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Page last updated at 16:36 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Cop for a day

Cop on the New York subway


To help fund expensive crime-fighting tools, New York's finest allow paying members of the public to take command, says Harold Evans.

When I commanded a police unit in a tough precinct of Brooklyn, New York, I never knew what to expect.

Protesters in Harlem
Harlem residents protest against a spate of shootings

The bad day began with a shoot-out between a couple of young guys. By the time I got to the decent-looking apartment block, the paramedic teams had just moved the body of the loser from the elevator entrance and the wounded winner had fled.

Nobody in the block was talking much but it seemed it wasn't drugs, as I thought it would be, but an argument over a woman.

The day ended with news almost as bad; that one of my counsellors posted to a school to keep a watch on drug dealers had become a dealer herself.

In between, on patrol in an unmarked van with my team, we were stopping for a light in a derelict shopping area when four teenagers on motorbikes roared around the corner, missing an old woman by inches.

They were gone in a flash and we were facing the wrong way. There was no room for a U-turn. My driver knew the district well enough to go around the block double-quick and we caught the hell-raisers at the next corner. None of them had licences or insurance. We impounded the bikes. Minor stuff but their dangerous conduct could have ended our day as it began - with bloodshed.

Harold Evans

I found myself curiously detached, looking down as a middle-aged man in my suit holding my book bag tells the robber he can have $50 but not the credit cards

I wasn't a precinct commander for long. In fact, I did it only for a day. It wasn't that the New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly thought I had no aptitude for the work, though I soon enough decided myself that I hadn't.

I was just part of a scheme he'd cooked up to let citizens like me see what it was like to be responsible every day for the well-being of 85,000 people among the 8m in the city.

The day was organised by the New York Police Foundation, which raises money for the police. Hey, isn't that what taxes are for? Yes, but what do you do when the police face budget cuts that make cities less safe?

One thing I admire about Americans is what the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted nearly 200 years ago: they have a gift for association, for coming together for philanthropic purposes. It's still true.

Watchful eyes

The New York citizens started their Police Foundation in 1971. Gang-ridden Los Angeles, much more chronically under-funded, started theirs in 1998.

Electronic survellence for Chicago's Real Time Crime Center
Chicago has followed New York's lead with its own Real Time Crime Center

In New York 95% of the police budget goes on pay. It leaves little for the cops to keep pace with rapidly evolving technologies of detection, so the Foundation has raised $90 million to put in 400 innovative programs.

For instance, stand in the Real Time Crime Center, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 40 detectives at serried banks of computers sit in front of a two-storey video wall of 18 connected screen panels giving them sight of the streets of the city.

They zoom in by satellite and helicopter feed whenever a precinct reports a crime. The cops' desk computers have access to five million criminal records, parole and probation files, 20 million criminal complaints, arrests, emergency calls and summonses spanning five years… 31 million national criminal records. And more than 33 billion public records.

Before they set up the Real Time Crime Center - think of it as an integrated data warehouse - it took days, if not weeks, to access all these different scattered records. "Like any very big organisation," Kelly told me, "we didn't know what we knew."

Into the Real Time Crime Center comes a 911 call.

"A guy just robbed me. Stuck a gun in my face."
"Did you see what he was wearing?"
"Dunno. Had a tattoo on his neck."

The cameras zoom in on the location, maybe they'll spot the bad guy. An operator searches the records for robbers with tattoos. A lot of faces to go through.

There's another call. A customer in a pizzeria took his time eating a slice with pepperoni, then when everyone had gone, came up with a silver handgun, threatened to shoot the owner and got away with a big wad of dollars. All the owner could say was the robber was white and was tattooed - SUGAR - he thought.

That one word narrowed the searches. The perp had a record and soon enough Sugar, hiding out in apartment 2B, was off the streets.

Mug shots

I wish they'd had a Real Time Crime Center when I was working as a publisher in the 1990s. I stood in midday sunshine at a railway station in the borough of Queens.

The biggest difference in New York has been a police commissioner and a mayor with innovative ideas who got enough cops

There was nobody about for the good reason that no train was coming, since the Long Island Railroad operator I'd twice called for a time had overlooked some small print in her schedules.

I started to phone the office from an open public kiosk - no cell phones then - when I saw a man come down the stairs to the platform. I was loaded up with books but my companion had no interest in literature. If I didn't give him my effing money he'd shoot me.

I found myself curiously detached, looking down as a middle-aged man in my suit holding my book bag tells the robber he can have $50 but not the credit cards.

"They're no use to you," says the calm man who'd just as calmly observed the robber approach wearing a heavy woollen hood over his head in midsummer and deduced he wasn't coming to help.

The emergency operator couldn't decide whether it was a matter for transit or city police and refused to hear a description of a 5ft 9in robber with Louis Armstrong lips wearing a black hood and Reeboks. The cops, when they arrived, were very angry about that. A day later, with a blinding headache, I was taken to look at mug shots of muggers.

