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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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?