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Death Takes A Holiday

Through innovative policing, some of America’s former murder capitals have gladly relinquished their title.

June 01, 2003  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash


NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly (in suit and tie) walks Broadway with some of his staff officers.

For decades now, the FBI's crime statistics have painted certain U.S. cities as the nation's murder capitals. Almost anyone who reads newspapers could name these cities from memory. But an unusual thing has been happening on the streets of America. The murder rate has been dropping nationwide, and nowhere is it dropping faster than on the streets of America's formerly most dangerous cities.

Manhattan Murder Mystery


An unusual murder story has been unraveling in New York City. While other major cities have shown slight fluctuations in homicide rates, some up, some down, the Big Apple has the lowest homicide rate in 40 years.

The extraordinary decline in homicides in New York is clearly evident from the last decade of statistics. A total of 2,245 people were murdered in the city in 1990. In 2000, that body count dropped to 671, in 2001 to 648 (not counting the World Trade Center homicides), and last year to 580. In short, 74 percent fewer people were slain in the nation's largest city last year than in 1990.

Comparing New York City's 74 percent decline in homicides to the national average of 33 percent begs the question, why did death take a holiday in New York City?

According to Raymond Kelly, commissioner of the New York Police Department, a lot of the credit for the Big Apple's declining murder rate goes to good policing and innovative police procedures.

"While the crime rate goes up in other cities, ours continues to go down," Kelly says. "I think it has to do with focusing on a couple of things. It's looking at the worst of the worst and prioritizing."

One of the priorities of the NYPD is curtailing the violent crime associated with narcotic sales. For example, NYPD officers have made more than 6,000 arrests in one area of Manhattan in what they have named "Operation Crack Down."

Kelly says "Crack Down" has been a very successful campaign. "That operation has impacted on drug availability and has, to a certain effect, caused people to go out of the jurisdiction to get drugs. That means if there are drug disputes, they are going on in other places, so we are not having them take place here," he explains.

Another factor that Kelly believes has contributed to lowering the homicide rate is the department's emphasis on low-level crimes. "We are continuing our quality-of-life, minor violations approach," he says. "When you do that, and when you check people's records, you are getting into the recidivist population, and you are taking them off the streets. You take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves."

"Operation Clean Sweep" is another program that Kelly credits with helping dial down the violence in New York's streets. Clean Sweep focuses on panhandling and other minor violations, but Kelly says it also prevents murders. "You would be surprised-even in that universe of people-we are able to get people who are wanted on warrants. The warrant squad may not be going after them, but when they are doing low-level things and they are turning up on warrants, then we are putting those people away," he explains.

Statistical analysis and computer software have also played a role in the NYPD's crime prevention campaigns. The department has used CompStat to target geographic zones that have a high level of violent crimes. In addition, new recruits have been assigned to areas that the borough and precinct commanders have identified as violent zones.

Of course, statistical analysis cuts both ways. And some who have studied the Big Apple's drop in homicides argue that the numbers correlate with improvements in emergency medical care.

In other words, they are arguing that people are still being attacked and even shot, but the E.R. docs are keeping them alive. Kelly says that anyone making this argument should look closer at the numbers. "It's simply not reflected here because our assaults are down as well. If in fact [emergency medical services were the reason for fewer homicides], then it would show up in the assault areas, but that is not the case."

Of course, the drop in homicides could be a temporary statistical anomaly. But Kelly is optimistic that the NYPD can keep the homicide rate down. "Obviously we will do everything we can to do that," he says. "Right now we are a little ahead of last year. But if we continue at this rate, we will still come under."

Down on the Delta


Two years ago New Orleans had the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the United States. At the time, the Crescent City topped a list of 134 U.S. jurisdictions with a homicide rate of 20 per 100,000 residents.

But now Capt. Marlon Defillo of the New Orleans Police Department says the carnage has been scaled back in the city. The key to slowing the violence, according to Defillo, was to realize that much of the bloodshed was geographically concentrated. According to Defillo, 26 percent of all murders in the Big Easy in 2001 occurred in three public housing developments.

After identifying these problem areas, the NOPD took steps to stop the killings. Community policing was implemented, and, according to Defillo, the crime rate in these public housing areas was cut by 75 percent in the first year.

The department also reorganized its personnel around the city. As part of that reorganization, the detective bureau was decentralized, police were put into districts, and commanders in each district were given more resources and tools to combat crime. Defillo says detectives are now working closely with uniform personnel and sharing information.

The results are impressive. So far this year, there has been a 13 percent reduction in violent crimes on the streets of New Orleans.

Unfortunately, there has been an increase in narcotics-related homicides. But the NOPD is trying to reverse that trend by identifying violent narco offenders within the city and focusing on them. "We are going after individuals who are dealing drugs, and we are working with the federal government to prosecute them and ensure that they receive mandatory jail time," Defillo says.

The NOPD has also adopted the broken windows theory of crime prevention. "If we can address the issue of things like broken lighting and abandoned cars, and officers can work as a liaison with other city agencies, people will take more pride in the community and as a result crime will be diminished," Defillo explains.

Rusting Away


Established in the early 1900s as the home for thousands of workers at a massive U.S. Steel plant, Gary, Ind., has waxed and waned with the success of the steel industry. Unfortunately, U.S. Steel isn't what it once was and neither is Gary. The city is what most Americans envision when they hear the term "rust belt."

And over the years along with that decay and decline, Gary has become increasingly violent. In 2001, Gary recorded the second highest homicide rate of any American city with 18.7 per 100,000. But since that low point, Gary is becoming safer.

Garnett Watson, chief of the Gary Police Department, says things are beginning to look better for his city. "Gary was once prosperous and now it is coming back, but there are still extreme pockets of poverty," he explains.

Part of the resurgence of the city is based on what Watson describes as a "real hard, very progressive approach [to policing]." That approach includes teamwork among local, state, and federal officers. "We are attacking street-level crimes and gang-related crime," Watson says. "We are putting serious pressure on them."

Watson adds that bringing the feds into the investigations has paid a special dividend: There is no bail offered when the federal government prosecutes violent offenders. "They leave and once they leave, until their sentence is served, they are not back," he says.

Like many chiefs working in high-violence areas, Watson points a finger at the easy availability of guns as part of the problem. Accordingly, Watson has worked with ATF to perform background searches of all permit holders, some of whom have been discovered to have felony records that should have prevented them from receiving a license. The agencies also tracked every gun used in a violent crime with an attempt to trace them back to the permitted owner.

Gary PD also changed its approach to patrolling problem areas. Three of the department's best supervisors were assigned to an overtime uniform task force that drove in marked cars and went out between 5 p.m. and 2 a.m.

"They would go after people on street corners, dealing, or minor crimes," Watson says. "We seized a ton of guns, made tons of narcotics arrests, and kept pressure on the bad guys."

On the job for only 14 months, Watson says his goal is to have his department reflect the crime rates of the rest of the nation. "Gary is a pretty safe city, if you don't buy drugs, sell drugs, or use drugs," he says.

Tags: Community Policing, Crime Trends, Drug Enforcement, homicides


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