What Other Cities Can Learn from New York’s Record Crime Drop

by Randy Shaw on September 6, 2012

From 1990 to 2009, New York City experienced an 81% decline in crime. It is the steepest drop over a two-decade period of any major city in U.S. history. The lessons of this drop, however, have largely been ignored. Ask progressives, and they’ll attribute the crime decline to rising gentrification that displaced those most likely to commit crimes from the city. Conservatives credit the “broken windows” strategy, claiming that the NYPD’s alleged crackdown on quality of life crimes reduced serious felonies. Others attribute this historic crime reduction to the police policy of “stop and frisk,” and to the numerical decline in the age group of leading crime offenders. Franklin Zimring challenges all of these explanations and others in his brilliant book, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control. Zimring uses the New York City model to show that struggles against public drug markets and violent crime can be won—if tactics with a proven track record of success are implemented.

Violence, property crime and public drug dealing plague neighborhoods across America, yet far too often the strategic response relies on popular folk wisdom rather than the facts. This has resulted in a multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex that has little impacted street crime, and the comparative underfunding of the far more effective strategy of increasing the number of police in crime hot spots.

This is among the many findings in Franklin Zimring’s comprehensively researched and data driven analysis of how New York City’s rates of homicide, robbery and burglary dropped over 80% from 1990-2009, with auto theft falling 94%. No major city comes close to such a steep crime decline, with most seeing little drop since 2000. Given New York City’s astonishing success, would you not think its lessons would be applied in every major U.S. city?

Folk Wisdom Prevails over Facts

In my recent review of David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, I described how the lack of cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement entities represented a barrier to reducing crime. Zimring makes an even stronger case that effective anti-crime strategies have been subordinated to failed approaches that nevertheless attract broad support.

For example, Zimring shows that James Q. Wilson’s widely popular and admired “broken windows” strategy—in which crackdowns on quality of life crimes allegedly reduce serious felonies—had little to do with NYC’s crime drop. Whereas NYC police decided to target “hot spots,” Wilson argued that the police should not concentrate resources in the highest crime areas “where the situation is hopeless.”

It should be obvious that concentrating resources in the areas where most crime occurs is essential for reducing citywide crime rates, yet Wilson’s opposite approach still gets credited in the popular press for reducing NYC crime. Wilson was also a big proponent of increased incarceration for repeat criminals, an unbelievably costly strategy that neither reduces nor deters crime and was not a factor in NYC’s historic crime drop.

Unlike Wilson, John Dilulio and other widely quoted anti-crime “experts,” Zimring is like Sergeant Joe Friday of the legendary Dragnet television show: he is all about the facts. His book is filled with charts and graphs to support his points, and these outcomes take him to places that potentially alienate anti-crime activists across the political spectrum.

For example, Zimring shows that NYC’s gentrification since 1990 has had almost nothing to do with the historic crime drop. Crime also fell precipitously in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn that were not gentrified, and the city’s overall numbers of low-income people—those most likely to commit crimes— has changed remarkably little.

Zimring confronts those of us who primarily blame unemployment for rising crime with another uncomfortable set of facts: NYC”s crime decline remained constant as unemployment fluctuated, and continued to fall even as unemployment sharply rose.

Other popular folk wisdom about crime—the alleged “demographic time bomb” which was supposed to create a crime explosion that never occurred, the belief that longer sentences reduce crime by taking “career criminals” out of circulation, and the belief that public drug markets displaced from one block or neighborhood simply reestablish nearby—are also blown apart by Zimring’s statistical approach.

More and Smarter Police

Zimring identifies the chief reasons for NYC’s record crime drop as an increase in police staffing, a targeting of “hot spots,” and a “problem-solving” approach to crime. Does this not sound obvious? It recalls Detective Freeman’s repeated pleas in The Wire to be allowed to do “real police work” rather than just sweeping down to arrest low-level dealers. Why do other cities not follow NYC’s successful model?

In the case of police staffing, it comes down to a lack of money. Of all the powerful points Zimring makes, I was most taken by his noting that while state governments fund the prison system, police rely on local dollars. This means that the failed and costly incarceration strategy gets humungous resources, local governments must struggle to fund the police who actually deter crimes and violence from happening. To put it another way, if California’s huge investment in prison guards had instead been directed toward local police departments, fewer guards would have been needed and crime would have been more greatly reduced.

Zimring notes that the NYPD took a harm-reduction approach to drugs. In other words, they eliminated public drug markets and the type of drug activity that worsens neighborhoods without worrying that people were still using drugs. As a result, drug arrests plummeted while drug use was maintained. Many activists argue that you can’t stop drug markets so long as there is consumer demand; Zimring’s study of NYC shows otherwise. Zimring also refutes the popularly held view that there is no point spending police resources closing down public drug markets or crime hotspots as they will just relocate nearby. He notes that “one less auto theft on 125th Street is just as likely to result in one less auto theft in NYC rather than an auto theft 10 blocks away.”

New York City demonstrates that strategic police practices can dramatically reduce crime. But because the NYPD initiated a number of police strategies, Zimring is unable to link a particular tactic—-such as the controversial “stop and frisk” policy—to a specific percentage reduction. This may frustrate readers who want Zimring to outright reject the effectiveness of a practice that racially discriminates against African-American and Latino men, but while he criticizes the tactic, he is unwilling to go beyond what the data shows.

Unlike David Kennedy, who takes readers down in the trenches of urban neighborhoods as anti-crime strategies are conceived and implemented, Zimring, a Professor at the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, takes a far more academic approach. But Zimring’s empirically driven and nuanced analysis is essential for other cities to correctly apply the lessons of New York City’s historic crime decline. This is a book that every major city police chief and mayor should read and discuss, along with all activists working to reduce crime in their cities.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses anti-crime strategies in The Activist’s Handbook and is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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