I began my newest book, “The Profession,” with a poignant quotation from the late, great cop and former NYPD First Deputy Commissioner John Timoney: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. And those who study policing know we don’t study history.”
John’s words ring true today, but perhaps with an important change. It’s the politicians who are not studying history — and the public who is doomed because of it.
In many ways, the crime and disorder New York City is experiencing is reminiscent of the city we turned around in the 1990s. It was nearly three decades ago that we saw crime and disorder on the streets, sensational and tragic news headlines and a 1993 mayoral candidate who campaigned on three main issues that every New Yorker was most concerned about: crime, schools and the economy. Sound familiar?
Also familiar are certain areas in the Big Apple more vulnerable to violent crime. Twenty-nine years ago in the 75th Precinct, which covers East New York, Brooklyn, there was a murder every 63 hours. The 75th Precinct was dubbed the “Killing Fields,” or the “Killing Grounds” on the cover of the New York Post.
But we turned things around. The murders, shootings, robberies, assaults and each of the other seven major crime categories dramatically decreased in the 1990s-2000s. That is, until lawmakers began an ill-fated criminal-justice-reform effort in 2019 that has contributed to the largest overall crime increase in a generation.
By the numbers: In 1990, there were 2,246 murders across the five boroughs, a historic high. Yet by the end of 1996, there were fewer than 1,000 homicides recorded, a decline of almost 55%.
Likewise in 1990, there were nearly 6,000 shooting victims, a number that was cut in half by 1996. At the end of 2018, the total number of homicides in the city was below 300 for a second year in a row, and the total number of major crimes was the lowest ever recorded at 95,883.
The 75th Precinct is actually a prime example of how great cops in the NYPD, working with supportive political leadership and aggressive district attorneys, began to create what would become one of the most effective and comprehensive crime-fighting initiatives ever put in place.
In 1994, at the NYPD, we pioneered a crime-reduction program led by some of the best minds in policing like Jack Maple, Louis Anemone and John Timoney — CompStat was born.
Paired with a continued crackdown on quality-of-life crime supported by the theories of the late George Kelling, co-author of “Broken Windows,” crime, disorder and fear in East New York and across the city began to fall dramatically.
In 2014, I was privileged to return to the NYPD for the second time as police commissioner and even more fortunate to be able to assemble a team of great crime fighters, some of whom were with us 20 years earlier. We went back to the basics that worked in the ’90s while being well aware that crime had decreased year after year and understanding intimately why it had declined every year for 20 years.
We also continued to focus on quality-of-life crime, the broken windows that still existed. We added more cops to the force to begin to implement a citywide Neighborhood Policing program to bring Neighborhood Coordination Officers to every community. We also initiated Precision Policing to target the most dangerous criminals responsible for the large part of the violence and partnered with district attorneys to put them in jail. This partnership today is at the very least fractured and at the worst nonexistent with several of the district attorneys.
What the NYPD put in place was lasting. In 2018, New Yorkers, especially the often-underserved residents of East New York, celebrated a 129-day period with not one murder in the 75th Precinct.
I suppose we can blame the police for taking 55 guns off the streets and charging 74 people with those crimes in that neighborhood alone during those 129 days.
The NYPD had crime down to never-seen-before levels, complaints against officers plummeted, and the population in Rikers continued to decrease as crime and criminal behavior were brought under control.
For more than 25 years, crime steadily declined in the city. Until the state Legislature and the City Council passed a series of criminal-justice-reform laws that have proven disastrous. To make matters worse, the majority of city district attorneys continue to coddle the criminals and cast aside the victims of crime.
As Mayor Adams continues to rightly press Albany politicians to make the needed fixes, they’re missing in action, and public safety circles the drain.
It’s not a secret on the street that there are no consequences for lawless and even violent behavior. Last year, more than 90% of the 60,000 felony arrests resulted in no jail or prison time or even probation. A mere 3% of arrests ended in prison sentences. Though the NYPD stats show that arrests are up nearly 30% in the 75th Precinct this year as it leads the city in shootings, New Yorkers must ask: How many of those felons have been released back on to the streets to hold their neighborhoods hostage?
In the midst of the current crises it’s hard to be an optimist, but I have always been one. We turned it around once before. There’s a roadmap from the past to repair the current crises. And while the NYPD continues to make arrest after arrest — our elected officials and district attorneys better hit the history books and find common ground with the police and the public or just maybe in future elections many of them, let’s hope, will be history.
Former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is the author of “The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America.”