New York Police Commissioner - a model for England?

  • 16 October 2012
  • From the section England
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I've been to New York several times - sometimes for business, but mostly for pleasure.

It's a great city. I've always felt safe there - even when travelling alone.

It hasn't always been the case.

The Commissioner Ray Kelly, who works in partnership with the Mayor Michael Bloomberg, says: "New York 20 years ago had a lot of problems.

"We had 2,245 murders in 1990 and a population of 7.3 million people.

"Now we have a population of 8.4 million people and this year will be a record low year for murders so we have had a good track record of reducing crime."

Revolution in policing

In the 1980s the city was swept by a crack epidemic, the murder rate reached a record high and New York had the unenviable reputation as the crime capital of the US.

So how has New York gone from a city known for its high murder rate, where burglaries were common place and parts of the city were an open air drug market, to achieving the lowest crime rate among the 10 largest cities in the United States?

The appointment of commissioners in England and Wales represents a revolution in policing

There's no doubt since the September 11 attacks on the city in 2001 that security is now omnipresent - police and anti-terrorism officers are highly visible on the streets.

It may be partly due to the increased presence of New York's finest that it's now one of the safest cities in the world.

But violent crime has actually been falling in New York City since the early nineties.

One of the main people credited with cutting crime is the former Police Commissioner of LA and New York, Bill Bratton.

He says the appointment of commissioners in England and Wales is a huge revolution in policing:

"In your country now you are attempting to develop a model based on the American experience where you want more local political control. I think that's a good thing because it's the experience I have grown up in.

"It's not a panacea but it does ensure that police focus on local issues."

The role of the Police Commissioner in New York is different from the new role being created in the 41 police forces across England and Wales in November:

  • In New York the Mayor appoints the Police Commissioner.
  • In England and Wales the public will vote on 15 November to elect a commissioner.
  • For both, their main aim is to cut crime.

There's no doubt the once mean streets of New York are now much safer.

Strong leadership

The city's dramatic drop in crime has been attributed by criminologists to a revolution in policing tactics.

Heather MacDonald from the Manhattan Institute says: "Strong leadership starting with William Bratton going through today to Ray Kelly is absolutely the reason why we have had an 80% crime drop since the early 1990's.

"No other city in the country comes close to both the length and the depth of our crime drop and that's because we revolutionised policing."

The recently appointed Policing Minister and Ashford MP, Damian Green, says the role of Police Commissioner - being created in the 41 police forces across England and Wales - is different from the model in New York.

But he believes we can learn from the system in the States.

He says: "New York used to be one of the murder capitals of the world and successive successful commissioners appointed by an elected mayor - specifically for that purpose - have driven down crime.

"New York by the standards of big cities in America is now relatively safe and I do hope that will happen here."

Accountable policing

The public in England and Wales will get the chance to elect their own police commissioner in 41 forces on 15 November.

It's hoped the individuals elected will help make policing more accountable to the public.

Lord Wasserman, who used to work under Bill Bratton and is a government adviser on policing, said: "What we have learned from America about policing is that the police can make a difference to the level of crime.

"It used to be believed that crime is a result of social factors - bad housing, unemployment, poverty, and the police couldn't do much about it."

Bill Bratton was a pioneer of new style policing in New York

He says Bill Bratton changed that - he was only in New York for two years but began the process of political accountability which dramatically reduced crime.

The summer riots of 2011 across the England highlighted the need for greater engagement between the police and local communities.

The Prime Minister David Cameron turned to Bill Bratton, who became famous for this zero tolerance policing policy, and appointed him as a government adviser on policing.

He believes crime fighting solutions that have worked in New York - particularly the role of a strong police commissioner setting policy and making the reduction of crime a key aim - can work just as well in the towns and cities of Kent or Sussex as in New York.

Read more about the forthcoming police elections on the BBC website's special section.