Guns Gone Wild

NYPD gunfire goes up while crime goes down. What gives?

Kelly originally opposed switching from the standard six-shot Smith & Wesson revolver that had been used since former police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt standardized the guns New York City cops carried. But when Kelly took over as commissioner in 1992, most other major police departments were using the semiautomatics. He told Timoney and Michael Julian, then an inspector in charge of the NYPD's Office of Management Analysis and Planning, to study the adoption of the 9mm handguns. Julian reported back that, based on the number of cops fatally shot, officers' fears that they were in increasing danger from criminals armed with more powerful weapons were more psychological than real.

Kelly put off making the move to the semiautomatic weapons despite mounting pressure. By then, William Bratton, as chief of the transit police, which had not yet merged with the NYPD, had authorized his officers to carry 9mm pistols, and the NYPD officers and their unions were clamoring for them. Kelly's hand was forced when Governor Mario Cuomo, during an election year, came up with $11 million to fund purchase of the guns. In 1993, Kelly authorized cops to carry 9mm handguns, but not before ordering two important modifications. The clips were restricted to 10 bullets, and the amount of force required to pull the triggers was increased to almost double the standard amount, to avoid accidental discharge if the guns were dropped.

In 1994, when Bratton took over as NYPD commissioner, he upped the number of shots in the clip to 15—cops carry a 16th in the chamber. Inevitably the new weapons led to some eye-popping numbers of shots fired. In December 1994, police fired what is believed to be an all-time departmental high of 256 shots during a roving gun battle with a man who had murdered his landlord and then killed the landlord's wife inside a Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard before attempting to carjack another man. As police tried to stop the killer, the man the assailant had shot during the carjacking was also hit by a stray police bullet that the medical examiner later determined was the kill shot.

illustration: Viktor Koen

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    For the most part, however, the weapons' increased ammunition capacity hasn't resulted in an increase in police overfiring or the wounding of innocent bystanders, according to NYPD figures. The number of police bullets fired spiked from an average of about 1,100 a year in the last five years the NYPD predominantly used revolvers to 1,728 in 1995, the year after they went to semiautomatics. But by 1999, the number of bullets fired had decreased to 621 and in 2004 fell to a modern low of 352 before shooting up by 75 percent last year.

    O'Donnell, the John Jay professor, says he thinks the recent increase in shootings is just an aberration. But Noel Leader, an NYPD sergeant who heads up the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, argues that the current police administration's "overaggressive tone" causes incidents like the Bell shooting. As far as Leader is concerned, it's a stats game. "Commissioner Kelly is one of the worst police commissioners in terms of emphasizing getting numbers," says Leader. " 'Go out there and make arrests; we want numbers even though crime is down.' That aggressive atmosphere goes throughout policing—aggressive summonses, aggressive 250s [random stops], aggressive arrests."

    Leader says that during each tour, officers are expected to write two "C-summonses," tickets for minor offenses like being in the park after dark or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. The target of this numbers gathering, says Leader, has been the poorer black and Hispanic neighborhoods. "Would they have done this," he says, "if they stopped a car outside Gramercy Park and there were four white people in the car? I don't think so."

    Another theory (one the police brass have in the past refuted) holds that the introduction in 1994 of CompStat, computer tracking of crimes that holds precinct commanders responsible for any increases, has caused supervisors to fudge the crime statistics to maintain the appearance of crime reduction. In recent years, union officials for both the sergeants and rank and file have publicly said as much, though neither has provided documented proof or put its cops up to talk about it on the record. Still, it's hard to imagine how the number of reported complaints went down by 5.1 percent in 2005 when the number of police "radio runs" went up from 4.5 million to 4.6 million.

    Using the city's own numbers, an argument could be made for reintroducing the handgun modifications Kelly imposed in 1993, and not only to avoid another 50-shot controversy. The NYPD has claimed 15 straight years of crime reduction, and the number of cops being killed and shot at are substantially lower than at any time in modern policing. It wouldn't be the first time such a proposal was made.

    As recently as February 1999, two weeks after Diallo was killed, Kelly (then in the private sector) opined in The New York Times that maybe it was time to dial down the NYPD-issue Glock 9mm handguns, limiting the clips to 10 rounds, as he had done in his first stint as police commissioner. Kelly wrote that "the semi-automatic's capacity, and the potential for overshooting, still concern me."

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