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ICE IS FALLING FROM THE NEW YORK sky, but New York City police captain Thomas Lawrence looks as if he's been out in the sun too long. It's just past 7 on the third morning of the new year, and Lawrence, who runs the 10th Precinct in Midtown Manhattan, is standing on a podium in the command control center at police headquarters--the "war room." His face is bright red and a little clammy. His body is wired up tight. He is surrounded by sheaves of statistics, screens filled with computerized maps and charts and N.Y.P.D. bosses, who, amazingly, seem to know as much about crime in his precinct as he does. "It's been 30 days since we've seen you, Tom," says Chief of Department Louis Anemone, a dark tone creeping into his voice. "And we're seeing an increase in robberies."

"What's the pattern here, Cap?" asks Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple, the department's thickset, dandyish crime guru. Using a laser pen, Maple scrawls on an overhead map, tracing robbery patterns the way John Madden diagrams football plays. Maple circles an archipelago of red dots: muggings along Ninth Avenue. "What are you doing to take these guys out?"

Lawrence launches into a first-rate description of his anticrime efforts, but the ceo of this organization--a slim, well-tended man who wears his reading glasses slung low on an impressive nose--barely looks up from his papers. Police Commissioner William Bratton designed these Comstat (short for computer statistics) meetings as a way to make his 76 far-flung precinct commanders--and 38,000 cops--accountable for the crime rate. Nobody had ever done it before, and it's working: total felonies in New York City are down 27% in just two years, to levels not seen since the early 1970s.

Crime had been falling gently since 1989, thanks to community policing strategies, a thinning in the ranks of the crackhead army and thousands of new prison beds and new cops. But as Comstat took hold in May 1994, the drop became a giddy double-digit affair, plunging farther and faster than it has done anywhere else in the country, faster than any cultural or demographic trend could explain. For two years, crime has declined in all 76 precincts. Murder is down 39%, auto theft 35%. Robberies are off by a third, burglaries by a quarter. No wonder Comstat has become the Lourdes of policing, drawing pilgrim cops from around the world--Baltimore, London, Frankfurt, Zimbabwe, Taiwan--for a taste of New York's magic.

If those waters seem bitter to some--cops who can't take Comstat's pressure, black and Latino leaders who say some of Bratton's cops carry his aggressive style too far--"that's too damn bad," says Bratton. Success isn't pretty, even for his troops. Effective precinct commanders such as Lawrence (crime was down 15% in his precinct in 1995) merely get grilled to a medium rare at Comstat. Those who show up unprepared, without coherent strategies to reduce crime, are fried crisp, then stripped of their commands. Half of all precinct bosses have been replaced under Bratton. Those who survive get unprecedented autonomy but have to demonstrate extraordinary results. Some feel pressured to shave their stats; as the New York Daily News reported last fall, a commander in the Bronx told his troops that assault arrests could be made only when victims suffered broken bones, not fat lips or black eyes. Crimes in the category plummeted in his precinct.

"You have delivered big time," says Bratton, standing to address his Comstat managers. He reminds them that when he was hired away from the Boston Police Department in January 1994 by Mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani, who had made crime and quality of life his major campaign themes, Bratton had asked for an immediate 10% decrease in crime (the request was met with derision and disbelief). "In the end, we got 12%," he notes. "In 1995 I raised the bar to a 15% reduction, and you gave me 17. Last year you accounted for 60% of the national crime decline--all from one city. You proved that police can change public behavior. For that you should be proud." Bratton pauses, then snaps, "Now get your feet off the desk. It's 1996." In the new year, he says, he wants an additional 10% reduction--more than even Giuliani expects. If he gets it, New York's crime rate will be half what it was five years ago. That, he says later, "should show the criminologists who refuse to give police credit."

Some experts doubt that Bratton is responsible for any of New York's crime drop. "It's like trying to take credit for an eclipse," says former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Others are watching Bratton with mouths agape. "I've never seen anything like it," says University of Maryland criminologist Lawrence Sherman, who has studied 30 police departments in the past 25 years. "Police chiefs routinely say, 'Don't expect us to bring down crime, because we don't control its causes. But Bratton says just the opposite. It's the most focused crime-reduction effort I've seen. It will take time before we can say how much effect it has had, but this clearly is new. When I sat in at Comstat, I thought, 'Bratton is using crime data for management by objective--a basic idea that's never been tried before.'"

There's more to the Giuliani-Bratton strategy, of course, than terrorizing captains at early-morning meetings. Though their predecessors, Mayor David Dinkins and Kelly, deserve real credit for putting more cops on the beat, Giuliani instructed Bratton to do something Dinkins would never have allowed: use those cops to crack down on minor offenders, public drunks, potheads, those who urinate on the street, aggressive panhandlers, graffiti scribblers and "squeegee pests," who converged on cars at stoplights to clean windshields for spare change.

