Satisfying the hunger for tougher policing

October 19, 1999|By Michael Olesker

NEW YORK -- Here in the great American ancestral home of zero tolerance for crime, a beautiful thing is happening at the corner of 52nd Street and 7th Avenue. Someone has broken a law. An anxious call for help has been delivered into a police microphone and now, with the streets filled with Saturday afternoon tourists standing around fat with spending money, the famous NYPD uniformed officers snap into action as only they can.

They come spilling out of police vans. They converge on 52nd and 7th with their piston legs pumping and their faces flush with the passion of the moment. They don't know what's up, who has done something wrong or what laws have been broken. They only know that in this city -- once synonymous with the breakdown of authority but lately a role model for places like Baltimore, defeated by crime and looking for a way out -- this shall not be tolerated.

In seconds, 17 uniformed police arrive. This is by actual count. Some of the 17 are breathless. Some of them look greatly agitated. At the intersection of 52nd and 7th, blocking all afternoon traffic, a big truck has stalled. It is marked "Sheraton New York Laundry." The truck does not move. It turns out, the 17 police have stormed into action for a stalled laundry truck.

"Disregard," a uniformed officer declares into his microphone, lest 17 more police arrive, or 1,700. "Disregard."

"They wanted us," a uniformed cop says a few moments later, "to push the truck." Nobody mentioned any specifics until they arrived. They only knew there was trouble.

The cop says this with some agitation in his voice. He is part of the Manhattan South Task Force, which moves around the city to various crime hot spots. In the time of zero tolerance, sometimes there is a little overreaction to everyday problems. Sometimes it's just a laundry truck stalled in a bad place.

In Rudy Giuliani's time as mayor, though, zero tolerance is getting quite famous as the savior of a city. In New York, the murder rate dropped miraculously. The cops say they've dismantled more than a thousand drug gangs in the last three years and shut down 2,000 drug hot spots. And in places like Baltimore, we have looked at this and asked: Why not us?

Former police Commissioner Thomas Frazier said it couldn't work in Baltimore. He is now gone. Frazier said the street cops would spend their time busting loiterers, while true predators slipped around the corner. In the wake of a police shooting two weeks ago, others have warned of over-zealousness, of unleashed abuse. New York has had some monstrous cases of brutality. But that phrase, zero tolerance, hit a nerve in Baltimore and helped propel Martin O'Malley into a Democratic mayoral victory in September.

And how do New York's street cops see zero tolerance?

"A pain in the [bleep,]" snaps an officer from the Manhattan South Task Force. "Pure [bleep-bleep.]"

"I don't do my job any different than I did before," says another from the same unit.

The first officer mentions an unwritten zero-tolerance quota system. He says he's now required to write 25 nuisance summonses per month -- for peddlers operating without licenses, for those who ride bicycles and don't obey the traffic laws, piddling stuff like this -- and if he doesn't meet the quota, he can lose time off. He also says he lives in Brooklyn, and they've threatened to post him all the way over in the Bronx if he doesn't fill his quota.

"They would do this over summonses for nuisance crimes?" he is asked.

"What are you, from Baltimore?" he asks.

He says this as the caustic big-city put-down: What are you, naive? You don't know how the system works when nobody's looking?

There are other cracks in the zero-tolerance armor. After huge drops in the murder rate for several years, homicides rose 10 percent last year. The drug arrests are heavy, but those arrested tend to be replaced.

"This is the toughest city in the world," says one midtown policeman, "so it helps to get these guys off the street and into court."

That raises another Baltimore concern: Where do you put convicted criminals when the jails are already crowded?

"We have that here, too," says a policeman. "There's a lot of community-service sentencing. And a lot of fines, which puts more money into City Hall and lets the mayor keep taxes down."

Yes, he agrees, this sounds a little backward: punishing criminals as a vehicle to balance the budget.

But to the occasional visitor, this city feels undeniably safer over the last few years. The old sense of menace, of sullen thugs taking the streets away from outmanned police, seems mainly a memory.

In Baltimore, there's a hunger for this. New York is the great role model now. Zero tolerance is coming, with all of its potential for saving a city -- or dividing it.

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