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The Crime Rate: How Low Can It Go?

by Joshua Brustein, Feb 28, 2005
 

Nilma Rivas was walking with her grandson in East Harlem early one evening when a group of men in a car began shooting on the sidewalk. A stray bullet hit her in the leg, and she bled to death. She was 52 years old.

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“People who knew what to do ran,” Jose Rivera, a resident who witnessed the shooting, told the New York Times. “Those who didn’t know what to do stood there.”

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That was in November, 1993, a time when the newspaper could refer to random shootings as "numbingly common."

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A dozen years later, Javier Llano, walking in that same neighborhood, is worried about crime too. But the crimes that engage Llano, the district manager of the local community board, are pickpocketing and the theft of items left in the cafeteria at Mount Sinai hospital.

In the decade after Rivas's killing, crime in East Harlem dropped 60 percent. The number of murders in the police precinct where Rivas died dropped from 37 a year to eight.

The story is much the same all over New York City, which has experienced a dramatic drop in crime for 15 years in a row now. In 1990, 2,245 were murdered; in 2004, there were 566 murders citywide. In 1990, 147,123 cars were stolen; in 2004, auto thefts in the city totaled 21,848. The Federal Bureau of Investigation now considers New York the country’s safest big city.

How did this happen? Why did it happen? Mayor Michael Bloomberg credits the policies of his administration and those of his predecessor, and is making the drop in crime a centerpiece of his campaign for re-election. But others offer different explanations. And some experts say that the drop in crime remains a mystery.

Most New Yorkers, though, are probably less interested in why crime has been dropping than in whether it will continue to do so. Some fear an inevitable reversal of the trend, and point to a recent increase in crime in several neighborhoods. (See related story in the Community Gazettes for district 3, Against the Tide, Crime Continues Rising in Chelsea)

With fewer resources allocated to go after crime, some say that the administration is putting itself in a tricky situation. If no one is sure why the crime rate has continued to decrease, how can they know that it won't start to increase? And if Bloomberg and his police commissioner are taking credit for keeping the crime rate down, how can they avoid the blame if it starts to go back up?

BLOOMBERG'S POLICIES

When he succeeded Rudolph Giuliani as mayor in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg vowed he would keep crime down while at the same time improving community relations. In making these promises, he was responding to the dual legacy of Rudolph Giuliani.

Many New Yorkers identified the decline in crime with Giuliani’s tough tactics. Giuliani saw lowering crime rates as his major goal in office, and adopted a relentless policing style to do so, combating minor, so-called quality of life offenses.

On the face of it, Bloomberg’s basic policing philosophy is a continuation of Giuliani’s. Both administrations have focused on cracking down on minor crimes. Bloomberg immediately initiated Operation Clean Sweep upon coming into office to cut down on quality of life offenses. In its first two years, the operation totaled 20,000 arrests and 209 summonses.

Under Bloomberg, courts are not inclined to offer Desk Appearance Tickets – tickets for small crimes intended to move people through the system quickly – meaning that offenders are more likely to spend the night in jail.

The police department is also looking at ways to improve analysis of crime data, setting the stage for targeted operations that resemble those that Giuliani adopted citywide.

“They’re constantly working on being smarter, and putting people where the problems are, and having the data and the information to do it quicker,” said Eli Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Operation Impact, for example, is the administration’s major such effort. It uses computer-generated statistics to come up with troubled “Impact Zones”, which it then floods with rookie police officers. The administration notes that crime in these areas dropped 26 percent in 2004. It has moved its focus to a new set of areas for 2005.

Limits to Success?

In some cases, though, the idea of saturation seems to be pushed near its limit. While crime declined across the board last year, major felonies were up 2.1 percent on the subway, despite a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of arrests.

Over-reliance on the numbers has also been said to give the department tunnel vision. William Bratton, the police commissioner who established the major policing policies of the Giuliani administration, wrote that reliance on computer-generated statistics tends to reduce focus on things that cannot be measured easily (in pdf format).

The relentless pursuit of lower crime rates through increased police vigilance is also having an effect on the police officers themselves. During the Giuliani years, the pressure to lower crime was seen as reason for overly aggressive tactics; in recent years precincts having trouble bringing down crime through policing have reverted to creative manipulation of the statistics (and, in some cases, outright fabrication.)

Rank-and-file police officers are also without a contract. This, combined with pressure to continuously outperform themselves, has led to an all-time low in morale, according to police union president Patrick Lynch.

Improving on Community Relations?

The policing strategies that Bloomberg has inherited alienated a large swath of the city’s population during the Giuliani administration, particularly the young black and Hispanic men who were most likely to be the targets of crackdowns. They were also linked to high profile police killings and other acts of brutality like the killing of Amadou Diallo and the torture of Abner Louima that marred the Giuliani administration.

At first glance, such tension has seemed absent from the Bloomberg years.

In truth, though, the number of complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board during the Bloomberg years has actually been higher than it was under Giuliani. It continues to rise. In the first six months of 2004 the number of complaints grew about 15 percent as compared to 2003, numbers that the police department dismisses as indicative of increased ease in filing complaints through systems like 311. Young black men are still more likely to file complaints than any other group.

Nor have the last three years been free of innocent victims: a police officer shot and killed Timothy Stansbury while he was walking across the roof of his grandmother’s housing development; Alberta Spruill was killed in her apartment building in Harlem during a faulty raid; a police officer shot and killed African immigrant Ousmane Zongo in a raid that some have criticized as reminiscent of the troubling excesses of the Giuliani years.

What has changed is that these events have failed to develop into widespread discontent. To many, this serves as a testament to the political skills of Bloomberg and Kelly. Their prowess in public relations, some say, has diverted attention away from what really amounts to more of the same.

