In past mayoral elections, crime has been one of the biggest issues for residents across the five boroughs. But with the city safer than it’s been in decades, the candidates have mostly focused on continuing the policies of the past eight years, with a few minor adjustments.
The combination of falling crime and budget deficits has resulted in a record low number of police on staff, leaving many precincts with limited resources. Salaries for NYPD officers are lower than in other major U.S. cities, and high retirement rates coupled with few new recruits could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the city to maintain a top-notch force in the years ahead. Allocating more money to police in tough economic times might seem excessive with crime so low, but the high-crime 1970s are still top of mind for many residents and elected officials.
Another frequent topic of controversy during the past several years has been the trampling civil liberties in the name of public safety. For example, police have stopped, questioned and frisked a record number of New Yorkers since 2001, when the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was required to release data on the so-called stop and frisk program. In the three-month period from January to March 2009, officers stopped 171,094 New Yorkers; nine out of 10 times, no charges were brought. That number represents a 22 percent increase from the last three months of 2008. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that a disproportionately high number of those detained were people of color. According to the data, only 16,000 of those stopped were white, while 89,000 were black and 56,000 were Latino.
Finally, with the anniversaries of the September 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina almost upon us, many New Yorkers also wonder if the city is prepared to handle a major natural or man-made disaster.
We asked the candidates to tell us how they would continue to fight crime, terrorism and prepare for emergencies, while maintaining New Yorkers’ civil liberties and balancing the budget.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg
running as a Republican and Independent
Under Bloomberg, the NYPD will have dwindled from 41,000 officers a decade ago to just over 34,300 by the end of this year. Yet crime has dropped another 30 percent since Bloomberg took office, with a 12 percent decrease since the beginning of this year alone. Despite those numbers, fears remain that a small police force will find it increasingly difficult to do its job. The mayor has countered those charges by saying that he is focusing on increasing the ability of police officers to catch criminals with new technology, like the “Real Time Crime Center,” which conducts rapid analysis of homicides, shootings and other serious incidents citywide in order to provide a real-time assessment of emerging crime, crime patterns and potential suspects. This year, the mayor also worked to give 911 and 311 the ability to receive digital videos photographs from the public.
In 2006, the starting salaries for police officers went down to a shocking $25,000. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that low starting salaries harmed the NYPD’s ability to attract and retain top candidates. Last year, Bloomberg signed a deal with the police union to raise salaries by 20 percent, and gave rookie cops an increase from $36,000 to $40,000 a year.
Stop and Frisk
Bloomberg has largely avoided addressing critics’ complaints of racial profiling. A spokesperson for the campaign said in an email that, “the department has focused on making sure that all police officers have the training they need to recognize suspicious activity. Police officers are called on to make difficult decisions and, the vast majority of the time, they make the right one.”
Rather than address this issue head-on, the Bloomberg campaign highlighted its efforts to build relationships between police and the communities they patrol, as well the administration’s push to make the NYPD as ethnically diverse as the city it protects.
Bloomberg led an unprecedented effort against illegal guns in New York City, going after not only local criminals, but taking his cause to the state and federal levels as well. His “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” coalition has gained support from more than 450 mayors in 40-plus states. While critics have said the mayor is too focused on federal legislation, Bloomberg argues that New York City’s streets are being flooded with illegal guns from out-of-state dealers, and the way to stop that is to push the federal government to be tougher on criminals. He wants state legislation to triple the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of illegal guns, and he is leading the charge to get states to eliminate the loophole that allows those convicted of gun crimes to avoid jail time.
Bloomberg increased the number of NYPD detectives assigned to the national Joint Terrorism Task Force—a collaboration between the FBI and state and local law enforcement agencies—from 17 to 125. To protect the city from other threats, the administration began underwater monitoring of tunnels and air screening for anthrax and other dangerous pathogens. On subways and buses, police have upped patrols and instituted random bag checks. According to a spokesperson, the city, working with the FBI, has successfully uncovered and prevented seven terrorist plots.
The administration is also trying to prepare for responding to another 9/11-type attack. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) released the “Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness Strategy,” a roadmap of the department’s current and future efforts. This past May, the Office of Emergency Management and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hosted “Operation Safe PATH 2009,” a multi-agency exercise to test the city’s and the Port Authority’s ability to respond to an improvised explosive device on a New Jersey-bound PATH train.
Under Bloomberg, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) launched “Ready New York,” an educational campaign that encourages New Yorkers to prepare for emergencies. It is based on three guiding principles: knowing the hazards in New York City, making a household disaster plan and stocking emergency supplies. Ready New York has nine multilingual publications, numerous public service announcements, multimedia advertising campaigns, web content, a speakers’ bureau, a reprinting program, corporate partnerships and community outreach. Bloomberg also instituted a citywide expansion of Notify NYC, the city’s emergency communication system. Participants in Notify NYC receive emergency alerts, like AMBER Alerts and natural disasters. Subscribers also have the option of registering for Significant Event Notifications, which provide informational advisories about less-severe emergency events that may still cause local disruptions, like extended mass transit disruptions and major utility outages. Public health notifications and non-emergency advisories about unscheduled suspensions of alternate side parking rules and public school closures and delays are also available. During National Preparedness Month, OEM distributed 1,000 free “Go Bags”—on-the-go kits with various emergency resources—to New Yorkers who signed up for emergency tips and information.
