James O'Neill, Bill Bratton, Bill de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York Police Department have much cause for celebration. Last year was undoubtedly the safest year on record in decades, setting new benchmarks for crime reduction across most major categories, according to the latest crime data released by the NYPD on Friday.
The total number of major felony crimes fell below 100,000 for the first time ever, no small feat for a city now home to more than 8.5 million residents. The city also set a record for fewest murders in the modern data-tracking era, and fewest since the early 1950s, when the city had far fewer residents, and fewest shooting incidents.
The mayor and police commissioner, James O’Neill, are proudly touting the success of the department’s practices, especially reforms of the last few years, with numerous initiatives that they say have shown immense success. The neighborhood policing program is rebuilding trust with communities, targeted policing of gangs in trouble spots across the city is nipping crime in the bud, and preventative programs are reducing gun violence, they say. Officers are being re-trained in new policing tactics, especially de-escalation, while also being equipped with improved technology and safety gear. Complaints about police officers are also at new lows, while the number of arrests has plummeted, and a body camera program is being rolled out.
Meanwhile, the mayor and police officials still believe that broken windows policing, with its acute attention to keeping social order and enforcing low-level crimes in an effort to prevent larger ones, and its use, however evolved, is still seen as essential.
Though it may be easy, and tempting, to draw the simple conclusion that crime is at historic lows because of the work of the NYPD and this mayor’s administration, experts say that would be a mistake. Crime has been falling for decades across the nation and even the entire world, and New York City, the “safest big city in America,” is not unique.
“None of this happened by accident,” said Commissioner O’Neill, at a news conference on Friday with other top NYPD brass, Mayor de Blasio, the newly elected City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “I’d call it incredible were it not for the very credible reasons why it’s all happening,” O’Neill said as de Blasio nodded in agreement.
Neighborhood policing, now in 56 of 77 precincts and in nine Housing Bureau areas, is a “game changer,” O’Neill insisted, creating a greater sense of shared responsibility towards public safety between police and communities. Coordination with state and federal law enforcement in “precision policing” is helping build stronger cases against the “real drivers of crime,” he said, and community partners are playing a strong role. “As far as violence being reduced in society, that’s a little bit above my pay grade,” he conceded, when asked about broader trends. “But I know what’s happening in the NYPD, I know what’s happening in the city, and I know it’s happening with the way we are working with communities around the city and it’s all playing a big part in reducing crime.”
“This is a new day in New York City, a different reality, and it’s working,” said de Blasio subsequently, also crediting the Cure Violence program, which is led by local leaders, including former gang members, and seeks to prevent and diffuse conflicts at the community level, preempting crime before it is carried out. De Blasio insisted that stop-and-frisk policing had been “holding us back” and that it’s reduction had made the city safer.
“I think when you see this kind of intensive, fast reduction, I think it does come back to neighborhood policing, precision policing, stronger ties to the community, community allies making a big impact, and different strategies right down to the example of taking something as difficult and painful as domestic violence and treating it as a moment for intensified engagement,” the mayor said. “Not just answer the call and that’s it, but constantly coming back. That’s a very hands-on, proactive approach that is newer to the NYPD. I think that makes a big impact.”
Two areas of serious crime that the city has not seen significant reductions in of late are domestic violence and rape reports, which NYPD officials attribute to more reporting, not more actual incidences, the willingness of victims to come forward, a changing culture, and victims’ belief that they will be heard and helped by the police department. Domestic violence reports were down about 6 percent in 2017 compared to 2016; the number of rape reports were nearly the same.
There were 290 murders in 2017, down from 335 in 2013, the year before de Blasio took office (the prior record low was 333 in 2014). In that same time, the number of “index” crimes -- seven major felony offenses -- fell to 96,517 from 111,335. It’s part of a larger trend that has continued for decades, said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. “The drop can’t possibly correlate with any policy changes in New York City. It began in the Dinkins administration,” Vitale said. “Our best minds have tried to figure out what’s causing this long-term international phenomenon and we just don’t understand.”
