NEW Yorkers have been congratulating themselves for the low level of looting during last weeks black-out. This feel good story of a kinder, gentler New York leaves out a critical factor in the citys respect for the law during the crisis: a highly-trained police department.
Had the NYPD not been as masterfully deployed as it was during the power failure, many more store owners would today be counting their losses and the reputation of New York would not be riding as high.
Looting is the quintessential crime of opportunity, and the police made sure to deny would-be looters their big chance. The first window was smashed on Brooklyns Flatbush Ave. less than five minutes after the lights went out. The department immediately erected barriers along the avenue and maintained a highly visible presence there for the rest of the night.
It did the same in other areas hit in the 1977 black-out thievery, as well as in neighborhoods marked by recent shootings a sign of a criminally-disposed population.
The cops started making arrests soon after the power stopped, and in large numbers up to two dozen parasites at a time. Getting these early birds in custody stopped them from wreaking further havoc and sent a strong message to copy cats that lawlessness would not be tolerated.
Admittedly, some of the looters werent much of a challenge for the police. Twenty three would-be sneaker thieves cut into the roof of a Brooklyn Foot Locker store and dropped to the floor below, intending to walk out the door with their booty. They hadnt noticed the locked gate blocking their exit. The police picked them up like cockroaches trapped in a Roach Motel.
Two key strengths allowed the NYPD to protect the city during the darkness: training and manpower.
Since 9/11, the department has been preparing for a catastrophic attack. When the electricity halted last week, top brass responded as if it were a terror strike. They gave full authority to the commanders of all eight patrol boroughs, an anti-terror precaution in case One Police Plaza were to become incapacitated.
The NYPD has been drilling this so-called stand-alone plan obsessively, so when a disaster finally struck, commanders knew how to get their officers in the right places quickly. The borough commanders promptly called in all off-duty officers and extended shifts to 12 and 16 hours.
None of this deployment could have happened, however, without a critical mass of officers. In 1977, the city had 15,000 fewer cops than now, a consequence of its economic melt-down.
Disturbingly, the force is once again shrinking, though nowhere near the levels lost during the 1970s. The mayor and city council should take note: numbers matter. They must not let the department drop below its current staffing.
Liberal criminologists also have a few things to learn from the citys recent relative calm: policing keeps streets safe. The academic world continues to deny the role of policing in New Yorks record-breaking crime drop in the 1990s, wedded as they are to the idea that only social services and full employment can effect crime.
While the true story of why New York was spared the paroxysm of lawlessness seen in 1977 may not be as heartwarming as the hypothesis of a suddenly respectful, law-abiding populace, it should be just as reassuring to New Yorkers that its police force responds so capably to catastrophe.