In 1970, 7.8 million people called New York City home. They were protected by nearly 38,000 police officers — 31,000 from the NYPD, 4,000 from the New York City Transit Police Department and 2,700 from the New York City Housing Authority Police Department. Then the fiscal crisis hit, and the NYPD shrank due to a combination of layoffs and attrition.
Something else happened too — crime and disorder soared, and people fled New York City. By 1980, the population had declined by more than 10%. Approximately 800,000 people no longer called the city home, and the city no longer received their tax revenue.
The NYPD’s uniformed staffing dwindled to 23,000, and although still supplemented by the Transit and Housing police (the three departments would merge in 1995), police could do little more than respond to crime after it had already occurred.
There was no proactive policing, no concerted attempt to prevent crime, and certainly no effort to address disorder. The police had their hands full. In 1980, there were 710,153 major crimes recorded in New York, including 1,814 murders. Compare that to the 126,589 major crimes and 438 murders recorded in 2022. While 2022 was substantially higher than recent years that saw less than 100,000 crimes and fewer than 300 murders, it was still a far cry from 1980.
The NYPD would not rebuild to 31,000 officers until 1990 — a year which saw 2,245 people murdered, the most ever. The department continued to grow. Bolstered by the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program, the department employed 41,000 officers by 2001. And as the department grew — crime began to fall. Crime fell slowly at first but began to rapidly decline in 1994.
Under the leadership of Commissioner Bill Bratton, police no longer merely responded to crime but actively worked to prevent it by addressing disorder. Unsurprisingly, as crime fell, the population — and thus the tax base — grew. Businesses invested in the city again. Tourists visited in record numbers. The population increased to 8.8 million people by 2020. Increased public safety led to greatly increased prosperity.
The NYPD was able to maintain this level of public safety even as the number of officers decreased from 41,000 in 2001 to 36,000 in 2013. While staffing levels remained relatively consistent at 36,000 for several years, in 2020 the NYPD lost more officers than it hired. Though the exodus and recruitment difficulties can be attributed to a variety of factors, their coupled effect is substantial.
Today, the department has a budgeted headcount of approximately 35,000, but employs only 32,500, as attrition continues to outpace hiring. Since 2020, major crimes in New York have increased more than 30%, and the population has begun to shrink. While it can certainly be argued that several causes have contributed to the crime increase, history clearly shows that fewer police officers results in more crime.
It has been reported that under Mayor Adams’ revised budget plan, the NYPD will shrink to 29,000 officers by the end of next year. While this projection keeps the city’s total police staffing slightly above the 1980s level, I suspect it will fall much lower if hiring stops. The current staffing shortage has resulted in officers having an increased workload, being denied days off and working increasingly extreme amounts of overtime.
As the headcount dwindles, dissatisfaction will increase. Nationwide, police agencies are struggling to recruit qualified officers. Smart departments will intensify their recruitment efforts in New York. NYPD officers are amongst the most sought-after professionals in the country. Incentivized by higher pay and better working conditions, officers will be lured away to other agencies, further deepening the staffing crisis.
All budget cuts are not equal. Yes, the city is in a fiscal crisis. This is a crisis that has been years in the making. Long before the influx of migrants, expenditures were allowed to outpace anticipated revenue, with very little long-term planning. Assigning equal cuts to all agencies is poor management.
True austerity measures require an in-depth look at which government services can be trimmed, and which ones cannot. It’s important to identify the difference between a “must have” and a “nice to have.” There is no prosperity without public safety. It is the quintessential “must have.”
The last time the department’s staffing levels were this low, crime and disorder soared. Businesses and citizens fled. Tourists stayed away. The fiscal crisis loomed large and affected all city government functions. New York became “Fear City”. It took more than 20 years to begin to recover last time. Do we really want to do it again? History is repeating itself. Is anyone paying attention?
Corey retired from a 34-year career in the NYPD as the chief of department, the highest ranked uniformed officer, in November, 2022. He now works as an executive advisor to the University of Chicago’s Policing Leadership Academy and as a strategic advisor to the Secure Communities Network.