Is New York City A Crime-Free Zone?

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The news at the end of 2013 was remarkable- New York City once again led the nation in the lack of violent crime. And while violent crime has continued to show a decrease throughout the United States, the numbers in New York appear to be exceptional.  In a nutshell, violent crime fell roughly 50% between 1994 and 2000 in the country as a whole, but in New York the decline has continued, with numbers for 2012, particularly homicides falling to levels not seen since the Beatles got off their plane.

To understand the true nature of New York’s crime decline, however, we have to look at the data not at the citywide level, or even the borough level, but at the neighborhood level itself.  Because there is an enormous variation in crime rates throughout the city, and this variation extends to differences within the boroughs as well.  Let’s look, for example, at Brooklyn.  The area known as Brooklyn Heights, which faces Manhattan from across the Eastern edge of the harbor, registers crime rates as low as can be found.  Last year there was one homicide in this area whose population was around 50,000; walk a mile into the Fort Greene neighborhood, an area with the same number of residents, and the homicide total last year was 6.  The homicide rate in New York was slightly more than 4, in Brooklyn Heights it was 2, in Fort Greene it was 12.  Fort Green had an average of 4 homicides each year between 2009 and 2012. The city had the overall lowest number of homicides in 2013 since the end of the Korean War, but some kind of war is still going on in Fort Greene.

Brownsville - East New York. Picture by author.

Brownsville – East New York. Picture by author.

If you go around the city with a map in one hand and the NYPD crime data in the other, an interesting profile begins to emerge.  Neighborhoods that were at the two extremes – richest and poorest – back when crime numbers began falling after 1994, appear to have changed little since that time.  The city’s wealthiest neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is largely vertical in terms of residential architecture, has little street life, even less commercial activity, and experiences very little crime. The poorest neighborhoods, with the exception of public housing projects are for the most part architecturally horizontal, have little street life, even less commercial activity and experience lots of crime.  While crime has decreased in inner-city neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York, rates for every category of serious crime are four to five times higher than the city as a whole but the lack of population density masks these numbers when they roll up within citywide numbers as a whole.

Upper East Side - Manhattan

Upper East Side – Manhattan

Where neighborhood profiles and the crime rates have changed most dramatically is in areas that have either gentrified, such as the former meatpacking district in Manhattan, or the great swatches of real estate now occupied by “new” immigrants in The Bronx, Brooklyn, and most notably, Queens.  These populations, who at last count spoke more than 700 different languages, now account for more than 40% of the city’s total population, the first time that such a high percentage of foreign-born have been living in New York since before World War I.

Many of the areas now occupied by new immigrants were former working-class and middle-class neighborhoods whose previous residents fled the city in droves during the economic and fiscal downturn of the 1970s, or held second-generation Americans whose idea of capturing the American dream meant moving out to the ‘burbs.  But the new immigrant populations appear eager to stabilize their urban neighborhoods and their decision to re-urbanize what otherwise might have become more inner-city ghettos is what has driven down the city’s rate of crime.

Between 1970 and 1990 the city lost more than one half million residents.  Between 1990 and 2010 New York made up the entire deficit and added 300,000 more.  Without understanding how this ebb and flow of the city’s population changed the character of neighborhoods in every borough, discussions about crime border on the unreal.  We can talk from today to next year about policing, stop-and-frisk strategies, arrests and everything else, but we should always be mindful of this comment by Jane Jacobs: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace – sidewalk and street peace – of cities is not kept by the police, necessary as police are.  It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”

 

 

When Is A Crime Not A Crime? Beats Hell Outta Me.

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Remember the old doggerel about if a tree fell in the forest and nobody heard it, did it really fall? I’m running into the same kind of problem in trying to understand the data on crime.  There are two agencies that publish crime data: the FBI (Uniform Crime Reports) and the BJS (National Crime Victimization Survey.) With one exception, all of this information comes from statements by crime victims who may or may not choose to report the crime. The one exception is homicide because it’s pretty tough to hide a dead body plus, given the severity of the crime, the moment we even think it has taken place, everyone gets into the act.  Otherwise, there isn’t a single category of serious (or non-serious) crime whose occurrence can be counted or even estimated without the cooperation of the victims themselves.

fbi

I have been trying to figure out how many crimes really take place for two reasons. First, the question has become a big political football in the ongoing debate about guns.  The NRA and its allies claim that the drop in violent crime over the last twenty years demonstrates both the futility of more gun laws and the efficacy of concealed-carry permits as a further defense against crime.  The gun control crowd, on the other hand, points to the fact that although the overall rate of serious crime has declined, the homicide rate due to the proliferation of guns, is still much higher than we would like.

