Why Has Crime Declined In New York?

The year-end numbers are just about in, and once again, New York City appears to be setting a new record about crime.  But what used to be a record for the most crime has become a new record each year for the least crime of any major American city.  And when you consider that four of New York’s five boroughs separately constitute five of the country’s ten largest cities, you begin to get an idea of the scope of the achievement.

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The decline in New York City crime is even more significant because while major crime rates declined throughout the United States (and western Europe) from the mid-90’s into the following decade, the crime drop in New York has continued past 2005 whereas, with the exception of Los Angeles,  it has leveled off or shown slight increases everywhere else.  The data for all this is best summarized in Frank Zimring’s The City That Became Safe, which covers the period up to 2009, although crime rates since that date have continued their downward trends.

While Professor Zimring does an admirable job in collecting, aggregating and summarizing crime data, his book doesn’t leave us feeling warm and fuzzy when it comes to explaining why this unprecedented change in criminal behavior occurred throughout the United States, nor why it continues to occur in New York.  Thanks to the data generated weekly by the NYPD’s Compstat program, he is able to tell us what, where and how much crime has declined, but the why remains an elusive conjecture at best. Zimring is aware of this shortcoming; in fact he readily admits that, like every other scholar who has studied this problem, he is unable to bridge the gap between numbers of crimes and causality; i.e., he cannot say with any certainty why the numbers keep going down.

Not that Zimring is without a solid conjecture, in his case having to do with effective policing, an explanation for which he is hardly alone.  In fact, of the nearly 300 explanations for the drop in crime during the 1990s that appeared in major media outlets, innovative policing strategies ranked as the most popular, although it was only one of at least ten basic theories put forth to explain the drop in crime.  A quick review of the bibliography in Zimring’s book and other sources indicates that the post-1990 debate has not produced any greater degree of consensus in academe.

I became interested in this issue when I began doing the research on Volume 3 of my series about guns in America, a book that examines gun violence as and when it actually occurs.  And since so much involving gun violence takes place within a criminal context, thinking about gun violence quickly leads to thinking about crime.  But what I find disquieting in all of the scholarly attention that is being focused on this issue is the extent to which virtually everyone seems to avoid the elephant in the living room, namely, understanding or even acknowledging the behavior of the criminals themselves.

With all due respect to my academic peers and betters, noting that crime rates are inordinately high in low-income neighborhoods doesn’t necessarily mean that because jobs aren’t available someone will turn to crime.  I would be much more convinced of the efficacy of an income-crime correlation if someone would take the trouble to simply inquire along these lines amongst the criminals themselves.  After all, if the robbery rate drops 80% in a neighborhood where the population remains the same, then we have to assume that there are  a bunch of people walking around who have decided that crime no longer pays.

The real problem with the data used by criminologists and other researchers is that we tend to make qualitative assumptions based on quantitative evidence and, in the process, simply fail to understand the social fabric that must be considered prima facie when talking about crime. Zimring, for example, notes that average incomes went up substantially in Manhattan but remained level in other boroughs, leading to the conclusion that economic change was not a determinant for the drop in crime.  But there are now many neighborhoods in Queens, for example, that have become major destinations for New Yorkers from other neighborhoods who want to eat Asian in Flushing or Indian in Jackson Heights and flood these streets on weekdays and weekends, no doubt their presence having a salutary impact on rates of crime. The mile-long elevated park known as the High Line in Manhattan, probably the single most-visited destination in the entire city since it opened in 2009, used to be known as an area where kids from Jersey could drive into the city through the Lincoln Tunnel, score drugs from the dealers and prostitutes who crowded every corner, and get back to their suburban neighborhoods in time to turn on the television and watch the latest installment of NYPD Blue.

I don’t know other cities the way I know New York, but there are certain social trends that have occurred, perhaps to a more obvious degree in New York, but in most other cities as well.  You can’t go into any urban neighborhood in the United States without noticing, for example, that virtually the entire street-level retail trade is in the hands of immigrants from Asia, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Rim.  These shopkeepers are in those delis and coffee shops day and night, their presence means that anything happening on the sidewalk will be observed, and even though they may only constitute a small proportion of the total inhabitants of a particular town, their numbers understate the extent to which their livelihoods serve as a critical resource for the safety of all.

If there has been one major socio-demographic change in the United States since 1990, it’s the re-urbanization of many city communities who lost population to the suburbs in the thirty years following World War II.  I suspect that much of the increase in crime that occurred in American cities in the 70’s and 80’s reflected the gradual disappearance of the middle class, just as I also suspect that much of the decline in crime beginning in the 90’s reflected a decision by the middle class to return to the urban core.  At this point my thesis is a conjecture and must await the application of some data that I have yet to study and some observations that I have yet to make.  But the one thing I won’t do is let the data speak for people who should be speaking for themselves.  If we really want to know why criminals have stopped committing crimes, don’t we need to walk right up to them and ask them to explain?

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