Despite enduring its deadliest terror attack since 9/11, New York City is on pace to record its lowest murder total in decades.
The homicide drop mirrors an across-the-board reduction in major crimes over 2016, statistics released by the police department show.
Sessions praised New York City's model for combating crime
Leaders credit neighborhood policing and a focus on reducing gang violence
There have been 284 homicides this year, as of December 24, compared with 329 at the same point last year, a drop of 13.7%, NYPD records show. Among those killed were eight victims of a Halloween attack on a busy Manhattan bike path.
The tally last peaked in the early 1990s, with more than 2,000 killings annually, according to police figures provided to CNN.
Numbers of felony assaults, burglaries and auto theft cases also decreased in 2017, compared with the prior year, along with a 9.9% drop in robberies, data show.
"We've seen the lowest number of index crimes here since the '50s," police Commissioner James O'Neill said at a recent news conference, referring to the crime categories. "With informed, engaged and empowered communities, we're going to keep pushing those numbers down even further."
The number of times police fired their guns during an incident is lower than last year, as well. Officers had fired their weapons in 23 incidents as of December 17, compared with 37 incidents in 2016, Det. Sophia Mason said.
O'Neill and Mayor Bill de Blasio credited the recorded crime reductions to a focus on neighborhood policing, a strategy the NYPD started to implement in 2015.
"We are giving our cops the opportunity to make relationships and build on those relationships," O'Neill said this month. "Nobody knows what's going on better on a block than the people that live there, the people that worship there, the people that work there."
The decline in major crimes comes months after the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, criticized New York City as "soft on crime." The comment came in a statement threatening to withhold federal funding from so-called "sanctuary cities," including New York.
"(M)any of these jurisdictions are also crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime," the department's statement said.
"New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city's 'soft on crime' stance," the statement said.
New York officials slammed that comment as inaccurate, and O'Neill said it showed a "willful disregard for the facts." Sessions changed his tune at a press conference in mid-December, as he praised New York City's model for combating crime.
"You can see hopefully for America what they've seen in New York is a steady decline in homicides and violent crime," Sessions said. "I believe that's a proven technique. Our policies would call on each United States attorney to encourage that in their district."
Focusing on neighborhoods
Under the neighborhood policing model, each precinct has two "neighborhood coordination officers" who govern the precinct, plus 12 "sector" officers, O'Neill said. All are assigned to work regularly in the same precinct, rather than shuffling around, so they get to know the people and issues in their own communities.
"We're giving them back the ability to make decisions," O'Neill said. "No one knows better than the people patrolling those sectors and the people that live there what's actually happening."
Precincts are divided along neighborhood boundaries, rather than crossing them, he said.
Of the city's 77 precincts, 51 have operated under this model since 2015, and recorded crimes have decreased at faster rates there, O'Neill said, adding that he hopes to implement the strategy citywide next year.
"My vision is to fully implement neighborhood policing, and that's to give our police officers the opportunity, the training, and the time to communicate, establish relationships, work together to identify problems, and work together to solve problems," he said.
O'Neill cited a focus on curbing gang violence as another reason crime statistics have improved. Precinct detectives work with comrades who focus on vice crimes, narcotics and gun violence to reduce gang activity, he said.
"We're also continuing to target gangs and crews who commit the majority of the violence in New York City," O'Neill said. "I think that, in conjunction with neighborhood policing, that's why you're seeing the crime numbers go down."
Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, said he believes part of the decrease in gang violence is because of technology, which has made it easier for police to target suspected gang members. Guardian Angels is a volunteer safety patrol organization -- separate from the NYPD -- that started in New York City.
"Nowadays, as a gang task force member, I can sit in an office, and all I have to do is look at social networking," Sliwa told CNN. "The gangs are their own worst enemy. They post everything."
More work to do
Sliwa acknowledged that crime statistics have improved overall, and he credits the NYPD for that. But he believes the city has become safer for men, not women. In his work, he still sees sexual assault and harassment as major issues that need to be more heavily addressed, especially for women riding the subway.
"It's because there are so many pervs who have sought sanctuary in the subway," Sliwa said. "Now our focus because of the problems of assaults against women is on the subways. It's become a sort of perv heaven."
Sliwa and his organization started an all-female volunteer task force called Perv Busters to focus on this problem. These volunteers patrol the subways, filling in as extra eyes and ears for police and occasionally making citizen arrests.
At a recent press conference, O'Neill acknowledged the importance of investigating each claim that is brought to police attention.
"It's important that each rape, no matter what the classification is, is fully investigated," O'Neill said. "And it's something that we have to constantly, when we put people into Special Victims, we have to make sure we select people that are right for that job. So, that's an ongoing process."
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