This quality of life campaign tested a principle that Giuliani and Bratton had believed for years: the "Broken Windows" theory, first put forth in 1982 by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that minor violations create a disorderly environment that encourages more serious crime. "I chose Bill Bratton," says Giuliani, "because he agreed with the Broken Windows theory." Sure enough, as arrests for small offenses rocketed, New York's streets became notably more civil. Then Maple, who has been Bratton's aide-de-camp and crime strategist since Bratton was slashing subway crime as New York's Transit Police chief in the early 1990s, proposed an intriguing corollary to the theory.

He wanted to go after shootings, and he knew that gun possession and drug dealing were intertwined. "It's relatively hard for a uniformed patrolman to catch someone carrying drugs," Maple says. "But as we'd seen, it's easy to catch someone for an open can of beer on the street." Thus what the cops call "beer and piss patrol" became a tactic for apprehending more serious criminals. "Your open beer lets me check your ID," says Maple. "Now I can radio the precinct for outstanding warrants or parole violations. Maybe I bump against that bulge in your belt; with probable cause, I can frisk you." Civil libertarians have been screaming, but shootings, gun murders and other signs of firearms use are down--proof, Bratton says, that thugs are leaving the guns at home.

This is a significant departure from the service-oriented "community policing" introduced during the Dinkins administration, when beat cops were encouraged to be problem solvers for a neighborhood. (Now the patrolmen funnel these issues to their precinct commanders.) The Bratton version of community policing is to devise strategies that target specific criminal behavior. Special squads are dispatched to hit high-crime hot spots, while others track down illegal guns. Precinct detectives now interrogate suspects not just about the crimes they may have committed but also about other gun and drug dealers they know. Eventually, Bratton believes, all the policies begin to dovetail, and crime drops through the floor. "Most criminals commit multiple crimes," he says. "We're processing crime data faster than ever before, so we can identify patterns early and stop them after three crimes instead of 30. If you do that city-wide, you'll knock the crime rate down."

But what some rank-and-file cops refer to as "Bratton taking the cuffs off us" has increased force, abuse and discourtesy complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board 30%. Many of the complaints have never been investigated by the CCRB and are impossible to evaluate. Still, some New Yorkers fear the N.Y.P.D.'s new swagger. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with this style," says Kelly. "It goes to the question of what kind of policing we want in America. You can probably shut down just about all crime, if you're willing to burn down the village to save it. Eventually, I think, there will be a backlash, and crime will go back up. But Bill will be gone by then."

Asked about persistent rumors that he'll soon jump ship, Bratton says even if he stays only another year, "that's enough time to consolidate our gains, so that long after I'm gone, my successors won't retreat." As for Kelly's burning-village imagery, Giuliani and Bratton dismiss such talk as sour grapes, pointing to the benefits of reduced crime being enjoyed by those hardest hit by it: Latinos and African Americans in the poorest parts of New York City. "The crime reduction has been across the board, in every neighborhood," says Bratton. That means four fewer people killed on the wealthy Upper East Side, but 51 fewer killed in war-torn East New York. The people who live there have noticed the change. "It used to be that I was throwing myself on the floor with my son all the time," says Elisandra Beltran, 27, "because of the bullets flying through my window. But now I haven't seen a bullet hole in a year." She doesn't much care who gets the credit, just as long as the bullets don't fly anymore.

COLOR PHOTO: MARK PETERSON--SABA FOR TIME NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION: The commissioner, visiting a Manhattan station house, wants an additional 10% drop in crime [William Bratton and others]

TWO COLOR CHARTS Major felonies in New York City Source: New York City Police Department [Charts not available--Graphs show burglaries, car thefts, robberies, assaults, rapes and murders from 1975 through 1995] COLOR PHOTO: MARK PETERSON--SABA FOR TIME THE BEAT GOES ON: Despite Bratton's tough policies, some community patrol officers, like John Cayenne of Brooklyn's 77th Precinct, still have a soft touch [Police officer John Cayenne with children]

COLOR CHART Murders 1994 1995 Percent change Seattle 71 48 -32% San Antonio 194 140 -28% New York City 1,571 1,182 -25% San Diego 119 94 -21% Houston 379 304 -20% St. Louis 248 203 -18% Miami 129 111 -14% New Orleans 421 364 -14% Chicago 930 823 -12% Washington 399 360 -10% Atlanta 153 145 -5% Dallas 291 276 -5% Detroit 525 514 -2% Los Angeles 836 828 -1% Phoenix 244 244 0% Baltimore 321 325 1% Denver 85 90 6% Boston 85 98 15% Minneapolis 62 97 56%

Source: Local police departments