NYPD Cuts Could Take City Back to the Bad Old Days of 1990

By Murray Weiss on March 30, 2011 7:42pm 

NYPD Detective Bonomo (R) and police canine Hunter keep watch in Times Square June 21, 2010 in New York City. Accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty on June 21 to all terror and weapons charges.
NYPD Detective Bonomo (R) and police canine Hunter keep watch in Times Square June 21, 2010 in New York City. Accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty on June 21 to all terror and weapons charges.
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

By Murray Weiss

DNAinfo Contributing Columnist

Inflection point: a point where the curve changes from being upwards (positive curvature) to downward (negative curvature), or vice versa.

That’s a good way to describe where New York City is in terms of crime.

Last year, violent crime — led by a 14 percent jumps in murder and rape — rose for virtually the first time since 1990. 

The NYPD, meanwhile, shrank in staff from a high of 41,000 in 2002 to below 35,000 last year. That just so happens to be the size of the force two decades ago.

Is it a coincidence, or just a frightening reminder, that 1990 was a historic year for violence, fear and crime in New York City?

Imagine New York as a city where the elderly were too frightened to leave their homes, where women removed jewelry from their necks before entering the subways and shattered car window glass littered every Manhattan street.

Imagine daily news accounts about marauding teens, overcrowded jails, revolving doors of justice, and of criminals who were arrested so many times that their rap sheets were measured in yards rather than inches.

There were more than 2,200 murders in 1990, which meant six people were shot, knifed or strangled to death every day. Another 100,000 people were robbed that year – or more than 11 every hour.

Nearly 69,000 people were assaulted that year. More than 119,000 people came home or their office and found it burglarized – a break-in every five minutes.

And that does not include 268,000 other larcenies and that a vehicle was stolen every 3.7 minutes somewhere in the five boroughs for a total of 147,000.

Welcome to New York circa 1990, where everyone warily looked over their shoulders.

And the 1980s was the run-up.

What was arguably the compelling reason for this explosion in crime was the size of the police force.

In the late 1970s, during a far worse fiscal crisis than the city faces today, the police force was slashed and the 1980s began with little more than 27,000 cops.

While the city slowly began rebuilding its ranks during that decade, the crack epidemic suddenly hit, spawning desperate junkies willing to steal for cash, and blood-thirsty violent drug gangs ready to feed their habit.

By the time the NYPD ranks were back over 30,000 in 1990, the city felt as though it was lost to criminals.  New Yorkers were willing to do anything to hire more cops. In 1992, "Safe City, Safe Streets," a program to add 6,000 cops, was born.

The following year, the city’s new Police commissioner Bill Bratton and two of his top commissioners, John Timoney and the late Jack Maple, devised new police strategies and created Compstat, the widely copied concept of holding meetings at headquarters with commanders to discuss their efforts against daily crime trends.

Crime began to topple like dominos thank to more cops and evolving strategies. By 1996, murders and robberies were cut in half. So were car thefts. Assault and burglaries fell by a third. The city was on its way back – back to a point where criminologists can safely argue there has never been an urban crime decline in American history like there has been in New York in the past 20 years.

Raymond Kelly’s police department has brought crime down to 1960s levels, but is fighting to hold back the tide with a shrinking force.

"In the 1970's, the NYPD fell by 9,000 cops and at first crime only began to go up a bit, but then it quickly hit a tipping point," said Thomas Reppetto, author of "NYPD: A City And Its Police" and the former president of the Citizens Crime Commission, a criminal justice nonprofit.

"Kelly will do whatever is necessary," he said. "But I imagine if the force continues to decline, we may see crime increases. It won't happen overnight. It will take time. Then there will be a tipping point."

But once that threshold is crossed, he warned, "it will take years to put that Genie back in the bottle."

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