December 31, 2004

Police Succeed in Stemming Felonies

By Geoffrey Gray
Staff Reporter of the Sun

When there were reports of recession years ago and Mayor Giuliani bragged about bringing the crime rate down, criminologists predicted it would begin to rise. When the New York Police Department's 40,000-strong force was cut by a few thousand officers for budget reasons, and then diluted by the establishment of anti-terrorism commands after September 11, again the experts predicted crime would rise.

The predictions have proved wrong. After nearly three calendar years and countless overtime hours for its now-35,512 officers, the Police Department under Commissioner Raymond Kelly has seen the number of major felonies continue to drop, year after year after year — even in troubled areas.

Crime figures, however, tell only part of the success story.

Despite the department's ability to respond to crimes quicker and manage itself better, experts said the continuous dips over the last three years also resulted from New Yorkers' greater sophistication in policing themselves. New York students of criminal justice also said that ironically the biggest critics of the Police Department's ability to defy predictions and keep crime down are the police officers themselves, who complain about morale issues as they continue to fight for better salaries. "The only ones who don't benefit from crime reduction are the bad guys and the cops," Eli Silverman, professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said.

As of this past Sunday, on average, the city's major felonies — murders, rapes, robberies, major assaults, burglaries, grand larcenies, and auto thefts — were down 5% compared to last year's totals, and down 14 percent in the three years since Mr. Kelly, who headed the NYPD under Mayor Dinkins as well, began his second stint as commissioner.

A more politically potent figure is New York's murder rate. As of Sunday, there were 558 slayings in New York, a decrease of 5% from the total of 586 for all of of last year, and of 13% from the 642 murders in 2001, not including the September 11, 2001 attacks. Moreover, the year-to-date total of 558 was down nearly 75% from the 2,245 murders recorded in 1990, at the height of New York's crack epidemic.

In the FBI categories of major crimes, the only rise this year was in grand larcenies, or thefts of more than $1,000.That number increased 5% this year to 47,094.

Speaking of the continued decline in crime figures, Jerome Skolnick, a criminologist and co-chairman of New York University's Center for Research in Crime and Justice, said: "What this means is that we may have reached the bottom." Another scholar of crime trends, Mr. Silverman, said: "The question is, how long can this continue to go on. Contrary to everyone's predictions, we hit the glass bottom a long time. When will it end?"

This year's overall dip in felonies is not statistically significant enough to reveal any single factor or significant trends, the experts said, but they said it does illustrate a more streamlined agency's ability to manage itself better and respond to troubled areas. For Mayor Bloomberg, political analysts said, the perennial decrease in crime is likely to be a key platform plank in his campaign for re-election next November. "Even if the decrease is slight and essentially means nothing," Mr. Skolnick said, "it sure is better from a political perspective to be talking about the crime rate going down then the crime rate going up."

One reason for the continuing dips in crime, Mr. Kelly has said, is a series of strategic-based initiatives such as Operation Impact, which targets crime areas on a daily basis and floods troubled zones with rookie officers.

Another factor contributing to the overall decrease in crime on New York streets, experts said, is an increase in surveillance activities and self-policing measures on the part of citizens and private companies in recent years. It is no longer uncommon for private companies to "harden targets" as police do by ramping up in-house security, or for small businesses to install surveillance cameras either to nab thieves or to deter them.

According to an unofficial tally of surveillance cameras by the personal-privacy group Surveillance Camera Players, the number of video cameras monitoring public and private spaces around New York has more than tripled in the past five years, to an estimated 7,200 cameras in 2004 from about 2,400 cameras counted by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1999.

Another reason the city's crime figures are so low this year, experts said, could be the numbers themselves. While the city's Compstat system, involving copious collection and comparison of crime data, has created "smarter policing," Mr. Skolnick said, the system can also be manipulated to create favorable statistics. A number of police officers critical of the system, and speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they have felt indirect pressure from precinct captains to "put up good numbers" and often downplay potential felonies, such as downgrading the theft of a wallet with a credit card from grand larceny, a felony, to petty larceny, a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are not charted on the Compstat system. What's more, looking to push a case quickly through the courts, prosecutors can often "dumb down" felonies into misdemeanors, the officers said.

In a recent television interview, Mr. Kelly defended the accuracy of Compstat, saying, "The numbers are what they are."

Further undermining the reliability of the statistics is the number of crimes that go unreported, chiefly in minority neighborhoods and among undocumented immigrants. The reasons for not reporting crimes, leaders in those neighborhoods said, are distrust of police and fear of deportation.

"In these types of communities, people report crime to each other," the manager of Brooklyn's Community Board 5, Walter Campbell, said. That board covers the East New York, Brownsville, and Cypress Hills sections. Over the past three years, those notoriously dangerous neighborhoods have seen murders drop by more than 12%, and rapes drop by more than 10%.

One reason, according to Richard Curtis, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who lives in Brownsville, may be the addition of units of appealing affordable housing: own-your-own developments where police and local firefighters are often given financial incentives to live.

Despite favorable crime rates, the president of the 22,000-strong Patrolmen's Benevolent Union, Patrick Lynch, said morale among officers "was at an all-time low."

"The city stands on the backs of the officers to tout the reductions of crime, but continues to fight them tooth and nail for a livable wage," Mr. Lynch said this week, referring to a continuing impasse in police contract negotiations with the city, which are in non-binding arbitration.