The second reason that I have been trying to figure this out lies in the disparity between crime data generated by the FBI as opposed to crime victim data produced by the BJS.  The gap between those two reports has narrowed considerably over the last number of years, but it is still significant enough to make me wonder whether the numbers can be trusted at all.  As a starter, let’s compare crime data for 2012, the most recent year for crime data published by both agencies.  According to the FBI, there were 1,214,462 homicides, forcible rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults committed that year. According to the BJS, there were 2,084700 serious criminal victimizations that same year, and this number does not include the nearly 15,000 homicides reported by the FBI.  Now according to the BJS, virtually all the victmizations covered by their survey are reported to the police, but I since the data for this assertion is presented in terms of rates per 1,000 rather than raw numbers, I can’t really figure out why such a discrepancy between between the two reports exists.

And the discrepancy becomes much greater if we go back to the period when, according to both agencies, there was a lot more crime.  Let’s look at the data for 1996, which is considered the high-water mark for crime levels over the last two decades.  According to the FBI, there were 1,688,540 serious crimes reported in 1996, the number of 1996 victimizations, according to BJS, was 3,371,445 (adding the murders counted by the FBI.) In that year the difference between BJS and FBI numbers was 2:1, again, a discrepancy which neither agency seems able to explain.

But what this might explain are all the public polls which indicate that most people believe that violent crime in on the rise, even when the official numbers keep show that it is going down.  In a survey published last year during the debate over a new gun control law,  Pew found that a majority of Americans (56%) believed that crime was at higher levels than during the 1990’s, and only 12% thought it had gone down.

The difference between the data from the FBI and the BJS can’t just be dismissed as stemming from different definitions of crime or different methods of  data collection or different something else. You can, in fact, read a very detailed statement about the difference between the two sets of data published by the Department of Justice (which oversees both agencies) but it doesn’t offer even the slightest acknowledgement that the disparity in numbers published by the two agencies calls into question the accuracy of either one.

Do We Understand Gun Violence? Not Yet.

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Yesterday a very important article appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine that once again appears to demonstrate a strong link between homicide and suicide rates and availability of firearms.  The authors, led by Andrew Anglemyer of the University of California, San Francisco, conducted an extensive search of all relevant published and unpublished studies, compared, synthesized and correlated results and confirmed that access to firearms “is associated with risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide.”

This is not a new piece of news for the public health community, although it will be viewed with suspicion and distrust by groups like the NRA that view everything about guns produced by public health researchers with suspicion and distrust.  Research on links between guns and violence directed either outward or inward has been going on since the early 1990’s and the results always seem to be the same.  To quote my favorite authority on the subject of gun violence, the author Walter Mosley, “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.”

Union St., Springfield, MA

Union St., Springfield, MA

But now that we have exhaustively shown when the gun will go off, either in a homicide or a suicide, the problem still remains to figure out the why.  Because even though 30,000 gun homicides and suicides is a big number, let’s not forget that there are some 35 million homes where guns can be found, which means that somewhere around 90 million people have access to those guns, which means that roughly 89,970,000 Americans who could have used a gun to commit a homicide or a suicide chose not to do so.

What we usually do is to figure out where the people live who use guns to hurt themselves or others, and once we figure that out, then we try to identify the users themselves.  Which is easy to do in the case of suicides, because the shooter and the victim are both lying there on the floor.  It’s less easy to figure out in the case of homicides, where a police department that makes an arrest in more than one out of every two homicides is doing a pretty good job.   What we don’t seem to do is what David Hemenway calls the “individual-level studies of perpetrators;” in other words, why do certain people carry and use guns?”

The answer tends to focus on what Hemenway calls “ecological” studies which make connections between gun violence and the socio-economic factors that create environments in which high levels of gun violence occur.  And we now know that if we look at a community or a neighborhood with high rates of violence and gun homicide, we can usually also find high rates of unemployment, family dysfunction, educational underachievement and the usual list of inner-city ills.

With all due respect to this scholarship however, and I have nothing but admiration for the many dedicated researchers who have been studying this problem for, lo these many years, I also think they are ignoring one important point.  The multi-family dwelling pictured above is the location in Springfield, MA, of at least three and possibly four homicides over the last 19 months.  The area within one-quarter mile of this address contains every facility and resource that the 4,000 residents of that area ever use: school, church, hospital, community center, police station, playground, supermarket, deli and fast foods.

The city of Springfield had 25 homicides over the last 19 months and 4 of them happened here.  Springfield had a homicide rate per 100,000 of 12 – three times the national average – but this street had a homicide rate of 50 per 100,000.  And they didn’t all happen in one day.  They were spread out over 19 months and the most recent occurred last week.