Natural Disaster Preparedness
The Department of Environmental Protection is preparing the Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is located close to sea level, for the effects of climate change. There are plans to raise electrical equipment, including pump motors, circuit breakers and controls, to higher elevations. There is also a neighborhood-based education effort underway in low-lying communities that are most vulnerable to climate change and hurricane impacts. The Office of Emergency Management redesigned the “Coastal Storm Plan” for a Category 4 hurricane that makes landfall in Atlantic City, N.J., and hits New York City head-on. The plan focuses on seven components: storm tracking and notification, decision making, evacuation procedures, shelter planning, security and stockpiling logistics, public information dissemination, and recovery and restoration operations. In November 2006, New York City became the country’s first major city to be certified as StormReady, a designation given by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., Democrat
Thompson said he would not cut police staff levels, despite a major city budget deficit that amounts to more than $5 billion. “We must never again make the mistake we made in the 1970s, when difficult financial times caused government officials to slash essential city services like police and sanitation,” Thompson said in an email. “Doing so led to more crime, a diminished quality of life and an exodus from our city—effectively creating a vicious cycle of negative growth and declining city revenues.” Thompson did not say if he would hire more police officers.
Thompson said he was a strong supporter of the Bloomberg administration’s negotiation for increased police salaries, particularly starting salaries, earlier this year. But Thompson wants to go farther and raise police salaries so that they are on par with other major cities. “We must continue to push for higher police salaries in order to ensure that we are able to attract the best and brightest to police our city,” he said in an email. “The hardest working police force in the world—in perhaps the most target-rich environment in the world—must be paid accordingly.”
Stop and Frisk
Like Bloomberg, Thompson mostly evaded tough questions about the use of racial profiling in stop and frisk situations. Thompson has said that he is “concerned” about the reports released earlier this year that showed a record numbers of New Yorkers being stopped and frisked by police officers, with a majority being black and Latino. “We need to balance using all available police procedures to protect the public while also protecting individuals’ civil rights,” Thompson said in an email. He did not say whether he would continue the program or not.
Thompson believes that tough gun control laws are important. He said that if elected, he would create a multi-faceted crime agenda with the focus on putting more police officers on the streets. “It does us no good, for example, to promote strict gun control laws if we don’t have enough police on our streets enforcing those laws,” he said in an email.
Thompson praised Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for creating the Counterterrorism Bureau and pledged to continue similar efforts in preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack against New York City. He also said the city needs to focus its efforts on coordinating information and efforts between local, state and federal authorities. “We learned two incredibly valuable lessons in the aftermath of 9/11,” he said in an email. “First, our city’s inter-agency communication mechanisms and protocols must be improved—an area in which we have made progress. Second, we must do everything we can to protect and equip our first-responders.”
While praising the efforts of the Office of Emergency Management, Thompson has also suggested that the city explore the use of new media technology to improve emergency preparedness. Perhaps social networking sites could be used in the event of an emergency.
Natural Disaster Preparedness
Thompson said that New York City should be collaborating with other coastal cities nationwide to learn how to prepare for a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina.
Council Member Tony Avella, Democrat
Avella wants to return police staff levels to the previous record highs. Continuing a policy of staff cuts or allowing low levels of staff to remain stagnant will only risk an increase crime, he said.
Avella said one of the major challenges facing the NYPD is low morale. Noting that police are often the target of frustration by many city residents, rightly or wrongly, Avella said he would work on increasing respect and appreciation for New York City’s police force. To that end, Avella said salaries should be similar to those of police officers in Long Island and Westchester. Otherwise, New York City runs the risk of losing its best officers. “You can’t ask people to put their life on the line for a salary that doesn’t support their family, given the high cost of living in New York City,” Avella said. “Who is going to apply for that job?”
Where would the funding come from? Avella said he would look for areas of waste in the budget and trim the fat. He also said NYPD salaries should be a top priority when it comes to city spending.
Stop and Frisk
Avella believes that the next mayor must seriously investigate the stop and frisk program to see if it is truly targeting blacks and Latinos. If elected, he has pledged to appoint a deputy mayor for human rights, and said that looking into the NYPD’s stop and frisk program would be the job of such an appointee. Avella added that if racial profiling is occurring, he believes it likely stems from the upper echelons of the police department, rather than police officers on the street.
Avella said that New York City has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, so unlike Bloomberg, he would not focus his efforts on federal legislation. “As mayor, I would be more concentrated on the city and the state than on the country,” he said.
Avella’s anti-crime platform revolves around restoring community-based policing. He wants to assign more officers to walk a beat, so that the officer can develop a relationship with the community. When officers walked a beat, Avella explained, they became intimately familiar with the ethnic and cultural makeup of a neighborhood, developed ties with residents and community leaders and were able to foster a better channel of communication between neighborhoods and the police department. Patrolling city streets in cars does not work the same way as a walking beat, the Council member argues.
Avella said it is hard to comment on the city’s level of preparedness for another terrorist attack because most of that knowledge is in the hands of the mayor and police commissioner. Overall, however, he doesn’t think residents are prepared. The federal government, he added, has not done enough to help New York City.
Avella has criticized the mayor’s efforts to get residents to volunteer for emergency response teams without giving them the proper funds or training to make such efforts effective. He also said the volunteer response teams are not allowed to move out until they have word from the city. “Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose?” Avella asked. “If there’s a blackout, they can’t go out and start directing traffic until they get a phone call.”
He also said the mayor has not done enough in terms of educating the public on emergency preparedness. Avella’s campaign has been pushing to change the structure of community planning, by giving more power to local community boards and groups. While these groups have primarily focused on issues like zoning and education, local boards could also be responsible for instituting their own local emergency preparedness plans. If elected, Avella pledged to have communities map out their own strategies in case of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other emergency.
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