“Part of the thing that galvanized people was Giuliani with this uncaring attitude, and Bloomberg has not done that,” said Angelo Falcon, president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy. “It’s still a serious problem in our communities. What has changed on the ground is that people aren’t paying attention in the same way.”

Others give the current administration more credit, saying that Kelly has cut back on the more aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics that were producing much tension while also reaching out to communities.

“What [Kelly] is saying is that police commanders should stay in touch with their communities, find out what the problems are, attend meetings,” said Edward Mamet, a retired police captain who now works as a police consultant. “It doesn’t have to be in a formal way. It’s a culture that has to be established.”

In East Harlem, says Javier Llano of Community Board 11, police officers not only meet with him, but also with local businesses and community organizations in a way that never happened under Giuliani. These meetings have inspired Llano, he says, to think of new ways to improve the burgeoning relationship between the police and the community.

On the other hand, developing closer relationships with local police officers has had at least one drawback. Officers have recently been coming to Llano with troubling news. Don’t be surprised if the crime rate starts going up, one warned him, because we can’t possibly make it go any lower.

WHY THE DROP IN CRIME?

To accept or reject this argument -- that the crime rate cannot possibly go any lower -- it helps to understand the debate over the causes for the unprecedented decline in crime.

Those trying to explain the drop in crime generally gather into two opposing camps.

On one side are those who believe that poverty, joblessness, and other social and economic factors drive crime rates. According to this view, the nationwide drop in crime during the 1990s was due mainly to the end of the crack cocaine epidemic and the strong economy. New York’s specific success was also credited to a rise in immigrants – who commit fewer crimes – and a drop in the number of young men – who commit more.

The other side of the debate argues that policing was what mattered most, and that New York City’s experience proves that. By adopting the broken windows theory and pioneering Compstat, the New York Police Department had developed new, more effective ways to combat crime.

The New York Police Department underwent major changes in the 1990s that continue to the present day. After increasing significantly in size, it embraced a new philosophy under Giuliani. The broken windows theory holds that unpunished minor offenses led to an atmosphere of disorder that would lead to more major crimes.

The department’s goal became to eliminate that atmosphere. To do so, it employed Compstat, a computer database that created detailed information about crime on a precinct-by-precinct basis. This was neither a technological innovation nor a a completely new idea; Compstat used off-the-shelf software to do something that police had long done by hand. But it allowed the department to do it faster, and it made precincts responsible for their own performances. In monthly meetings, traditional barriers to communication were eliminated.

“We had developed a method to reduce crime and disorder that would work in any city in America – indeed, in any city in the world,” wrote Police Commissioner William Bratton, who implemented Compstat and the broken windows theory in New York.

The ideas spread across the country, but not every city in America adopted them, and skeptics point out that many of these cities saw drops in crime as well. In the 1990s, cities like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego saw crime drop significantly.

“Long derided by conservatives for its alternative crime policies, San Francisco registered reductions in crime that exceed or equal comparable cities and jurisdictions – including New York,” wrote the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in a 2002 report (in pdf format).

Recent years have seen some of these successes reversed. At the same time, a fluctuating economy did nothing to reverse the crime rate. Some proponents of the arguments that social and economic drive crime rates were no longer convinced that these arguments gave the full picture.

Andrew Karmen, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Science and the author of New York Murder Mystery, a book about the nationwide decline in crime during the 1990s, points to continuing social factors – more high school students going to college, the continued boom in immigration – while also saying that the police department has been a significant factor.

But the failure of either major theory to explain fully the drop in crime leads Karmen to the conclusion that what is happening in New York is in need of examination outside of the usual argument between the two camps. He has been calling for a non-political commission to study the phenomenon so that policymakers will not be caught unaware when the trend reverses.

“I want to present the whole thing as a mystery and I want to claim that no one knows for sure why crime has dropped so sharply in New York,” he said, which makes it impossible to know when the trend will stop.

HOW LOW CAN THE CRIME RATE GO?

At various times throughout the last 15 years, experts have said that crime had reached its lowest possible level.

“Since you can never eliminate crime, you have to look at what is the satisfactory level of crime that we can tolerate,” said Mamet, the police consultant. Some think that 566 murders is close to the best that New York can hope for.

Whether a certain number of crimes constitute a high or low crime rate is, of course, relative. In the 1950s, 300 or 400 murders were accepted as the average; by 1996, the 1,000-murder mark was considered the “magic number” to beat.

"If at midnight of December 31 the homicide rate is below 1,000, you can bet the corks will be popping at City Hall.” Newsday writer Dennis Duggan predicted several weeks before the end of 1996.

There would hardly be celebration at the mayor’s office if there are anywhere near 1,000 murders this year, just as many European cities would be shocked to suffer from the "low crime rate" that New York enjoys today. The murder rate in New York City, for example, is calculated to be 6.9 per 100,000 people. By contrast, the murder rate in London is 2.4 per 100,000. And whatever the rate, the absolute number of murders in New York City last year was higher than any other city in the United States. Put it all together, and there were as many Americans killed in New York City between 1962 and 2002 as died in the Vietnam War. That doesn't sound very low.

Related Links
New York Police Department
Vera Institute of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports
Bureau of Justice Statistics: Overview of Homicide Trends in the US
Does Policing Matter? An Analysis of the New York City's Police Reforms (by the Manhattan Institute)
Shattering Broken Windows: An Analysis of San Francisco's Alternative Crime Policies (by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice)
Reconsidering the 'Broken Windows' Theory (an audio file by National Public Radio)
 




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