Police Commissioner Closing Controversial Street Crime Unit
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly announced yesterday that he would redeploy the remaining 180 detectives assigned to the Street Crime Unit, in effect doing away with an elite corps that endured withering criticism of its aggressive tactics after the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed street peddler.
Commissioner Kelly said that the detectives would be assigned to other plainclothes anticrime teams and to understaffed neighborhood detective squads throughout the city. The change, along with other redeployments to increase the number of neighborhood detectives, will take effect on Monday.
Speaking to reporters at 1 Police Plaza late yesterday, the commissioner said the move did not represent a rejection of the aggressive police tactics that became a hallmark of the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, but instead reflected the reality of a shrinking department. He said about two-thirds of the redeployed Street Crime Unit officers would perform the same jobs in existing borough-based anticrime units, focusing, as they did before, on taking guns off the street.
"There is not a change in function," Mr. Kelly said. "It is a change in title because we no longer have anything called Street Crime." The move, he said, represented no change in strategy or policy. "We are very much concerned about guns," Mr. Kelly said. "It doesn't mean that we don't want proactive programs to take guns off the street."
The move nonetheless effectively disbands the Street Crime Unit, whose plainclothes officers prowled the streets in search of criminals and which was widely credited with helping win the record declines in crime achieved in recent years. But after the Feb. 4, 1999, shooting of Mr. Diallo, a West African immigrant, by four white officers who mistook his wallet for a gun and fired 41 shots, the unit became synonymous with a confrontational style of policing that Mr. Giuliani's critics said was unduly focused on young black and Hispanic men.
The unit is the subject of an ongoing civil rights investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan and of a class-action lawsuit that charged its tactics were discriminatory because officers engaged in racial profiling by concentrating on black and Hispanic men for searches. A 1999 investigation of the Police Department's stop-and-frisk practices by State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer found that the department's officers, and in particular those in the Street Crime Unit, were much more likely to stop blacks and Hispanics than whites.
In response to reporters' questions, Mr. Kelly said the changes, which came after an analysis conducted earlier this year, were unrelated to either the current civil rights investigation or the pending lawsuit.
Mr. Kelly played down the significance of the redeployment, saying the move codified changes made in 1999 by Commissioner Howard Safir after Mr. Diallo was killed. Five months after the shooting, Mr. Safir decentralized the roving teams of officers, putting them under the supervision of the commanders who oversee police patrols in each borough. Mr. Kelly said the moves were driven in part by the shorthanded detective squads' inability to interrogate prisoners and gather intelligence, a significant tool for the department's crime-fighting efforts.
Yesterday, in addition to announcing that he will redeploy the Street Crime officers, Mr. Kelly said he also would move 150 detectives from the department's Warrant Division and nearly 100 police officers — one each from the department's 76 precincts and 20 from Housing and Transit Bureau commands — into the detective squads that investigate crimes in neighborhoods around the city. Along with 60 of the 180 redeployed Street Crime officers, Mr. Kelly's moves will add 310 investigators to the city's precinct detective squads.
The other 120 Street Crime officers will be assigned to plainclothes squads — which in some cases already exist and in some cases will be created — in each borough. The squads, called anticrime units, perform much the same function as the Street Crime Unit, patrolling in unmarked cars looking for criminals.
Mr. Kelly said the moves were dictated by simple arithmetic: the number of police officers has dropped from 40,710 a year and a half ago to 37,680 today, while the number of detectives in the city's neighborhood squads is the lowest it has been since 1997. The department has suffered an exodus of about 3,000 officers, through attrition and retirement, in the last 18 months.
Two of Mr. Kelly's predecessors, William J. Bratton and Mr. Safir, praised the changes. "The move makes a lot of sense," said Mr. Bratton, who served as Mr. Giuliani's first police commissioner.
Mr. Safir, who headed the department after Mr. Bratton and expanded the Street Crime Unit in 1997, tripling its size in a move that later came under heavy criticism, said he agreed. "With the shrinking resources of the department, this probably makes sense," he said. "Ray Kelly knows what he is doing, and I am very supportive."