I wouldn’t be surprised if what goes on in front of 435 Union Street in Springfield is what goes on in every city where high levels of gun homicides take place.   It’s not just about the demographics of the inner city, because even on bloody Union Street 3,996 of the 4,000 neighborhood residents haven’t found a reason to pull out a gun. Hemenway is correct when he calls for individual-level studies of shooters, but some way will have to be found to study them one at a time.

 

Why Has Crime Declined In New York?

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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.

crime2

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?

Drugs And Guns: The Latest From Camden

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New York Shipbuilding Yard

New York Shipbuilding Yard

The last time anyone got a good job in Camden, NJ was during World War II, when the city, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was the location of  the largest shipyard in the world, the New York Shipbuilding Yard, which turned out more than 500 naval vessels before it closed after the war.  Camden is still the headquarters of the Campbell Soup Co., but the corporate executives stay in a gated building out of habit since nobody even remembers when the plant turned out its last can of soup. The irony is that Camden’s waterfront sits directly across from Philadelphia, where waterfront property values  have skyrocketed because of an influx of luxury hotels, high-end restaurants and trendy boutiques.

In Camden, on the other hand, the word ‘blight,’ which is usually how poor neighborhoods are described, would probably apply to the entire town.  And while Camden isn’t quite as dangerous as East St. Louis, the city recorded 57 homicides in 2013, which puts its murder rate up there with places like Cali and Medellin, the location of the world’s most active and vicious narcotics cartels.  That should hardly come as a surprise, however, because the one industry which seems to be thriving in Camden is the drug business, whose chief gang, headed up by three brothers, – Omar, Edwin and Edgar Urbina – have been running an open-air drug market for years in Camden’s North End. The November raid that resulted in the arrests of the gang leaders and nearly 50 suppliers, deliverers, baggers and other gang associates, also brought about the seizure and requisite display of a stash of cash, six guns and five ounces of cocaine.

Even if a lot of drugs sold by the Urbinas and other Camden gangs go into the hands and veins of local residents, what has always made Camden a center for the drug trade is its location adjacent to many wealthy communities whose residents and police departments find it convenient to encourage drug purchases in another town.  The drive-by nature of Camden’s drug business encouraged local law enforcement to begin stopping, searching and occasionally arresting non-residents who drove a little too slowly through the town.  But when the Camden PD laid off half its officers following a budget standoff with Chris Christie, what had been a badly-managed effort to control the local drug market only got much worse.

What I find interesting in this situation is the fact that nobody seems to find it unusual or unsettling that the products sold by the drug gangs in Camden come from thousands of miles away.  In fact, whenever a major dope dealer is arrested, there’s always some mention of a connection to a drug cartel in Mexico, Colombia or somewhere else.  But the same law enforcement experts who tell you that it’s impossible to interdict the movement of drugs into and through the United States, will also tell you that if we extend NICS background checks to private transactions, we’ll be able to put a real dent in the movement of illegal guns.

When I was a teenager living in Staten Island, NY, we knew about Camden, and it was rumored that some of the drugs that came into my neighborhood had been purchased in drive-buys by some of my friends. That was fifty years ago and it’s clear that the situation hasn’t really changed.  If anything, the growth of affluent suburbs around Philly has made Camden even a bigger and better hot-spot for illegal drugs.  If the drug gangs have no trouble going to Mexico for cocaine, how difficult could it be to get their hands on a few guns?

Want To Avoid Getting Shot? Stay Away From Where The Shootings Occur

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Lotka-Volterra equation

Lotka-Volterra equation

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that what the novelist Walter Mosley said about guns is true: “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.”  Which is kind of obvious because after all, if you don’t carry a gun it can’t go off, right? But the trick, if you’re concerned about gun violence, is figuring out when and why a gun goes off, and once you know that, what to do about it. We seem to be much better at figuring out the when and the why, but an article published yesterday in the Journal of Public Health, may point a way towards also figuring out the what.

The authors, two Yale sociologists, Andrew Papachristos and Christopher Wildeman, have constructed a model for predicting gun violence based on studying gun homicides from 2006 to 2011 in an area of Chicago that had some of the highest rates of gun violence in a city that’s know for gun violence.  The study found that 6% of the area’s population was involved in 70% of the murders, and nearly everyone in this population group had prior contact with criminal justice or public health.  The data allowed the authors to construct a predictor of future gun homicides based primarily on social networks, a methodology that is now going to be used by the police to identify and visit with these high-risk kids and adults.  As Papachristos puts it, “It’s who you hang out with that gets you into trouble.”

