More On The Great Decline In New York Crime

Between 1993 and 2012, the violent crime rate (homicide, robbery, forcible rape and aggravated assault) in the United States dropped by 48%.  During the same period, the violent crime rate in New York City dropped by 71%.  In 1993, violent crime in New York accounted for nearly 9% of all violent crimes reported in the United States, it’s now slightly above 3% of all U.S. violent crime, which is roughly the proportion of New York City’s population within the country as a whole.

The decrease in New York City crime became the signature accomplishment of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who tied this effort to an aggressive street-level strategy known as ‘stop-and frisk,’ along with particular attention paid to ridding the city of illegal guns, the latter making him the national poster-boy for gun control efforts after the massacre at Sandy Hook.  Bloomberg’s crime-fighting efforts were also augmented by the computerization of patrols and surveillance, known as Compstat, first introduced by his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, whose Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, is back running the NYPD again.

I am in the process of writing a book about crime in New York City that will cover the last twenty-five years and will be based, in part, on precinct-level crime data that covers the entire period, much generously supplied to me by several scholars who have published in this field.  The chart below shows the annual rate of violent crime (2000 as base year) in the USA and New York City from 1988 through 2012:

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This comparison creates a bit of a problem for Mayor Bloomberg’s crime-fighting image, never mind his legacy.  First, while violent crime fell dramatically over the twenty-four years captured by the data, the most significant decrease occurred prior to 2002, in other words, before Mayor Mike arrived at City Hall.  Second, the decline in violent crime during Bloomberg’s tenure took place during his first two terms, whereas the violent crime rate actually increased in his last term, while the national violent crime rate, which rose slightly between 2003 and 2008, now continues to fall.

New York City’s increase in violent crime since 2008 has been masked by two factors: (1). A very significant decline in homicides, which have now dropped to an annual rate not seen since the end of the Korean War; and (2). a possible overcount in the city’s estimated population in the years leading up to the 2010 census, which would depress crime rates, even if raw numbers remain unchanged. Finally, citywide crime data or even data aggregated at the borough level can’t really explain how crime affects the average city resident, because each neighborhood is almost a city within itself, and each has very different profiles when it comes to crime.  For example, Brooklyn Heights is a lovely, toney and wealthy neighborhood with great views of the Upper New York harbor and a crime rate as low as you can get.  In 2013 there was 1 homicide in Brooklyn Heights, which works out to an annual murder rate of less than 2.  Walk one mile east into Fort Greene  and the murder rate per 100,000 last year was 12.  Stroll another mile east to Brownsville (below) and you’re on streets where the murder rate was 16.

Brownsville - East New York. Picture by author.

Brownsville – East New York. Picture by author.

Criminologists have been debating the reasons why violent crime continues to decrease both nationally and within New York City, but nobody’s come up with a definitive answer as of yet.  One scholar, Frank Zimring, has published a very good book on New York City crime, entitled The City That Became Safe.  But his data only goes through 2007, and while he argues that the city became safer because of stop-and-frisk, the NYPD continued that strategy through at least 2011 and crime rates went back up.

Violent crime is a multi-faceted behavioral phenomenon whose causes lie very deep within the social fabric of the community, and I’m not sure we really understand enough about high-crime communities to know why it occurs.  The good news is that while Compstat may not yet be able to eliminate crime, it certainly can tell us where and when crimes occur.  All we have to do is figure out the why.

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Want To See Crime Go Down? Buy An Anti-Theft Device For Your Car

There will be plenty of debate over the next couple of years about Mike Bloomberg’s tenure as Mayor of New York but just about everyone agrees that perhaps his biggest accomplishment was transforming most of New York City into a crime-free zone.  Sure, there are still neighborhoods that aren’t safe, particularly some inner-city parts of Brooklyn and The Bronx. But if you live just about anywhere else in the five boroughs that comprise America’s most populous metropolis, the high levels of crime and violence that engulfed much of the city in the 1970’s and 1980’s seem to belong to a very distant past.

nypdOf course we also know that the drop in crime after the early 90’s wasn’t unique just to New York.  Virtually every major metropolitan area registered steep declines in violent and property crimes beginning in the early 90’s and lasting for about ten years.  Nationally, the violent crime rate dropped from 747 crimes per 100,000 in 1993 to to 386.9 in 2012, a decline of nearly 50%.  Property crime went down over the same period about 40%, a remarkable change given the extent of the recession of 2007-2008.

In most parts of the country the decline of crime leveled around 2005 and has moved slightly upwards over the last several years.  But remarkably enough, not only did the crime decline continue in New York but it actually became even more pronounced over the last several years.  Frank Zimring, who studied New York crime through 2009, estimates that New York’s crime decline between 2000 and 2009 was at least twice as great as that of any other major American city, and in certain specific crime categories crime declined in New York over other cities to an even greater degree.

There are lots of theories out there that attempt to explain why the decline of crime in New York is both so steep and prolonged.  Much of the credit usually goes to much more aggressive policing aided by computer-aided deployment of resources in high-crime zones.  Tracking and curtailing the activity of street gangs and gun merchants also come in for examples of strategies that seem to work.  But if you ask me, one of the real heroes in figuring out how to cut crime in New York should be the insurance agent who figured out that nifty idea to offer policy discounts for vehicles equipped with electronic burglar alarms, because if there’s one thing that’s driving (no pun intended) New York crime rates downhill, it’s the virtual disappearance from many neighborhoods of automobile theft.

