Brooklyn Love, one of my inveterate correspondents/commenters, brings up a point I'd been meaning to make myself for a few weeks now, predicting that the long, dramatic decline in crime that has made New York City the safest big city in America is about to come to an end.
In point of fact, it's already happening: crime rates, especially for robbery and murder, are up significantly so far in 2008, the first time that's happened in 15 years. It's probably no coincidence that the police force has lost thousands of officers and is unable to attract sufficient numbers of new recruits, not least because of, as Brooklyn Love points out, the ludicrous and insulting 25k starting pay being offered, a figure which prospective police officers can easily double by moving to another city.
Opponents of zero tolerance policing may disagree with me, of course, but I regularly see signs that standards are slipping back toward those of the bad old days. No, it's nothing like the South African-style chaos which appears to be overtaking provincial cities like Oakland or San Francisco; by comparison, New York City still seems eminently safe and civilized. But increasingly I'm seeing people openly drinking on the subway - not even bothering with the traditional brown bag - a phenomenon which had all but disappeared since the Giuliani era.
A small thing in itself, granted, but the underlying message is that people no longer expect the subways to be patrolled by police, and when I stopped to think about it, I realized it had been months since I'd seen an officer on a train, whereas it used to be a regular occurrence. Yes, we're still a long way from the 1980s, when the Warriors-style graffiti that covered every subway car sent the message that nobody cares and anything goes, but it can still be the beginning of a slippery slope.
One of the biggest problems in policing New York has long been the unhappy fact that vigorous enforcement of the law almost inevitably seems to impact disproportionately on certain groups, most notably in the African-American community. That the effects of this are not entirely negative - i.e., for every Sean Bell tragedy, there are thousands of African-Americans able to walk the streets safely in what were once no-go neighborhoods - seems lost on race-obsessed cop haters like Al Sharpton or the Voice's Sean Gardiner and Nat Hentoff. But it's an unfortunate reality that in New York, as in nearly every large urban area, a large majority of the kind of street crimes that most threaten public safety and security are committed by young African-American and Latino men. For the police to focus their crime prevention efforts elsewhere in some misguided feelgood public relations exercise would be both counterintuitive and counterproductive.
One of the biggest advances of the Giuliani-Bloomberg era has been the departure from the PC tokenism and introduction of realism into police practices, which makes it all the more bewildering that Mayor Mike would retreat into wishful thinking and mealy-mouthed pol-speak when it comes to the current personnel crisis on the NYPD. The mayor is massively successful and experienced businessman; he couldn't possibly fail to be aware that you can't maintain an effective police force on the cheap, and that even if the city is in financial difficulties (which it most manifestly is not; the new budget projects a $4 billion surplus), public safety is the last place to be cutting corners.
Could it be that Bloomberg, his presidential ambitions now extinguished, is also losing interest in the day-to-day running of New York City? One hopes not, but instead of coming up with concrete proposals to beef up police numbers, the mayor has confined himself to sniping at the PBA, contending it's "their fault" for insisting on an inequitable labor contract. Not the kind of leadership I'd like to expect of Bloomberg, but maybe Brooklyn Love was right all along and the mayor has thus far been the beneficiary of little more than "luck and timing." For all of our sakes, though, I hope not.