But with 95 percent of the police budget dominated by personnel costs, they said, there is simply no place else left to cut.

Some of the department's civilian janitors have already been let go. The recruitment budget was pared because hiring is now very much an afterthought. New patrol car orders have been canceled while old cars are being repaired and put back into service so they can be driven for four years before they are replaced, instead of the usual three.

Besides those cuts, and many others, the department has lost 2,900 officers through attrition since the beginning of last year. By July it must lose another 600. This represents the largest and quickest reduction of personnel since 5,000 officers were lost in 1975 during the city's fiscal crisis, according to the president of the Citizens Crime Commission, Thomas A. Reppetto.

Mr. Reppetto, who has written a history of the New York Police Department, said it took the agency 15 years to recover from the 1975 cuts. " It had a profound effect," he said.

To meet the Bloomberg administration's latest request for another 3 percent trim in police spending, officials by tomorrow must identify the additional $94 million in savings for the fiscal year that begins in July. The department's chief spokesman, Michael P. O'Looney, said yesterday that it was premature to discuss what cuts might be made. If the money were to come from cuts in uniformed staffing alone, the department would have to eliminate another 1,450 officers, either through attrition or layoffs, according to police statistics.

"I don't see any need to resort to police layoffs when there are such good opportunities for efficiencies," said Diana Fortuna, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a budget watchdog group.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appears to share that opinion. On Friday, he said the department could avoid layoffs if it made "productivity enhancements." He did not explain what he meant, but last summer he pushed unsuccessfully for the department to add 10 additional workdays for officers each year in exchange for slightly shortening the workday. The police union screamed.

Ms. Fortuna's group has said that police overtime is an obvious area for savings. Overtime spending has surged from $114 million in fiscal 1995 to $347 million in the fiscal year that ended in June, even if one eliminates any of the overtime associated with the trauma of 9/11, according to the commission. In the first five months of the current fiscal year, which began in July, the police spent $128 million on overtime, putting the agency on pace to spend $300 million this year, according to city statistics.

"When something increases that much, you have to go over it incredibly carefully," said Michael Jacobson, who was the city budget official responsible for monitoring police spending during the Dinkins administration. He later served as correction and probation commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Mr. Kelly said on Friday night during an appearance on NY1 that he thought police staffing at parades, which is often done on overtime, might be cut back and that overtime paid to officers for arrests late on their shift might be curtailed through technological improvements. But police officials have defended much of the overtime increase, suggesting it went to finance enforcement programs, like Operation Condor, which was used to flood high-crime areas with additional officers, that have been critical to the city's crimefighting efforts.

City Council officials have long argued that the Police Department could save money by putting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of officers, who now serve in administrative, even maintenance posts, back on patrol and replace them with lower-paid civilians. The Citizens Budget Commission estimates that such a program could bolster the patrol force by as many as 2,300 officers.

"In the long run, the force could definitely be smaller through these measures," Ms. Fortuna said.

The department remains by far the largest in the nation. Chicago's, with 13,500 officers, is the second largest. Even after the recent reductions, the department retains more officers per capita than most major urban forces. Nonetheless, if it were to lose another 1,450 officers, the force would fall below 36,000 for the first time since 1996.

Unlike Mr. Bratton, his successor as police commissioner, Howard Safir said a further reduction would likely lead to a rise in crime. In an interview broadcast yesterday on NY1, he said: "Commissioner Kelly, if he has to lay off people, is going to be faced with a situation where he's going to have to make choices on where he deploys his resources, and the places that he does not deploy his resources to are going to see increased crime, I'm afraid."

But Bonnie Brower, executive director of City Project, a budget watchdog group, speaking of the prospect of a smaller force, said: "I don't think there is a magic number of cops that make us feel safe or unsafe." She added, "I think that is a pretty big police force that, absent diversion to homeland security, should be adequate to keep this city safe, as safe as it has been for the past period of time."

Of course, as Mr. Kelly often argues, the focus on homeland security is exactly the new responsibility that has so taxed police resources even as the agency shrinks. Mr. Kelly has in the past year increased the number of officers assigned to antiterrorism positions to roughly 1,000 from 17.

During his television appearance Friday, the commissioner repeated his assessment that it would be "very, very difficult" to make the new spending cuts without layoffs. At the same time, he said, he did not foresee a crippling reduction in public safety. Could he say what size police force would be too small to adequately protect New York?

"I'm not going to give you a minimum number," he answered. "We are going to get the job done."