How New York reduced crime

Commanders are held responsible for what happens under their command and are expected to have a detailed knowledge about crime in their areas and to come up with creative ways of stopping crime.

January 14, 1999|By Henry H. Brownstein

VIOLENT crime reached an unusually high level in Baltimore during the mid-1990s, then slowly began to decline. Still, more than 300 people were killed in Baltimore last year -- the ninth year in a row that's happened.

The problem of violent crime here stands in sharp contrast to what is happening in many other big U.S. cities, most notably New York, where violent crime has been declining since 1990. For example, in the late '80s, there were about 2,000 homicides a year there; last year, there were fewer than 700.

Experts have offered a variety of explanations for the drop in crime in New York, including the doubling of the state's prison population, changing demographics (fewer teen-agers), the evolving way crack dealers conduct business, and the regular ebb and flow of crime and violence.

Credit for the drop in violent crime in New York has also been given to the city's Police Department, particularly a practice called "zero tolerance," where a crackdown on petty crimes is said to result in fewer major crimes.

When William J. Bratton became police commissioner in 1993 (several years after violent crime was in decline), he did include an emphasis on quality-of-life offenses as part of his overall strategy to change policing.

However, in his writings and speeches about what he did in New York, he does not mention "zero tolerance."

Misdemeanor offenses

If such a policy had been in effect and working when violent crime was declining early this decade in New York, the number of misdemeanor arrests would have been increasing. That didn't happen.

In fact, in New York, from the mid-'80s (when violent crime was increasing) to the mid-'90s (when violent crime was decreasing), the number of arrests by the NYPD for what could be called quality-of-life offenses declined.

The number of misdemeanor arrests in the city from 1985 to 1997 did increase by 61 percent. But the additional misdemeanor arrests were not for quality-of-life crimes, but drug crimes.

In 1995, there were more than twice as many misdemeanor arrests for drug-related offenses as in 1985; in 1997, there were more than six times as many misdemeanor arrests for marijuana offenses as in 1991.

But looking at the arrests doesn't give the entire picture. Behind the scenes, Mr. Bratton had instituted a program called CompStat (for computers and statistics), a strategic planning process, to help police find new ways to fight crime.

Here's a description of the program, taken from a brochure for an NYPD conference held in May 1997: "CompStat, short for computer comparison statistics, has been recognized as the single most successful crime-fighting tool of our time. It helped cut major crime in New York City by 39 percent and murder by 49 percent since 1993."

Under the program, top police officials and precinct and homicide unit commanders meet weekly to go over detailed computer analysis of the city, including not only the types of crimes committed in each precinct, but also any trends or patterns, such as an increase in citizen complaints about police discourtesy.

Tough meetings

The weekly meetings are not for the faint of heart. Commanders are held responsible for what happens under their command and are expected to have a detailed knowledge about crime in their areas and to come up with creative ways of stopping crime. Supervisors who gave poor presentations were dressed down and often stripped of their commands.

Commanders who have had success with specific crime-fighting programs are invited to share information with other commanders.

Baltimore police have a program called Crimestac -- short for crime, statistics and tactics -- which is supposedly modeled after New York's CompStat and designed to evaluate emerging crime patterns and find solutions. However, it does not have the same detail as New York's, and it's not well organized.

The Crimestac session that I attended featured colorful crime charts and reams of statistics, but it didn't have nearly the detailed data provided to New York police commanders.

So any debate about zero tolerance in Baltimore is not likely to be productive. Rather, if Baltimore wants to learn from New York, police here should study how New York police created a forum for regular communications within the department that helped police brass and officers identify and implement strategies and tactics that were most likely to lead to solutions.

Police here should revamp Crimestac. What do they have to lose? Henry H. Brownstein is a professor and director of the graduate program in criminal justice at the University of Baltimore, and he is the former chief of statistical services for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. He is author of "The Rise and Fall of a Violent Crime Wave: Crack Cocaine and the Social Construction of a Crime Problem" (Harrow and Heston, 1996).

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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