Robert McGuire speaks to Chronicle 1

Robert McGuire

At police meetings with the community, there are occasionally people in the audience who lament the current state of city safety and remember the old days when they were younger and safer.

“There’s two things about safety,” said Robert McGuire, the city police commissioner from 1978 to 1983. “One is the objective facts and the statistics. Then you have to drill down to individual neighborhoods. But then there’s just that overall general perception, ‘Do people feel safe?’ And sometimes it’s connected to what’s going on in reality and sometimes it’s not.”

The numbers show the city is far safer now.

“We’re not in the same universe in terms of what was going on in the late ’70s, early ’80s, a tremendous amount of crime throughout the city and I think a general perception that nobody felt safe,” he said in an interview.

McGuire noted that everybody is aware crimes are committed but in general almost all communities in the city are safer.

In 1980, the city set a then-record with more reported murders, robberies, burglaries and thefts of automobiles and other items than in any other year since the department began compiling the numbers.

McGuire said he would be surprised when he would leave his house on the Upper East Side and there weren’t one or two cars on his block with the windows knocked out.

The city reached a peak with 2,245 murders in 1990. In 2018, it hit a new low with 289.

What would he have said if someone told him New York would become the safest large city in America in less than 40 years?

“I would’ve said you were smoking some of that marijuana that they’re talking about,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would’ve thought that was possible.”

McGuire said the underlying reasons for the decrease are still elusive, especially as the population has increased over time. He did praise his successors.

“I give a lot of credit to Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton for marshaling the forces at the same time when they were required to deal with the terrorism issue that appeared before them,” McGuire said.

He said they helped bring crime fighting into the 21st century with technology, including social media, security cameras and CompStat.

“I never had real-time information about any criminal activity,” McGuire said. “We were always 30, 45, 60 days behind.”

He said mandatory sentencing and the end of the crack epidemic helped lower crime.

“If you arrest Bob and he’s committed 50 robberies last year and you pull him off the street and put him in jail, you’ve stopped those 50 robberies,” McGuire said. “If you then arrest Bill behind him and he’s done 25 burglaries ... you know you’re sort of reducing crime by putting people in jail for their specific crimes. But what appeared to happen ... people were going away and it became apparent in neighborhoods that a whole group of people were being incarcerated for a substantial period of time at which point other people who might be inclined to commit crimes said, ‘This isn’t worth it. I’m not going to do that.’”

Another change from McGuire’s era is that minorities now make up the majority of the police force.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know that the Police Department gets enough credit for that. It’s unusual to be able to do it in a way that doesn’t rock the boat institutionally. And I think the Police Department’s done a good job of keeping a meritocracy, opening up opportunities for women and for minority, both men and women, to become police officers and make a contribution.”

McGuire added, “You can’t have a force of police officers that don’t reflect the community. That’s been proven around the country.”

He said the department has done a good job of getting minorities into all ranks.

“When you walk around now you see the diversity reflected in the Police Department which really wasn’t true 50, 60 years ago,” McGuire said.

The NYPD rolled out its neighborhood policing philosophy, with each precinct split into four sectors with two Neighborhood Coordination Officers assigned to each. Previous strategies included the Community Patrol Officer Program and impact zone enforcement.

McGuire notes that the Neighborhood Stabilization Units he implemented were a forerunner of the NCO philosophy. That was after the city rehired approximately 5,000 cops following the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and didn’t want to put them back into units that already existed.

“We created community policing,” McGuire said. “We didn’t have enough cops to really do it adequately but it was really the first primitive stages.”

To say McGuire had been an unlikely man for the job of New York City police commissioner would be “understating it” in his words.

He played basketball at Iona College and later graduated from St. John’s University’s law school. He became a defense attorney. Some lawyers became commissioner but those were usually prosecutors.

“I had run a poverty program in East Harlem which hardly qualifies you to be police commissioner,” McGuire said.

