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It’s a matter of priorities

February 17, 1997

When John Timoney was sworn in as First Deputy Police Commissioner in 1995, he made a speech the media never reported.

In it, Timoney said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration marked the first time in Timoney's 25 years as a cop that the NYPD's first priority was fighting crime. Since the Knapp Commission of the early 1970s, Timoney explained, the department's first concern had been corruption. That meant keeping cops out of crime-ridden locations, specifically drug dens and smoke shops. That meant less law enforcement.

"The number-one issue was always corruption," Timoney expanded in a recent interview. "It used to drive guys like me and Anemone crazy," he said, referring to current Chief of Department Louis Anemone. "We'd both been in narcotics. We'd both been shot at. Yet you never heard anything from downtown about the arrests you made. Careers were never shortened by a crime. What would stop you dead was corruption."

When William Bratton became police commissioner, he announced that keeping cops out of drug locations served no purpose. Not only did drug-dealing go unchecked, but citizens, seeing cops not arresting criminals, believed cops were corrupt, he said.

None of this was cited at a recent seminar on the decline of crime in New York City at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Nor was it even alluded to in last week's New York Times Magazine cover story on the same subject.

Instead, after years of taking a perverse pleasure in the inability of police to prevent rising crimes rates, normally intelligent journalists and academics are now tripping over themselves trying to discover the source of New York's sudden crime declines. For lack of an answer, they've settled on something known as COMPSTAT.

COMPSTAT, which stands for computerized statistics, are those well-publicized tribunals Bratton began at which top brass grill commanders on their crime strategies. Only favored journalists, academics or Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry are invited. Reporters at One Police Plaza are barred because they've described such embarassing moments as a Bronx commander nearly throwing a chair at Anemone.

In its current issue, under the precious title "Crime and Punishment," the New Yorker magazine even seduced COMPSTAT's founder, Jack Maple, into an exclusive relationship.

America's Toughest Crime Buster (Gosh, that's the title of the piece), who once disdained the very intellectuals now fawning over him, was apparently so smitten that he warned off some longtime reporter pals from visiting him Printable versiondown in New Orleans, where he's hanging his Homburg and bow-tie while cleaning up the local constabulary. Maple's reason: He was saving himself for the magazine's editor, Tina Brown.

Here now is the real reason crime fell so dramatically under Bratton, a reason never before printed but admitted to privately by his top aides. The reason is the Lee Brown Phenomenon, after the police commissioner appointed by then-Mayor David N. Dinkins.

The Lee Brown Phenomenon holds that crime falls dramatically in cities where Brown was previously police commissioner. In New York, crime (with a record 2,245 murders) reached a high in 1990 under Brown, then began a slow decline that reached free-fall force under Bratton. Had Brown not been so ineffectual, the theory holds, those declines would have been greater under him and appeared less dramatic under Bratton. Instead, the near-50 percent declines in murder (between 1993 and 1996, murders fell from 1,946 to 984) appear all the more stark.

In Houston, where Brown served before New York, the same phenomenon occurred. With crime out of control, that city, like New York, finally voted in a law-and-order mayor who appointed an ex-federal prosecutor as police commissioner. As the Times magazine article noted, Houston is one of the country's few large cities whose rate of decline matches New York's.

And so far as is known, there are no COMPSTAT meetings in Houston.

Home on the Range. The theft of NYPD-brand ammunition, some possibly armor-piercing, will be investigated by the department's Internal Affairs Bureau, which initially passed on examining the situation.

Police officials say the ammunition may have been transported from its Bronx pistol range at Rodman's Neck to the army's Camp Smith in upstate New York, which the NYPD uses for heavy-weapons training and where inventory controls are lax, if not non-existent. Some say they're no better at Rodman's Neck.

Unseen: Police Commissioner Howard Safir, on vacation last week.

Unseen: Deputy Police Commissioner for Public Information Marilyn Mode, on vacation last week.

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Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com

© 1997 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.