Murder Control and Public Safety
By Maxwell Pereira

Some time ago I wrote about ‘zero tolerance’ and on how New York, once the world’s murder capital, managed to control its murders phenomenally by applying the principles of zero tolerance to crime control. Not only murders, but a decline also achieved under all heads of crime. In January 1997 when I had asked Howard Safir – 39th Police Commissioner of the City of New York then in the chair, how he had achieved this, his one answer: “Zero Tolerance!” “Go after the petty crimes too” he had said, “the major ones will be taken care of automatically.”

That was during the Mayor-ship of Rudolph W. Giuliani – a man who made crime-fighting a signature issue and whose reputation as a crime buster was considered difficult to be surpassed by anyone, or by any standards. This and the leadership he provided in the tragi-trauma period in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has now catapulted Rudi Giuliani as a potential Republican candidate for the next US Presidential elections. Or so the American media reports.

New York’s falling crime rate and the consequent instilling in its citizens of a sense of security not only has stood Giuliani in good stead, but today this focus on crime control is viewed as a potential election weapon for his successor Michael R. Bloomberg too, when he seeks re-election to the office of Mayor of New York.

There were big declines in the number of murders annually under Giuliani. In 1993, the year before Giuliani took office, there were 1946 murders in New York. By the time he left at the end of 2001, that number had dropped to 714. A feat considered incredible – enough to motivate Nikhil Kumar, the then police commissioner in Delhi, to suggest I call on the New York police commissioner during my visit there and ask him how this was achieved.

But then it wasn’t cakewalk for Mayor Bloomberg who had to move out from under Giuliani’s long shadow to make his own mark on public safety. And yet he has achieved a 29 percent decrease in crime citywide since 2001, according to FBI data outpacing the decline in the nation as a whole, generating widespread support for the mayor’s public safety policies.

This he has achieved with a New York police force with less number of officers, less money and more work than it did before, as a consequence to diverted priorities. The police department was forced to divert substantial resources to antiterrorism, assigning 1000 officers, at a cost of $900,000 a week in overtime pay, to protect major landmarks and transportation hubs (what we would list among vital installations here in India). By 2004 this annual cost of the antiterrorism effort had grown to $164 million. And due to budget cuts the department gets less today – only $3.58 billion against $3.7 in 2001, with the number of officers reduced to 37,000 from 40,000.

Bloomberg’s commissioner of police, Raymond W. Kelly, who replaced Safir, was no new hand. He was police commissioner earlier from 1992-94 and then in-charge of the US Treasury Department’s law enforcement agencies. The federal government experience has stood him well now, in shaping the city’s nascent counter-terrorism strategy – an all-consuming priority currently.

Police strategies included an expansion of the ‘compstat’ originally conceived by Giuliani to allow precinct commanders to track and respond to major crime trends. It now includes misdemeanour, police overtime and abuse complaints, and using the information in different ways – not only for mapping crime, but analysing data to pinpoint the people responsible for a disproportionate share of defenses in specific neighbourhoods. “Operation Spotlight” looks for people with three or more arrests in the preceding one year and flags them once they re-enter the court system, often resulting in longer jail sentences. “Operation Impact” identifies high-crime zones to flood those areas with police officers. Extra police presence has worked, and murders during Bloomberg’s period have reduced to 572 in 2004.

In a unique strategy, distress calls to police at 911 are digitised for a replay to judges hearing the case to enable them to assess the gravity of arraignment, for effective impact especially while considering bail for a suspect. Increased use of DNA evidence to obtain indictments against yet-to-be-identified rape suspects has helped. A “real-time crime centre” has been created, designed to quickly get information on potential suspects into the hands of detectives or officers responding to a crime scene.

While some criminologists argue that no politician or police department can credibly lay claim to single-handedly beating back crime in their city, others do concede that the New York police are using a very strategic approach to crime control, to make it problem-oriented, pursued in a very intelligent way.

Against this, the Indian scenario: Why is it that crime-fighting, effective crime control and public safety are never an election issue in our country? Is it because of the hundreds who with record of frequent commission of crime get elected to parliament? Is it because of the inability of the system to get such people indicted/convicted and to keep them incarcerated in jail?

To be sure, whenever major crimes occur, or law and order issues crop up, they do get reflected in regional assemblies and the nation’s parliament – only to remain as slanging matches between the ruling and the opposition parties, and never an election issue to determine the destiny of candidates. I say again, what is it within us as a people, that makes us elect criminals – if that be the definition for people who have committed crimes and been arrested for it – to parliament? How then can we expect such lawbreakers to enact laws for the rest of us follow – laws that cannot be broken?

October 07, 2005: 950 words: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// and


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