Facing budget woes and a recruiting crisis, the New York Police Department is poised to shrink to its smallest size in about 15 years, a reality reflected in a plan by the Bloomberg administration to trim funds for 1,000 police officer positions this year.
The mayor’s plan, to be carried out in the new fiscal year, would drop the maximum number of positions allowed to 36,838. The actual number of officers at work today is only 35,800 because of unfilled positions brought on by the recruitment crisis. Further stretching the availability of officers for duty is that roughly 220 officers are on military leave. Because of fluctuations in hiring, a low point of 34,624 officers is projected for the end of June.
That is just below the 34,641 officers in June 1993, a time when a program by Mayor David N. Dinkins to pump up the police force was under way. That program, Safe City Safe Streets, instituted in 1991, was Mayor Dinkins’s answer to the rising crime rate and, in conjunction with a federal program to pay for police officers, prompted a steadily swelling force for several years.
The number peaked in October 2000 with 40,800 officers. The first new officers of Mr. Dinkins’s program were entering the police academy by 1993.
Now, further budget troubles are looming, 2,400 officers are set to retire this year and low starting wages are failing to attract enough replacements. Some city officials and others worry that the number of officers will not meet the new, reduced authorized head count.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly warned of the dangers of the cuts on Wednesday after outlining the department’s budget for lawmakers on the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, many of whom seemed to empathize with him.
Citing the steady real estate values in Manhattan, Mr. Kelly said the links between a sizable police force and a vibrant metropolis could not be overstated.
“So I think it’s very important to maintain a robust police force in this department to keep the city moving forward,” he said, “because if we slip, I think — in terms of this level of security, a sense of security — that a lot of other things that are moving in a very positive direction in the city could slip as well.”
He said he faced two jobs: traditional crime fighting and increased security due to the elevated possibility of terrorism.
Hiram Monserrate, a Democratic councilman from Queens, said, “I know if there was a Mayor Kelly, we wouldn’t be facing this issue.” Mr. Kelly is thought of as a potential candidate in the next mayoral race.
Declining crime rates are a favorite subject for debate among sociologists, criminologists and academics, many of whom say factors like the economy or drug use have a big effect on them.
“Despite the fact the police staffing has declined quite substantially, crime has continued to go down,” said Preston Niblack, a deputy director of the Independent Budget Office, a city-funded agency independent of the mayor’s office. “But I think the rate at which crime has been going down has started to slow. The question I find myself asking is, ‘How low can crime go?’ ”
Going forward, Mr. Niblack said, the city will be forced to confront more limited resources. “Hopefully, its recruitment problems will improve,” he said of the department. “But I think we are probably getting to a historic low in terms of the crime rate.”
A spokesman for the Bloomberg administration questioned whether the force’s low point for the last two years would differ from the projected low point for next year.
“The budget proposal removes funding for positions that are not being filled, due to recruitment,” said the spokesman, Jason Post.
He said the average number of officers on the street under the proposed budget would decrease only slightly from the average force strength of fiscal years 2005, 36,149; 2006, 36,197; and 2007, 36,132.
After the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the police force shrank. The head count hovered around 28,000 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to the Budget Office, which tracks the number by pinpointing it at the end of each fiscal year. The first officers hired under Mr. Dinkins’s program hit the streets in 1994.
In 2002, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg came into office and confronted less wealthy times after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, he cut the authorized strength of the police force to 37,038. Then he raised it to 37,838. The new number, 36,838, will last until July 2009, when it will revert to 37,838.
In a statement, Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said the proposed cuts would force the police to their lowest strength in 16 years.
Mr. Lynch said it was not the starting salary, $25,100 for the first six months of employment, that was the source of the recruitment problems. Rather, Mr. Lynch said, the top pay, $59,585 after five and a half years, was repelling potential applicants and siphoning off veterans because it was not competitive with that of other local police departments.
But Mr. Kelly said there had been no recruiting problems until the starting salary was cut by 40 percent beginning in June 2005.
Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., a Queens Democrat, said that staffing levels were a “huge source of concern right now” and that his local precinct had fewer than 170 officers, down from 320. “The beat cop is gone,” he said. “The bike cop is gone. The people on the street are yelling that they need those cops back, and based on what we heard today, we’re not going to see that in the foreseeable future.