Bloomberg Invokes Terrorism in Case Against NYPD Reforms

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Photo by: Franz Golhen

Mayor Bloomberg on Tuesday attacked proposals to restrict and monitor the NYPD, saying those ideas “most often come from those who play no constructive role in keeping our city safe, but rather view their jobs as pointing fingers from the steps of City Hall.”

In the speech (the full text can be read here and the video seen here) the mayor suggested that the reform proposals could lead to more murders, create deadly confusion among police officers and perhaps even make it easier for terrorists to strike the city.

The scary rhetoric included some powerful facts—and overlooked others.

Comparing NYC to other cities

“Last year, we had a record low 419 murders,” the mayor said. “If instead we had had Washington, DC’s murder rate, nearly 1,200 New Yorkers would have been murdered last year instead of 419. If we had Chicago’s murder rate, more than 1,400 New Yorkers would have been murdered last year instead of 419. If we have Philadelphia’s murder rate, more than 1,700 New Yorkers would have been murdered last year instead of 419. If we had Baltimore’s, it would have been more than 2,900 murders last year. And if we had had Detroit’s murder rate, more than 4,500 New Yorkers would have been murdered last year instead of 419.”

The mayor’s absolutely right that, picking from the list of top 25 largest American cities (Washington is #24), there are places where murder is a much bigger concern than in New York.

However, you can also find plenty of big cities—some of them bigger than the ones the mayor cites—where the streets are safer, at least from murder.

If New York City had the same murder rate as San Francisco, 11 fewer people here would have died in 2011. At Denver’s 2011 murder rate, 58 New Yorkers would still be alive. Given the murder rates of San Jose, Austin, Seattle, San Diego and El Paso, New York would have seen 180, 230, 249, 278 and 317 fewer murders, respectively.

Those cities might feel less like New York than the Detroits and the Baltimores, but some have relatively high poverty (Denver 13 percent, Austin 15 percent and El Paso 19 percent to New York’s 18 percent). All have proportionately smaller police forces than New York or the more violent cities the mayor mentioned.

Less frisking=more killing?

“By their own admission, the supporters of these bills say they are designed to put pressure on the NYPD to make fewer stops,” the mayor said, “and conduct less counterterrorism intelligence gathering. If the bills pass, they will make our city less safe and innocent people will pay a terrible price.”

“My message is simple: Stop playing politics with public safety.”

Of course, one key success the mayor highlighted in the speech—namely the record-low murder rate in 2012—came as the number of police stops fell 22 percent.

It’s also true, though, that in some low-income neighborhoods (like Brownsville and Mott Haven, where we’ve been doing election reporting) the fear of crime is daily present, and some residents want to see more aggressive efforts by the NYPD.

Of the bill that would create an inspector general for the NYPD, the mayor wondered, “Whose policies should an officer on the street follow – and how would he or she know that their partner would be following the same procedures when the bullets start flying? With confusion comes deadly consequences to our police officers and to the public that they are sworn to protect.”

The legislation, however, makes it pretty clear who’s in charge: “The inspector general shall not be a current member of the New York city police department … nor shall the mayor transfer any responsibilities for the operation of department programs or activities to the office of the inspector general.”

The terrorist threat

The mayor also worried that the legislation would undermine the city’s counterterrorism operations.

“If this bill passes, the law enforcement agencies that we work with on counterterrorism and intelligence gathering might be less willing to share information with us if they were concerned that it could be released outside the Department to an Inspector General and the City Council,” he said, adding: “Passing any legislation that undermines our counterterrorism capabilities would be the height of irresponsibility. God forbid terrorists succeed in striking our city because of a politically-driven law that undermines the NYPD’s intelligence gathering efforts.”

However, the legislation that would create an inspector general specifies that information cannot be publicly disclosed if “a provision of the law specifically prohibits its public disclosure” or “the information pertains to a specific ongoing, predicated police investigation and would, if disclosed, interfere with that investigation, unless that information already has been included in a public record.”

It goes on to say that “The inspector general may consider additional requests by the commissioner to withhold information if the commissioner demonstrates that the public disclosure of information would cause a specific and imminent threat to the safety of the city, except that under no circumstances may the inspector general on the basis of this provision fail to report a significant problem or deficiency with the department’s programs or operations.”

What’s more, it’s been well documented that the FBI and NYPD have had their share of problems playing nicely, and not because of any inspector general (see here and here.)

The reaction, now and in November

The proposals the mayor discussed actually involve four separate bills being considered by the Council. The inspector general measure is distinct from the one that would broaden a city ban on racial profiling and create a private right to sue over alleged violations. The mayor was probably accurate in saying that “aggressive tort lawyers are licking their chops at the prospect of bringing more cases against the city that the taxpayers can ill afford.”

According to Bloomberg, “the NYPD is under attack, probably because this is an election year.” Indeed, within moments of him finishing the speech, candidates vying to replace him issued reaction statements.

But even among critics of the mayor, there was a range of viewpoints. Former Comptroller Bill Thompson denounced the legislation as “the wrong solutions to the problem” saying that not new laws, but a new mayor, is what is needed to “fix stop and frisk so we can restore trust between communities and the police.” Former Brooklyn Councilman Sal Albanese pivoted from the mayor’s speech to a hit on his Democratic rivals: “They have flip-flopped and engaged in political theater in regard to the Inspector General, an undemocratic and expensive position that would do nothing to protect civil liberties and do everything to stand in the way of smart policing.”

On the other side, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said, “Mayor Bloomberg’s fear-mongering can’t hide the fact that his Administration’s overuse and misuse of stop-and-frisk has ripped apart police-community relations – putting our officers and our neighborhoods at risk.”

Between of the legislative push in the City Council and the federal lawsuits over stop-and-frisk, the issue is getting plenty of press as the mayoral campaign rolls on. Yet a survey by the Community Service Society recently found that, “Despite the controversy and media attention surrounding the city’s aggressive ‘stop and frisk’ police tactics, it was not frequently mentioned as a top campaign issue by either low- or higher-income New Yorkers.”