New York City has a population of 8.2 million, and the municipal police force of its five boroughs is the world’s largest. The police have to worry about what is going on in the entire metropolitan area, which has a population of close to 20 million, as well as all the cargo and passengers entering and leaving the city through its port. Taking into account, too, the city’s immense ethnic and linguistic complexity and the social problems of its worst-off neighborhoods, law enforcement is a megaproblem by any standards. For better and worse, New York has always been filled and refilled with people who have the talent and ambition that make the United States what it is, but who also sometimes bring with them bad habits, discredited beliefs, and unfortunate associations from their homelands.
Take, to pick some notable examples, the Russian mobs that began to infiltrate Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Chinese gangs discovered to be importing slave prostitutes into lower Manhattan, and the former Port-au-Prince torture specialists who could be lying low in the city’s burgeoning Haitian communities.
Considering the scope of the problems facing New York City law enforcement and the sheer size of the police force created to deal with it—some 38 000 officers, bigger than the FBI—you might expect to find an organization rife with bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, unable to cope. What’s remarkable, then, is the degree to which the city has risen to the occasion, even as control of the city’s government has bounced back and forth between the political parties during the past few decades.
Most recently, the city created a central computerized control room, the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC). There members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) can monitor crimes as they are reported, immediately summon up all relevant information from centrally organized databases, and get that information to investigators in the field [see photos, “RTCC”]. The same system can also be used to counter any immediate terrorist threat, though the city’s counterterrorism operation emphasizes intelligent deployment of personnel and resources, not technology as such.
New York’s computerized crime center is but the latest in a series of police innovations that have brought the city’s violent-crime rates down in the last 15 years. Reforms aimed at strengthening old-fashioned gumshoe police work began in the early 1990s during the administration of David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, who brought in the dynamic and highly regarded Raymond Kelly as police commissioner to get officers back on the beat and more visible on every city block. Further big changes came with the next mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and his first police commissioner, William Bratton. They inaugurated a policy of energetically going after seemingly minor “quality of life” crimes—teenagers jumping subway turnstiles, graffiti artists defacing buildings and trains—on the theory that often the people committing such misdeeds will be connected with much more serious offenses as well.
Although that aggressive approach to crime fighting gave rise to civil-liberties concerns—some well founded—it also turned out to be effective. As people apprehended for minor infractions were taken off the streets, the city began to experience dramatic decreases in violent crime, far exceeding improvements seen in most other U.S. cities. Sure enough, the person with a squeegee demanding money in return for a windshield cleaning—a practice generally experienced by New Yorkers as a form of petty extortion—often turned out to be wanted for more serious crimes or needed as a witness in an ongoing investigation. The police just had to check the suspect’s name or fingerprints against those in police files.
It was a natural second step to streamline the records themselves. In 1994 Giuliani and Bratton inaugurated a program that came to be known as CompStat. The city centralized its data on major crimes in a database, and detectives began to meet daily to analyze emerging crime patterns, redeploy resources to address threats, and take stock of successes and failures.
In the 1970s and well into the 1980s, New York had been known as a place where corporations didn’t want to locate and tourists didn’t want to visit, because of the threat of violent crime. That situation changed in the 1990s, as the number of murders dropped from nearly 2000 in 1993 to 629 in 1998 and 584 in 2002. CompStat got a lot of the credit, though other factors obviously played an important role, too—violent crime rates also declined in several other cities around the country. By the end of the decade, CompStat was being copied by at least half the large cities in the United States. Police chiefs in other parts of the world were sitting up and taking notice as well. The Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank, could argue without much fear of contradiction that CompStat was “perhaps the single most important organizational/administrative innovation in policing during the latter half of the 20th century.”