Papachristos and Wildeman are planning to extend their research to cover the entire city of Chicago, and perhaps the Chicago PD will be able to mount a citywide program to monitor the social networks that breed the violent use of guns.  But the idea that guns are being used to commit violent crimes by people who know each other and band together is hardly new.  In fact, it’s not only humans who behave this way – the same type of behavior can be found in animals and even insects, and this has been known for nearly a hundred years.

Back in the 1920s a statistician named Alfred Lotka and a mathematician named Vito Volterra developed a statistical analysis (known as the Lotka-Volterra equations) that are used by ecologists to predict how different species occupy and protect their home territories.  This equation was then picked by a UCLA anthropologist, Jeffrey Brantingham, to study the territoriality of street gangs in Los Angeles and the links between each gangs’ territorial imperatives and gun violence.  What Brantingham found was that the further away from the gang’s headquarters, the less gun violence was committed by members of each gang.  The closer to the gang headquarters, the more shootings took place.  The behavior of the gangs was no different from the behavior of hyenas or bees. Want to avoid being attacked? Stay away from the place where the guys with the guns are found.

The research just published by Papachristos and Wildeman defines gun violence territory not from a geographic, but from a social network perspective.  It’s not about which street you walk on, it’s who you hang out with that predicts whether you’ll get shot or use a gun to shoot someone else. But when all is said and done, aren’t the findings by Papachristos and Wildeman on the one hand, and Brantigham on the other, really two sides of the coin?  After all, people tend to spend their time with people they know.  Call them a ‘group,’ a ‘gang’ or whatever, the tendency of humans to associate with one another in an organized manner is as old as humanity itself. It also seems to be as old as the existence of all living species.  Maybe the cops should spend a little less time giving out parking tickets and spend a little more time at the zoo.

 

Obama’s Putting Together an Arsenal Thanks To The TSA

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There’s been a rumor floating around (thank you Glenn Beck) that Obama has been putting together a secret army that will surround the White House and protect him when the real Americans – the 3 percenters and all the other patriots – finally rise up, take our country back and preserve our God-given, constitutional rights. So I’m here to announce that I have found Obama’s arsenal, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the TSA.

English: A TSA officer screens a piece of luggage.

English: A TSA officer screens a piece of luggage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You see, the TSA is responsible for security at all the airports, and even though there are warnings and signs all over the place telling passengers to stow their weapons in checked luggage, the folks who screen carry-on bags before passengers go to their gates just keep finding more and more guns.  In 2011 the TSA found more than 1,200 guns, in 2012 the number was over 1,500.  If the 2013 rate continues, by the end of the year the number will exceed 2,000.  That’s nearly 4,000 guns in three years.  Not a bad haul.

Of course some of the guns don’t look like they would be carried by any kind of army, unless it’s an army that has a special need for really small-caliber weapons.  In the three weeks from September 27 through October 17, for example, TSA confiscated 99 guns, of which 6 were 22 or 25 caliber, but there were also 27 pistols that were 9mm, 40 or 45-caliber, and that’s plenty of firepower for any army, whether in the pay of the President or not.  And the good news is that most of the guns were loaded, 84 of the 99 found over those three weeks, which means that the Presidential militia doesn’t even need to stop off at Dick’s Sporting Goods or Cabela’s to get ready to rumble because gun-toting Americans have made sure that the guns they’re taking on airplanes are ready to go.

Unfortunately for the President, his arsenal seems to be mainly handguns; after all, it’s not all that easy to stash an assault rifle (oops – a modern sporting rifle) into your carry-on before getting on a plane.  But Americans have always been an ingenious lot, so while the Presidential militia may be short on long guns, they’ll have enough explosives to help them carry the day.  In the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport someone walked through the line with a live, 40mm grenade; in Grand Junction there was 6 lbs. of black powder, detonation cords and a timing fuse; and a live blasting cap was found on a passenger in Richmond, Virginia.  I know, I know, they all just ‘forgot’ that they were carrying explosives onto a plane.  When was the last time you forgot that you were carrying explosives? When was the last time you carried explosives anywhere?

Getting back to the would-be passengers whose guns were taken away – know what?  It was clearly a violation of their 2nd Amendment rights.  And worse, they just wanted to bring their Glock into a ‘gun-free zone’ so that the rest of us would be protected from the nuts who figure they can shoot the place up because nobody’s got a gun.  In the light of District of Columbia versus Heller we really need to re-think our policy about allowing guns on planes.  And Obama needs to stop using the TSA to build his secret weapons cache.

Four thousand guns in three years? By the time Obama leaves office the TSA will probably be sitting on 10,000 guns.  Any chance that the TSA will let me buy the whole pile to increase the used gun inventory in my store?

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