Between 2000 and 2013, the category known as ‘grand larceny – auto’ dropped by more than 80%!  No other crime category declined at that rate and no other crime category  declined by at least 50% in every precinct in the town.  The 5th precinct in lower Manhattan had just one reported vehicle theft per month, the 100th precinct in Far Rockaway, Queens, had less than two car thefts every 30 days.  Even though car ownership in New York City is far below the national average, the DMV reports that there are still nearly 2 million vehicles registered in the city, and daily commuter traffic no doubt boosts this number by at least another half-million or more. With all that traffic there were less than 7,500 vehicle thefts reported for all of 2013.  The police and Mike Bloomberg have done quite a job.

Actually the drop in auto thefts has little to do with effective policing because the truth is that with the new technologies it’s getting harder to steal a car every day.  Of course a car thief may luck out and find a car door unlocked or a forgotten set of keys.  But between incentives provided by insurance companies and aggressive enforcement of alternate-side parking which drives vehicle owners to keep cars off the streets, staying in business as a car thief isn’t an easy gig.

But if the cops and the Mayor don’t deserve so much credit for making it tough on car thieves, then this substantially changes the profile of crime in New York over the last twenty years.  Because if we pull the auto theft numbers out of the overall crime data covering the last ten years, all of a sudden New York’s vaunted crime decline becomes somewhat less steep.  In fact, the overall drop in crime since 2000 is no longer 50% but comes out around 20 percentage points less.  This is still a very impressive number but it’s far below the level being thrown in Bill DeBlasio’s face today.  I only hope that the new Mayor also knows how to read between the lines.

Want To Reduce Crime? Try The Bloomberg Approach.

Now that Mike Bloomberg has departed from the scene, we might want to look more closely at his signature achievement, namely, the notion that he turned New York City into a crime-free zone.  There’s been a lot of give and take on this one, particularly because much of the alleged decrease in violent crime was believed to be the product of a too aggressive, stop-and-frisk strategy employed by the NYPD.  But while civil libertarians and criminologists bat that one back and forth, I prefer to spend a little time analyzing the numbers that have been produced by Bloomberg’s administration  to bolster the claims that New York is now a very safe town.

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But before I get into the numbers, it’s important to understand that while New York contains more than 8 million people, this immense population lives in five very distinct boroughs which, if we throw them all together and only talk about the city as a whole, we end up with a picture that bears little relation to the circumstances in which most city residents actually live. Because crime is the most potent barometer for judging what’s called “quality of life,” if people feel physically secure they tend to consider themselves better off even if their material circumstances are not what they would like.  On the other hand, when people feel insecure and threatened by their environment, no degree of physical amenities can restore their sense of well-being or mitigate their fears that things just aren’t right.

Enter the Bloomberg numbers machine.  According to his numbers, violent crime continues to decline in New York, with homicides, the most visible of all violent crimes, being reduced to the lowest level in more than thirty years.  The drop has been seen in every category of violent crime, and it has been going on far longer than any expert would ever predict.  Even the noted criminologist Frank Zimring, who recently wrote a book about the decline in NYC crime, recently admitted that the decline was even greater than what he predicted might occur.

But there’s only one little problem.  If you look at crime stats on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, it’s clear that in many parts of the city people aren’t safe at all and worse, the drop in violent crime in some areas, particularly the wealthiest parts of the city, has been so steep that it tends to mask a much more severe problem in other parts of town.  For example, according to the FBI, the national rate for the four crime categories that comprise violent crime stands right now at 386.9 incidents per 100,000 people.  There are neighborhoods in New York City where the violent crime rate is more than three times as high.  The national murder rate in 2012 was 4.7, but in Brooklyn’s Brownsville right now it’s 15.1.  Forcible rape is 26.9 nationally but it’s higher in the Morrissania section of The Bronx and nearly double in Brownsville and “Do or Die’ Bed-Stuy.

Want to live in a crime-free zone?  Buy a two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s West End Avenue complete with cockroaches for only $2.5 million and you’ll live without fear.  The 20th Precinct, which covers the trendy area around Lincoln Center, has a violent crime rate of 123.5, less than one-third the national rate, and has yet to see a single homicide in 2013, unless you want to count the night that I ate dinner at Mort Zuckerman’s  Masa restaurant and got stuck with the check. But seriously, if you take the crime numbers for the West and East Sides of Manhattan, they go a long way to help flatten out ghetto crime numbers from Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx.

Much of the criticism about Bloomberg’s tenure centered on the degree to which he lavished attention and concern on Manhattan but never got involved in what happened to areas where his wealthy friends didn’t happen to reside.  There’s no question that crime rates in even the worst NYC neighborhoods nosedived in the 1990’s as they did nationwide.  But to continue hiding behind crime stats for Manhattan simply shortchanges the rest of New York City and everyone, no matter where they live, deserves a life free from crime.

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