By Franklin Zimring, San Francisco Chronicle
The drop in street crime in New York City after 1990 is not only the largest decline ever documented in a major city but also a major contradiction of the conventional wisdom that has dominated crime policy in the United States for a generation.
Between 1990 and 2009, the rate of murders, robberies and burglaries fell by more than 80 percent, while auto theft in 2009 was down 94 percent. Such huge declines in fear crime require a new method of score-keeping – instead of measuring the size of the drop, it is more informative to ask what proportion of the old crime level remains, and the answer in most cases is “not much.”
In less than 20 years, the city’s homicide rate is 18 percent of its 1990 high, and the auto theft rate is 6 percent of its former level. There is a lower homicide rate in New York in 2011 than in 1961 before the crime explosion of the 1960s, and these amazing statistics are not just creative accounting by the police – independent tests to check police crime statistics confirm both the size and the timing of the official crime statistics for homicide, auto theft, robbery and burglary.
That’s great for New Yorkers, of course, but what the rest of us really want to know is whether the two-decade history in New York can help other cities with serious problems of criminal violence like Oakland and Richmond. My own extensive research suggests four important lessons that can help most cities produce safer streets:
1 Cops matter a lot
Twenty years ago, social scientists believed that police efforts couldn’t make a substantial dent in urban crime, because police couldn’t be everywhere. We thought that criminals could simply outwait the police or relocate.
But even a careful discounting of New York City crime numbers that ignores the 40 percent crime drop that most places experienced in the 1990s and discounts the effects of population change in Manhattan still leaves plenty of credit for the cops. Almost half of the city’s record-breaking drop in robbery and burglary and almost a third of the disappearing auto thefts are the product of better policing. But why is that?
It turns out that street criminals aren’t quite as persistent as we used to assume. If police prevent a robbery Tuesday night on 125th Street, that doesn’t mean an extra robbery on 140th Street or next Thursday. Instead, the impulses that produce muggings are situational and contingent on many factors, and that means short-term interventions can have long-term consequences for crime rates.
The epic success of police in New York came at a time when the number of cops increased, their strategies of enforcement changed, and street police became much more aggressive. We still don’t know which of the policing changes are necessary to the dramatic results. In particular, we don’t know whether large numbers of misdemeanor arrests and massive stop-and-frisk campaigns add value to preventive policing. But we do know police play a vital role in community safety.
2 Drug harm reduction works
The hard-line war on drugs in the United States was based on the assumption that the only way to combat drug violence was to sharply reduce the sale and use of heroin and cocaine, but New York has proved this wrong.
New York used cops to eliminate street drug markets, which created safer streets and reduced killings over drug turf but drove drug sales indoors. The police cut drug killings by more than 90 percent and made the streets much safer, but levels of illicit drug use remained pretty stable.
So the nation’s largest city managed to win its war on drug violence but without winning its war on drugs. What the public health community calls harm reduction was proved a success by municipal police. And places like Oakland can also benefit by a clear focus on public sales and drug-related violence instead of treating all drug arrests as equally important.
3 Crime prevention doesn’t require mass incarceration
The sevenfold expansion of imprisonment in the United States was based on the assumption that high-rate criminal offenders could only be controlled if they were locked up.
But New York City has cut its crime rate by four-fifths since 1990 while reducing the number of persons in its prisons and jails by 28 percent. The incarceration rate in the rest of the United States increased by 65 percent during the same period. But where have New York’s robbers and burglars gone? Here’s one major clue – 28 percent of felons sent back to the city in 1990 were reconvicted of a felony in the next three years, but by 2006 the re-conviction rate had dropped to 10 percent. This signals that the personal crime rates of these offenders have dropped by 64 percent in 16 years. Those who used to be active offenders commit far fewer crimes without being locked up.
These New York statistics should provide comfort to those in California who worry that the release of more state prisoners must certainly cause a crime wave. Smart investments in street policing can prevent more crime than prisons do and at less cost.
4 Cities don’t have to be crime factories
The people and institutions of New York City have changed much more modestly in the last two decades than has the crime rate. The 2011 report card for urban progress is uneven at best – jobs are scarce, schools are problematic, single-parent families are common, and economic inequality is rampant. But violence and the imprisonment of the poor have dropped by huge numbers.
It turns out that cities can make spectacular progress in crime control without major changes in their populations, culture or institutions. Epidemic levels of crime and violence are not hardwired into the structure of urban life and that is good news for all cities.