The overall body of research on crime reduction is inconclusive and often rife with partisan interpretations, which is why Vitale cautioned against broadly crediting the NYPD for the drop in crime, which runs the risk that, when issues arise, the city will simply throw more officers at the problem. “When all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail,” he said, of the assumption that policing is the only solution to public safety. Rather, the city should be guided by considerations of “justice, racial politics and democracy,” said Vitale, who is a liberal.
“What I would say to the mayor is that he needs to continue to aggressively pursue ways of improving quality of life that don’t rely on the criminal justice system,” Vitale said. He did acknowledge the steps the city has taken -- reducing stop-and-frisk policing, targeted enforcement and anti-violence prevention programs -- but, at the same time, he said the city must also better address issues such as gentrification, homelessness, and lack of access to healthcare for low-income New Yorkers.
Among the major steps the city has taken was the addition of 1,300 more officers to the force in 2015, at the behest of the City Council under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Corey Johnson’s predecessor. In recent days, Johnson has also floated the idea of adding more police officers to bolster community policing and give officers more time on the beat than responding to radio calls. It’s what Vitale warns against. “We start with the premise that because it’s a community problem, we need the police to figure it out,” he said. “But where’s their expertise?”
Vitale has long advocated for more city investment in social services to deal with community issues, rather than the overuse of policing, which he believes should be focused on the most serious crimes.
The neighborhood policing program that the administration swears by has slowly evolved from other paradigms of broken windows policing. This philosophy and practice have the mayor’s support and broken windows is the mantra of former police commissioner Bill Bratton, who continues to defend the practice as the key driver of crime reduction even as police reform advocates criticize its adverse impact on communities of color.
“Beginning in 1990, the New York City police department returned to a mission that was focused on not only dealing with serious crime, but also began to focus on disorder, which had not been addressed at all in the '70s and '80s,” Bratton said in a recent interview with National Public Radio, on the causes for dropping crime, “and disorder is described as broken windows, quality of life, minor offenses. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”
As Bratton explains it, broken windows policing has taken different forms in different eras, responding to conditions at the time. For example, intense law enforcement in the subway system in the 1990s, a decade that saw Bratton's first stint as NYPD commissioner and the implementation of strict, proactive policing by Mayor Rudy Giuliani's police department. The more recent iteration was in the overuse of stop-and-frisk policing, which increased significantly under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as they sought to take guns off the streets, triggering massive protests and a federal lawsuit.
But there’s no clear evidence that broken window policing has caused the drop in crime. The relatively new Office of Inspector General of the NYPD concluded in 2016 that there was “no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime.” The administration and NYPD top brass, including de Blasio and Bratton themselves, pushed back against the report, claiming it was “deeply flawed,” but largely using corollary and experiential takeaways to justify their claims. Meanwhile, crime numbers continue to trend down even as the NYPD has arrested tens of thousands fewer people. Bratton and others would argue that the city has only tweaked the formula, not abandoned broken windows in any discernible way.
A November 2017 report on proactive policing initiatives by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also found that broken windows has little impact on crime while stop-and-frisk has mixed results. Hot spots policing and problem-oriented tactics lead to short-term reductions, the report found, while focused deterrence has both short- and long-term impacts on crime control.
De Blasio’s NYPD has combined most, if not all, of those measures. Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, cited the report to illustrate how tough it is to draw concrete conclusions about the city’s crime numbers. “I think [de Blasio’s] right to credit community policing, but that’s a very broad term...any initiative that’s targeted at repairing trust between police and communities fits under that umbrella,” Grawert said, “so it kicks down the road the question of which types are community policing and which aren’t. But I think those are broadly successful anti-crime measures.”
Yet, crime was trending down over decades before de Blasio implemented his neighborhood policing program, which is still in its infancy. Grawert had a simple prescription for the NYPD. “Keep following the data to figure out where police resources are needed and how to apply them, and keep engaging the community to keep and increase their trust in the police,” he said.
