New York City, which had 43 homicides a week in 1990, has been averaging six so far this year. One of the biggest challenges for the next mayor will be to keep it that way.
The first major personnel decision for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successor will be to choose who will run the 34,000-member police department. With less than three weeks before the Nov. 5 election, Democrat Bill de Blasio leads Republican Joseph Lhota in polls by as much as 50 percentage points.
Lhota, who’s running a television ad warning that de Blasio will usher in a return to the crime-ridden 1980s, says he wants to keep Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who’s overseen a 31 percent drop in felonies since 2001. De Blasio wants a new leader who would refine Kelly’s stop-and-frisk policy, which he says has destroyed trust between police and communities. He’s considering former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, who’s also run departments in Boston and Los Angeles, and Philip Banks III, New York’s highest-ranking uniformed officer.
“Who the next mayor picks as police commissioner will send a message about where he stands,” said Ed Mullins, president of the 13,000-member Sergeants Benevolent Association. “We have to convey to the people of the city that our goal is to keep crime as low as possible.”
Public safety has become the most divisive campaign issue as the two candidates vie to lead the most populous U.S. city and manage its $70 billion budget. The job will require negotiating new contracts with workers, including police; continuing vigilance against terrorism; and diversifying an economy beyond Wall Street, which supplies high-paying jobs and 7 percent of city tax revenue.
Twenty-five years ago, New York was wracked by a crack cocaine epidemic, aggressive panhandlers, graffiti-marred subways and the most homicides of any U.S city. Last year’s 419 homicides were the lowest since 1962, when the city began keeping comparable records. As of Oct. 6, killings are running 25 percent below 2012.
Lhota this week reminded voters of the city’s blemished past in a commercial titled “Can’t Go Back.” Images of rioters, frightened residents and a vagrant sprawled outside a pornographic movie theater flash by as a narrator says de Blasio offers a “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime.”
Lhota’s message is “fear-mongering” that “misses 20 years of progress we’ve made across a number of different mayors and police commissioners,” de Blasio said today on WCBS radio. The next mayor needs to build on the strengths of “the best-trained police force on earth” and fix its relationship with minority communities, the department’s “most consistent problem in recent years,” he said.
The first task for the commissioner in 2014 is to train police to modify stop-and-frisk tactics and learn to work with a new federal monitor appointed by a judge to ensure that police don’t violate anyone’s rights, said Jeremy Travis, president of Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
De Blasio today listed Bratton and Banks as “two people I would absolutely interview very seriously,” among others.
Bratton, 66, served as Boston police commissioner before arriving in New York in 1994 to lead the NYPD. He resigned 27 months later after his relationship with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani soured.
Bratton “wrestled with the same problems as ours in Los Angeles,” Travis said. “He had to deal with a court-ordered federal monitor, the need to improve police-community relations, and he brought crime rates down.”
Bratton, who currently runs a consulting firm, declined requests for an interview. After an Oct. 2 speech in Manhattan, he told reporters at Capital New York that he’s been advising de Blasio and “potentially” would be interested in another run as commissioner.
Banks, 50, a 27-year veteran of the department, led its Community Affairs Bureau before becoming chief. He’s “a rising star, very well respected in and out of the department,” Travis said. “He’s sophisticated on the delicate issues involving the need for counter-terrorism surveillance and community trust.”
Delores Jones-Brown, a former New Jersey prosecutor and a professor at John Jay, said an appointment of Banks, who is black, would help repair relationships with minorities. Banks declined requests for an interview.
The commissioner will be responsible for a $4.7 billion budget and inherit a department that’s become more sophisticated and technologically equipped than the force Lhota worked with as deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration from 1994 to 2001.
Giuliani’s chief public-safety innovation, which Bratton oversaw, was a computerized system for mapping, categorizing and time-stamping crimes to begin managing problem neighborhoods. Since the program, called CompStat, took effect in 1994, major crimes have dropped about 74 percent as jail populations fell.
“The decades-long trend down puts pressure on the next mayor to keep it going or at least sustain it,” said Michael Jacobson, former director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy-research group, who was Giuliani’s commissioner of corrections. “No one is going to take their eyes off the issue -- it’s just too big, too important, too political, too high profile to let this backslide.”
Bloomberg and Kelly have attributed much of the drop in crime to stop-and-frisk. Yet the tactic has come at a cost, with about 90 percent of the stops yielding no evidence of a crime, said Jones-Brown.
“Stop-and-frisk criminalizes a whole generation of black, Latino and Muslim men,” she said. “There needs to be outreach by the next commissioner to let the community know that the police don’t think they are all criminals.”
Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission, a nonprofit advocacy group, said crime has continued to go down even as police have reduced their stops. That shows that other crime-fighting tactics can be more effective, legal and less divisive, he said.
The path to driving crime even lower lies in prevention by identifying the less than 1 percent of the population who are society’s most violent offenders, said David Kennedy, a de Blasio adviser who teaches crime prevention at John Jay.
In one program Kelly began a year ago, called Operation Crew Cut, 300 detectives use social media to target and confront small local, loosely organized gangs known as street crews that are mostly centered in public housing. Police say they account for about 30 percent of shootings in the city.
Bloomberg has credited the program with helping to achieve the record-low homicides this year, including three weeks since the program started during which the city experienced no killings at all. Bloomberg, 71, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is legally barred from running for a fourth term.
“The next mayor can build on what is already a record of success,” Kennedy said.
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