His father was a longtime chief in the department so there were lots of connections. The future commissioner worked for Robert Morgenthau as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in the 1960s and had the McGuire & Lawler Managing Partner firm starting in 1969. McGuire represented cops accused of corruption during the Knapp Commission hearings.

After Ed Koch was elected mayor in 1977, there was a search committee for police commissioner and McGuire’s name was submitted.

McGuire recalled the committee chairman told him a candidate had already been selected but wanted McGuire to consider a role as deputy mayor for criminal justice. McGuire said he was only interested in being commissioner and would rather continue his law practice.

He was interviewed by Koch, who told him the following day that McGuire had a great interview but had never managed a large organization.

“I spontaneously said to him, ‘You’re worried about me? You’re going to be running the City of New York and you don’t know what you’re doing,’” McGuire recalled.

He made that comment figuring he wouldn’t get the job anyway, but fortunately Koch laughed and offered McGuire the position the next day.

McGuire said he had a “wonderful relationship” with Koch, who was very supportive of the police.

He did acknowledge Koch had a complicated relationship with minorities, though he said the mayor was not a racist.

“I don’t know whether it was a blind spot or he just didn’t understand that, particularly African-American people in the United States are still dealing with the residue of one of the great, terrible things in our society and in our history, which is slavery and racism,” McGuire said.

McGuire stepped away from the job at the end of 1983.

“It’s a very difficult job,” he said. “I think we buried 30 police officers shot and killed in those six years. And it takes its toll. Every one of them.”

McGuire had been against the death penalty but changed his mind after the onslaught of police officers killed.

“I looked into the eyes of the widows and they said, ‘Is the person who did this to my husband going to be punished?’”

And now: “I concluded I’m not sure it works,” McGuire said. “I’m not sure it deters additional, future crimes. But we are responding to the incredible tragedy and sadness.”

He said Koch was the epitome of a New Yorker: feisty, in your face, with a let’s-get-it-done attitude. In 2011, the Queensboro Bridge was officially renamed in honor of the three-term mayor.

“He was a Manhattan guy,” McGuire said. “He loved the city in all of its untidiness. What he didn’t like was upstate New York or leaving the city.”

McGuire also spoke about Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, whom he described as a friend and “fine public servant.” Brown will retire June 1 and in the race to replace him, candidates are expressing more interest in rehabilitation as opposed to prosecution. But could that lead to an uptick in crime?

“That is a concern that has to be watched,” McGuire said. “The legalization of drugs, alternatives to incarceration. These may be very healthy. Our society may have matured and may have stabilized to a point where that’s appropriate.”

He pointed out that the city had aggressive stop-and-frisk policies which brought out a negative counter reaction, “especially from young minority people bearing the brunt of it, even if they were on their way to Stuyvesant High School.”

McGuire said the pendulum then began to swing the other way.

“Have we matured as a society so much that we really don’t need as much law enforcement and criminal enforcement and incarceration? Human nature being what it is, the pendulum starts to swing the other way,” he said. “We’re going to now see how that plays out.”

If it works, McGuire says, everyone in the city will be beneficiaries.

“The only downside is if we let these things go too far and all of a sudden we end up with a resurgence of crime,” he said.

McGuire also referenced an article he read about legalizing marijuana and how the effects aren’t really known yet.

“We’ve examined alcoholism to death,” he said. “We’ve examined heroin. We’ve really not examined marijuana. We don’t know what it does to people. We don’t know what it does to young people both in social terms and in brain alteration terms and yet we’re talking about legalizing it all over the country.”

McGuire is vice chairman of the Police Athletic League. With centers all over the city, PAL gives out scholarships to kids and helps with computer skills as well as sports and theater programs. He noted the Edward Byrne Center in Jamaica, named for the late officer killed in the line of duty in 1988. Byrne’s father worked for McGuire’s father in the Police Department.

There’s one more thing about McGuire:

“Both my kids married psychiatrists,” he said. “I don’t know if they were trying to give me a message or not.”

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