The city’s approach goes beyond just responding to crime, seeking to prevent it in the first place. This work has taken different forms over decades. Now, New York City is the largest Cure Violence site in the country, with 18 communities where “violence interrupters,” as they are called, operate to work with high-risk individuals and diffuse conflict. It’s a health-based approach, said Charles Ransford, director of science and policy at Cure Violence, looking at crime as a “problem of contagion.” “When you recognize that, you take those most exposed to violence...and work with them,” he said. “Police can only do so much. Policing matters but it’s something that should be a last resort.”
Ransford said New York City is doing far more than other cities to prevent violence at the front end, and studies bear out the effectiveness of the approach. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center found that between 2014 and 2016, there was a 50 percent decrease in gun injuries in East New York, Brooklyn and a 37 percent reduction in the South Bronx, two communities where Cure Violence has been implemented. “We have to make sure that we look at the whole picture,” Ransford said. “This was a very deliberate decision and effort by Mayor de Blasio and the City Council together to take a chance on Cure Violence and fund it to such a level. They deserve a lot of credit for that.”
The administration and the Council together put $22.5 million towards the Cure Violence program in fiscal year 2017 through the newly created Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, up from $12.7 million in fiscal year 2015.
City Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn said it was one of the things that New York City was doing differently in reducing crime, and credited the mayor for his support. “I think there are a variety of factors and I think there’s not one answer to this...I think there’s a better understanding that public safety is not just for the police and they can’t be the only people responsible for all of the issues that lead to some of these crimes,” he said. In particular, he praised “how we’re dealing with gun violence and the community approach that we’ve found to work, and actually putting money behind it, real money, that has always been missing...there was a real belief and real resources put behind it.”
Noting that numerous metrics were trending downwards -- murders, shootings, instances of officers firing their weapons, arrests, complaints against officers -- Williams said, “We need to continue in that direction. We need to make sure that we’re continuing not to see summonses and arrests as the only way to deal with issues in communities.”
Williams did have some criticism for the administration and the police department, arguing that with regards to accountability and transparency, the city has stood still and even fallen behind. He noted, in particular, statute 50-a of the state civil rights code that protects officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure. The mayor has called for a repeal of the statute and he reiterated, when asked by Gotham Gazette on Friday, that it’s one of his legislative priorities in Albany this year.
There are larger forces at work as well. Shifting demographics and gentrification have changed the face of neighborhoods across the city. The economy is riding a wave of unprecedented prosperity and unemployment is at an all-time low. “The number one thing that cuts violent crime arrests in half is a job,” said Williams, noting that the city has expanded the Summer Youth Employment Program in the past three years from roughly 25,000-30,000 slots to 70,000 slots. “I think [President] Donald Trump and [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions should look at what’s happening in New York City and pay attention to what’s happening here as opposed to pushing cockamamie ideas that take us backwards,” he added.
That crime has decreased as the administration moves towards full implementation of neighborhood policing is correlation without causation, as there is no measurable data on the program. De Blasio himself admits that his proof lies in anecdotal evidence. At a December 29 news conference, when asked how he quantified success, he said, “Because I’ve talked to so many neighborhood policing officers and community leaders who have given me numerous examples of information they’ve gotten that has helped them to fight crime and have made clear this was information they often didn’t get in the past.” He acknowledged that his administration would have to release objective analyses of the program “to help people understand just how big an impact there has been.”
Police reform advocate Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, believes it’s a dubious claim. “Crime was going down before quote-unquote neighborhood policing,” he said. “I don’t see how [de Blasio] starts drawing this direct line between that and the reduction of crime. I don’t believe it passes the smell test.”
Advocates like Griffith were vindicated when the city curtailed the unconstitutional and unchecked use of stop-and-frisk policing, proliferated under Bloomberg and Kelly, and crime continued to fall. De Blasio has also claimed validation, as he ran for mayor on a pledge to scale back stop-and-frisk and repair police-community relationships.
To Griffith and others, the continued drops in crime has been proof that aggressive policing does not work and that more police officers on the street is not the solution. “The police can no longer use this narrative of our neighborhoods being unruly and undisciplined and prone to violence as an excuse to use abusive policing,” Griffith said. “I think this is now the moment to see how we can have both worlds. We can have low crime and we can have an accountable police force that is not abusive, not discriminatory and is not aggressive.”