Broken windows

Crime had New York even more by the throat when I first arrived in 1983. Times Square was a centre for porn and pushers of crack cocaine. Murders were nearing 2,000 a year. Squeegee men menaced you at stops. Cops didn't bother with fare jumpers, street hustlers and graffiti gangs.

Taking a photo by a police van
Tourists in Times Square

Now it is all changed. Times Square is a showplace again. The commonplace explanation is based on the broken windows theory - that if you let one window stay broken, vandals will break the rest; that if you don't arrest one panhandler, you'll have scores of them. And often enough if you make an arrest, you'll find the offender has an illegal gun or knife.

I'm sure there is a lot to the theory. But it doesn't explain everything. The biggest difference in New York has been a police commissioner and a mayor with innovative ideas who got enough cops - 38,000 in New York - and with dollars from the Police Foundation to invest in technology for intelligence gathering.

How else to explain that New York - yes New York - is the safest city in the United States? The murder rate is a third of what it was in 1990. That's matched with a comparable fall in major felony crime.

So what? you may say. European cities are much safer. Despite all the efforts in New York, the murder rate at six per 100,000 citizens doesn't begin to touch London where the rate is a mere 1.95 per 100,000.

Hair trigger

There's a major reason for the homicide rates in the two societies, and I can give it you in four letters: Guns. Historically, the US has a more violent culture but it's easy access to guns that makes the violence lethal.

Virginia Tech shootings
Carrying out the injured at Virginia Tech

More than 200 million guns are owned by Americans. New York City has the toughest law in the US against illegal guns but they're smuggled in all the time from states that don't bother to check on the buyers' mental or criminal records.

You may recall that in 2007, 32 people were shot dead when a crazy student went on the rampage on Virginia Tech campus. The ancient Commonwealth of Virginia, faced with the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in US history, has just voted against - repeat, against - making it impossible for the mentally disturbed to get a gun.

The National Rifle Association "buys" a majority of congressmen as easily as killers buy bullets. To cops all across the country, it's dismaying. Last year 140 cops died from gunfire in the line of duty.

So here's a final word from Precinct Commander Evans - if ever the British were mad enough to legalise guns US-style, they'd die to regret it.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Mr Evans has taken his story on the New York City Police and used it as a soap box for his political views. He also needs to check his facts. As a resident of Virginia, I can say with authority that persons that have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution may NOT purchase or possess a firearm. I am a firearm owner myself. I am also an emergency department nurse and a paramedic who is dedicated to saving lives. I refuse to be a victim in my own home. I do not find comfort in the fact that when seconds count, the police are only eight minutes away. Mr Evans would do well to examine Australia's social experiment of disarming it's entire population. The murder rate has sky rocketed, and the armed robbery rate has increased by almost 300%. Jason Harrington, Roanoke, VA

I am quite surprised at the naivety of the author. To come to the conclusion of "guns" is not only simple, but just unfounded. It has been statistically shown that "guns" are not the core issue. Case in point, most men here in Switzerland own a gun, a very large gun, for military purposes. Now, under the assumption that the issue was "guns", Zurich should have been a blood bath long before New York or London. Please do the research before pointing your finger at the scare factor that sells.
Joseph, Zurich

As Charlton Heston once said at an NRA meeting. "From my cold dead hand..." as he held aloft an old rifle. Unless America changes it's policy towards gun ownership then the bad guys are going to be grabbing an awful lot of loot from a lot of cold dead innocent hands.
Paul Smith, Brisbane Australia

While this is interesting, what do you have to say about the massive breach of privacy that such expansive and expensive surveillance equipment brings to the modern state? Yes, crime levels are down, but it can be said that crime has reduced heavily as a result of cultural shifts and social programs.
Daniel, Toronto, Canada

This was a great article and points out that NY has done a good job of reducing crime. Unfortunately, it mistakenly reports on the gun problem in the US. Virginia did not vote against allowing mentally disturbed individuals from buying guns, it simply voted not to impose an across the board bar of people who have ever had a mental episode from owning a gun. We have a problem with guns here, but that problem is generally associated with illegal guns. Our legislators spend the vast majority of their anti-gun efforts on passing laws that prevent law-abiding citizens from owning guns. The people using these guns for illegal purposes surely don't care about a law that says it is illegal to own a gun. I am a gun owner. It stays in my home or I take it when I am hunting. I used it once to protect my home and my family. It has never been used illegally. What we need are very stiff penalties for people that carry guns illegally.
CG, Washington DC

I worked in NYPD for a few years in the 23rd Precinct. Your story was great until the end when you went on the anti-gun band wagon. We can debate it all day and night. I don't agree with your point of view on it. NYC has cut the salary on cops and they are leaving in droves. I left for a Connecticut police department and got a $15,000 raise. When I was there we had 45,000 police officer's in NYPD. They cut the starting salary from $31,000 to $25,000 and cut the force.
John Bunce, Waterford CT USA

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