(Photo: Howard Schnapp)

It’s code blue for the NYPD.

A potential mass exodus of veterans beginning this year could hobble the already thinning ranks of New York’s Finest, some observers fear.

Thousands of cops — hired in droves during the 1990s to fight a crack-fueled crime wave — are up for retirement. And planned cuts are making it impossible to replace them.

“We’re heading toward some serious trouble,” said Albert O’Leary, spokesman for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a police union.

As the NYPD adapts to its dwindling numbers, city officials believe a weak economy will deter mass retirements. What’s more, some argue a safer city can get by with a smaller force.

But among the rank and file, concerns reflect this one shared on an NYPD rant blog: “Retirements coming up fast. God help this ungrateful city.”

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Attrition alarm
The crunch could get worse starting this year, the 20th anniversary of two NYPD classes that totaled 3,247 cops — about 10 percent of the current force. Just 112 replacements are expected from the January’s police academy class, and the July class has been canceled entirely.

Making matters worse are budget proposals put forth last week by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson that could spell thousands fewer cops.

The NYPD is on schedule for a 32,800 headcount next year, a drastic reduction from 40,800 in 2001, said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The Finest have a strategy, he said, concentrating officers in high-crime areas.

“It’s going to be a challenge; no question about it,” Kelly said. “We’re going to go down to numbers that are close to what we were in 1990, when we had a million fewer people living in this city.”

It was that same year that murders peaked at 2,245 during Gotham’s crack-cocaine epidemic. Former Mayor David Dinkins responded with the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program and expanded the NYPD by 25 percent. More than 15,000 new cops were hired between 1991 and 1996.

Now, as their 20-year hiring milestones approach, Finest from that era are eligible to retire with half-salary pensions. But just because they’re can doesn’t mean they will.

‘Terrified to retire’
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are terrified to retire,” said a union official. “Times are very precarious out there right now.”

An average 80 percent of police officers retire at the 20-year mark, but the shaky economy has pushed that rate down to just 20 percent in the past three years, the official said.

Many of the potential retirees are only in their 40s. They’re unable to live off their pensions alone and jobs are scarce.

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“My own personal feeling is that people aren’t going to flock to retirement. Guys and gals know they have security here,” said Robert Sens-Castet, deputy executive director of the police pension fund. “You can’t be sitting around in your underwear six months later in front of Monster.”

Other experts argue that steadily falling crime rates in Gotham reduce the need for a robust force. There were 466 slayings last year, 57 fewer than 2008 and a far cry from the 1990 peak. Crime overall was down 11 percent in 2009.

With 5,000 fewer officers than around the 9/11 attacks, the Finest “continue to protect the city from terrorism and push crime down to historic lows, even during a time of national recession when no one thought it was possible,” said Marc LaVorgna, a Bloomberg spokesman. “They’ve proven they can continue to be successful while reducing expenditure. The record speaks for itself.”

Ready or not?
Maintaining the ranks of the NYPD is the surest way to keep the city safe, and police aren’t prepared for personnel cuts on the horizon, said Eugene O’Donnell, a law and police science expert at John Jay College.

“You’re pretending that you didn’t know this was going to happen, but you had to know this was going to happen,” the former cop argued. “There’s been no strategy to the hiring, and there’s been no strategy to the retirements.”

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Some New Yorkers on Thursday said they want to feel protected. “Something happened to me a few months ago and I almost got shot in my building,” said Katie Duran, 18, of Harlem. “The more cops, the better.”

O’Leary, of the PBA, emphasized that the city can’t afford to bank on veterans choosing not to retire. “Whether it’s 1,200 or 2,300, you’ve got to replace them,” O’Leary said. “Once you let crime get out of control, it’s hard to get it back in control.

“You empower the bad guys.”

Jason Fink and Taneish Hamilton contributed to this story.

emily.ngo@am-ny.com