Growing up in New York City in the 1950's and 1960's we were far from immune from violence, but my family felt safe. I was allowed to take buses and subways with my friends from Brooklyn to the Village and all the way up to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The Grand Army Plaza Library and Coney Island were also key destinations. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was lucky to mostly miss New York at its low points in the 1970's. From 1970 to 1981 I went to school and worked in Franklin Indiana, Buffalo, New York, Morgantown, West Virginia and Washington D.C. In 1981 I returned to New York, and with a time out for DC in the mid-1980's, New York City has been my home since then.
When I got back to New York City in 1981, the safe and secure town of my childhood was gone. In its place was a scary and out of control place. Subways routinely derailed, graffiti was everywhere, crime kept going up, and homeless children and their mothers begged on the streets; New York looked down for the count. But as the world learned on September 11, 2001- New Yorkers are a resilient bunch. To their great credit, New Yorkers, along with four determined mayors and enlightened business and labor leaders, brought New York City back from the brink of ruin.
It starts with Mayor Ed Koch, bringing competence and compassion throughout city government. It continues with Mayor David Dinkins who worked with City Council President Peter Vallone to pass the "Safe Streets - Safe City" program that paid for 10,000 additional cops along with youth programs to avert gang violence. Dinkins gets little credit for his successes, but it's worth remembering that Ray Kelly first became Police Commissioner under Dinkins. After Dinkins our mayor was Rudy Giuliani. Before Rudy became a right wing wanna-be President, he was a pro-immigration, anti-crime, pro-economic development leader of New York City. Rudy hired the talented Police Commissioner Bill Bratton who along with deputies like Jack Maple learned how to deploy the city's police force to high crime neighborhoods with the new COMPSTAT system. Until the development of geographic information systems, we did not have the information needed to efficiently deploy police. Now we do. The safer city continues through the three terms of Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Writing in the New York Times last year, reporter Richard A. Oppel Jr. observed that that New York's crime reduction was part of a national trend:
"The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession. In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States."
In New York City, homicides peaked at 2,245 in 1990 and were down to 515 in 2011. There is always controversy when one focuses on crime - especially in New York City. Are the data accurate? What is the impact of "stop and frisk" and other police techniques? Stop and frisk, racial profiling and increased video surveillance have all had an impact on our civil liberties. The technology of crime prevention and detection will continue to advance, along with the technology of destruction. The movie theatre attack in Colorado and the Sikh temple attack in Wisconsin are only the latest examples of profound threats to our safety and security.
I admit that I worry about stop and frisk and the impact of racial profiling on our ability to build a healthy community. But I worry even more about the safety of my family and friends. I think it is hard to argue that the New York City of the 1970's was a better place than the New York City of 2012. This is a safer and more secure place than it once was. I credit many people for that change. I am grateful to the police and fire departments and the EMS folks that help keep all of us safe. I am also in awe of the good Samaritans everywhere who protect strangers, carry baby carriages up subway stairs, and say something when they see something. The data tells us that New York City is safer than it once was and to those of us living here it feels safer than it used to. New York feels more like 1963 than 1983. When I moved into my apartment across the street from Morningside Park in 1990, it was not unusual to hear gunshots over in the park. For the last decade, we've been able to walk through the park and enjoy its Olmstead-designed beauty. Violence remains in this great city, but there is less than there once was. I admire Mayor Bloomberg for pushing for greater gun control, since it's clear that we live too close together around here for all that lethal hardware.
In fact, not only is this city no longer falling apart, it's also a city rebuilt and under constant renewal. As far back as the late 1970's the city was already recovering from its brush with bankruptcy. Even while I was stuck in the subway in the early 1980's, MTA Chief Richard Ravitch was already generating the capital needed to restore the subway system. Matthew Goldstein has led CUNY since 1999 and has brought the City University back to credibility and areas of astounding greatness. Our universities and cultural institutions, parks and libraries, commercial districts, and nightlife have gotten "back to where they once belonged."
The foundation of all this progress is public safety. Nothing is more important than feeling safe and secure in your home and neighborhood. When I see those images from Syria, it is painful to think about what it is like for a child to grow up with such danger. The lack of effective gun laws in this country makes it even more important that police have the tools they need to protect the public and themselves. Ten New York City police officers have been shot so far in 2012. While a nation of laws requires that those who enforce the law be subject to the law, it is important that we never allow the city to return to the mayhem of the mid '70s to the mid 90's. That means the police must be present and visible throughout the city. They must treat the public with respect and dignity, but safety must be their first concern.
I am certain that "stop and frisk" will be subject to increased regulation over the next several years. I also think that we will see reduced reliance on the technique. In fact, according to WNYC's News Blog: "Between April 1 and June 30, the police conducted 133,934 stops. That's compared to 203,500 stops in the first three months of the year." I define the public safety issue as a parent. As a father I think of the need for parents to feel confident that when they hug their children before school in the morning, they'll get to hug them again at night. The absolute irreducible responsibility of all governments is to provide safety and security for the people within their borders. This does not mean the ends justify the means. It just means that without public safety, we are not around to pursue either ends or means.