Gotham Gazette

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Stop Living in Fear of the ‘80s Crime Wave — It was an Aberration and It’s Not Coming Back

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Mayor de Blasio and police officials (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Stephen Sigmund recently wrote an op-ed published by Gotham Gazette calling on New York’s young progressive activists to tread carefully in their pursuit of radical transformation or abolition of the NYPD, lest these reforms bring forth a repeat of the era of mass violent crime and urban decay that they are a bit too young to remember. I was glad to read this piece, because while I vehemently disagree with its entire premise and its specific proposals to activists (stop the protests; work with elected officials on reforms; “partner with police”), it provided just the necessary window into the mindset of the city’s senior leaders, especially the Mayor, Police Commissioner, and Council Speaker, to understand why they’ve been so reluctant to allow any real reductions in the NYPD’s size, power, or budget.

What that window revealed to me is the degree to which gut instincts — and especially that most powerful of instincts, fear — are guiding policy-making in our city. In particular, a potent mix of fear of the 1980s and mythology of the 1990s has a firm grip on the worldview of the people leading New York City today, as well as some number of others, like Mr. Sigmund, warning about the ‘bad old days.’

In order for police reformers and abolitionists like me to achieve the radical transformations we seek, perhaps we need to take a moment first to destroy once and for all these fears and myths of the recent past.

Mr. Sigmund, as it happens, is an essentially perfect spokesperson for this prevailing mindset of the powerful; not only has he been professionally connected to key New York City leaders in both the public and private sectors, he is a demographic fit for the cohort those leaders are most concerned about: 30-, 40-, and 50-something white professionals who moved to New York City in the ‘90s, once it felt safe for them to do so. 

I’m uncomfortably close to this cohort myself (I’m a white 30-something professional, though I was born and raised in New York City during those supposedly dark days of the ‘80s), so much so that I can still feel some of their instincts in my gut and see some of their worldview in my own memory. The narrative history of New York that these leaders have ingested and continue to reproduce goes something like this:

Crime almost destroyed New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s. It drove (white) professionals out of the city, and devastated our economy, tax base, city services, etc. New York City was saved by Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, who hired more cops and got tough on (even minor) crime in the ‘90s, thus breaking the vicious cycle and drawing more investment (and people) back to New York, fueling a quarter century of economic boom. 

The central flaw of that prevailing worldview is that it assumes the city’s natural state to be one of lawlessness and violence, when in fact the opposite is the case. Historical crime data shows New York City was actually a very safe place to live in the 1950s and ‘60s, just as it’s been for the last three decades. In fact, as has been documented by historian Steven Pinker, across the globe lawlessness and violence have been trending down for centuries. The crime wave of the ‘70s and ‘80s was an aberration, not an equilibrium. Fueled by a toxic mix of de-industrialization, suburban white flight, leaded gasoline, crack cocaine, and a myriad of social and economic factors unique to the time and place, New York City experienced a traumatizing two-decade reversal from its long-term trend. But once the wave crashed, there was no reason to fear it would rise again.

Misremembered details of this history are also essential contributors to the fear of it.

In truth, violent crime in the ‘80s, much like the far-less-common violence today, was clustered in its lowest-income neighborhoods and primarily occurred between victims and perpetrators known to one another (spouses have always been the leading cause of homicides). The threat of random violence is always the go-to justification for heavy-handed policing, but it’s just never been that common. Unless you were (or are) in a violent domestic relationship or are engaged in some level of organized criminal activity, you’re highly unlikely to be a victim of violence.

And it is a cruel irony that some of the factors that did contribute to the 1980s crime wave are misremembered as having been caused by it, and that much of the return to normalcy in the 1990s is attributed to extraordinary measures. In fact the decline in New York City’s economy, fiscal status, and quality of city services actually came in the mid-1970s, before the crime wave hit, and suburban white flight was a leading indicator, not a trailing one, of the city’s tough times.

Rudy Giuliani didn’t take office until 1994, which was already year three of the great three-decade decline in crime. A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice analysis of what caused that great decline attributed only 5-10% of the 1990s drop to increased policing, and none of the post-2000 continuing drop in crime to policing. Police theories and tactics, from “broken windows policing” to “stop and frisk,” have never had a clear statistical link to increases or decreases in crime across the United States.     

Even when crime was more common, the portrayal of it in media (both news and drama) served to make it seem far more present than it was. For white men like Stephen Sigmund and myself, both living in Murray Hill in the 1990s (me as a teenager, him having moved to the city for work), the notion that we lived in constant danger is frankly a farce — one that too many of us hold on to, perhaps because it makes us feel braver than we were. Our internal perceptions of personal danger should take a back seat to the demands of those actually affected by policy. Perhaps the fact that the present tide of protest has been led by young people of color — the group that would be most likely affected by an increase or decrease in crime — should tell us all we need to know about the supposed need to maintain the criminal justice status quo. 

So here’s a new narrative for our city’s leaders, residents, commuters, champions, skeptics, and others to internalize:

The 1980s crime wave isn’t coming back. In truth, the danger then was never as widespread as our memories of local newscasts would imply. The last 30 years of reductions in crime aren’t wholly or even largely attributable to police activity. And billions of dollars of currently-planned private development attest to the fact that even an uptick in the crime rate isn’t likely to stop (or likely even slow) the growth of this global city. If we, as a democratic society, want to transform or even abolish our police department to build a more equitable city, we can and should without fear of revisionist history somehow repeating itself. 

Jesse Laymon is the Democratic District Leader for the neighborhoods of Long Island City, Dutch Kills, Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Sunnyside. He is also the co-chair of the New York City chapter of Citizen Action of New York, and a member of the Working Families Party Advisory Council. On Twitter @jesselaymon.

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