Of all the changes the city has undergone in the last generation, the most important must be the reduction in crime. In 1990, when the crack epidemic drove crime to its peak, the city recorded 2,262 homicides. Last year it saw 515. That’s a decline of more than 75 percent. There is no other category of social ill in which a 75 percent improvement has been recorded in a generation. And there is no more important duty for a municipality than protecting its citizens from violent crime.
Credit for the improvement belongs to many people, first and foremost of course the members of the New York Police Department, who put their lives on the line every day to prevent crime and put all they can into catching the perpetrators when major crimes do occur. Also especially deserving of credit are former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., former Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani, Mayor Bloomberg and every police commissioner to have served under them.
That includes the current commissioner, Ray Kelly, who has done more with less, as NYPD manpower has fallen from its peak of 41,000 to less than 35,000 officers and its duties have widened.
One policy of Kelly’s that has drawn withering criticism is stop and frisk, the practice of officers questioning people they deem suspicious and checking them for weapons, drugs or other illegal possessions when they believe it’s warranted. Many say the policy unfairly targets members of certain ethnic communities and that the benefits are not worth the cost to civil rights. Last week The New York World, the online news outlet produced at the Columbia School of Journalism, some of whose stories run in Queens in the Chronicle, reported stop-and-frisk figures block-by-block citywide. The second highest number of stops, 1,546, took place on a block in Jamaica. Police only seized two guns in all those cases.
It’s numbers like those that make the policy so vulnerable to criticism. But no one can say how many guns never left the house due to criminals’ fear of being stopped. Now Kelly is making some reforms designed to protect the innocent while not throwing out the whole package, such as reiterating that racial profiling is forbidden, having executive officers at each precinct review each stop and retraining officers on how to make a proper stop.
We agree that’s the way to go, rather than ending the practice, as Bloomberg and Kelly rightly refuse to do. Crime prevention is one area where the city can’t afford any backsliding. It’s easy to say the NYPD should drop the policy from the safety of, say, a City Council seat, but it’s another thing when you’re walking alone at night and the guy across the street decides not to rob you because he left his gun at home. Fear of being caught is a great deterrent.