Young men and women roaming Manhattan streets with guns. Two men knifed to death on the subway. An attempted rape in a bar. For the past few weeks, the headlines of urban mayhem made it seem like New York had gone back to the 1980s.
"SUBWAY SLAUGHTER" screamed the headline of the New York Post. "Death Rode The 2 Train — Two slain in horror ride on West Side subway" led the Daily News.
The spate of crime — including three shootings and dozens of arrests for what the mayor called "wilding" April 5 near Times Square — has some questioning whether the decades-long reduction in crime is starting to shift as the city struggles with massive budget cuts and a shrinking police force.
"It's very upsetting," said Adele Dressner, who owns a business near 34th Street. "It could happen in the best and worst neighborhoods."
But criminologists and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly caution against suggesting there's a trend.
"We've had some high-profile events," Kelly said. "But that's going to happen in a big city like this ... it's important to keep it in context."
FBI crime statistics show the crime rate has been falling around the country in recent years, even as the economy has tanked. And crime in the city remains at historic lows — even with a 20 percent spike in murders during the first quarter of this year, and even as the NYPD downsizes.
With about 35,000 officers, the department is still by far the nation's largest. The second-largest is Chicago and it's less than half the size, with about 13,000 officers.
But there are now nearly 6,000 fewer cops than in 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly took over. The city's budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for a further reduction of about 1,300 officers, reached through attrition rather than layoffs.
Kelly has a difficult task: reassuring New Yorkers the city remains safe, while trying to stop his department from shrinking further. He has said repeatedly that he needs more officers, but will do his best with what he has.
"The city has become much, much safer," he said. "One crime is one crime too many, obviously and our goal is to suppress it, wherever it occurs."
Suppressing rising crime would have been even more difficult for police under an emergency budget plan Bloomberg proposed earlier this year that envisioned having to lay off 3,150 police officers because of drastic state budget cuts.
Gov. David Paterson's state budget would have shrunk aid to the city by more than $1 billion. The state still has not come up with a final budget, but Bloomberg promised this week that the city would weather the budget cuts without laying off any officers.
The news relieves some city residents.
"The more cops out there, the less people will be looking to hurt someone or rob someone," said Brooklyn resident Evan Griffiths. "Like them or not, just being out there makes it better for the community."
There's a debate whether flooding the streets with officers really led to the historic crime drop of the 1990s, after the city had been ravaged by urban violence. The term "wilding," used by Bloomberg last week, was created after the notorious 1989 rape of the woman known as the Central Park jogger. The 1980s was the decade of subway vigilante Bernard Goetz, "preppie killer" Robert Chambers and the infamous Howard Beach racial attacks.
The murder rate — considered by many to be the most reliable barometer of crime — had hit a record 2,245 in 1990. Then-Mayor David Dinkins launched a hiring spree of more than 5,000 police officers.
By 1994, the city's homicide rate fell 19 percent, by 365 murders, the largest decline in two decades. The crime rate has continued to fall ever since.
Criminologist Andrew Karmen, author of "New York Murder Mystery: The True Story of the Crime Crash of the 1990s," said New York officials never bothered to figure out exactly why crime fell. Karmen and others argued the city was safer not because of an increase in officers, but social factors: fewer bloody turf wars between crack dealers; a decline in the population of young, crime-prone men, and even harsh winters. Karmen said those social factors are still in play today.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, insisted a menu of crime-fighting strategies made the city less hospitable for criminals. They cracked down on "quality-of-life" crimes like panhandling and made arrests on less serious offenses that they said stopped larger crimes from happening. Giuliani is credited with the cleanup of Times Square from a fetid stretch of porn shops into a glittering Disney-centric urban playland.
The department also started to track patterns of crime by computer. Commanders began deploying patrols based on where and when robbers, drug dealers and gun peddlers are most active. By 2002, there were more than 40,000 officers in the nation's largest police force.
Under Kelly, Operation Impact was started, where the bulk of police academy graduates were placed into high-crime zones identified through the CompStat computer system.
"The NYPD, especially this administration, has done an incredible job of keeping crime down," said Richard Aborn of the Citizens Crime Commission.
In recent years, City Hall has crunched crime statistics from around the country, producing numbers it says shows New York is "America's safest big city." Arrests have been made in the crimes of the past few weeks. And many New Yorkers say the city feels just as safe as always.
"My neighborhood is much, much safer," said David Duncan, who runs a community television show in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. "I know it's true because I see it. I don't see anything worth freaking out over — yet."