What really cleaned up New York

The city\'s extraordinary, continuing decrease in crime had little to do with Giuliani. An expert explains why

Published November 19, 2011 5:00PM (EST)


If you compare New York in 2011 to New York in 1990, it seems hard to believe that it's the same city. In the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, New York was viewed as one of the world's most dangerous metropolises -- a cesspool of violence and danger depicted in gritty films like "The Warriors" and "Escape From New York." Friends who lived here during that time talk of being terrified to use the subway, of being mugged outside their apartments, and an overwhelming tide of junkies. Thirty-one one of every 100,000 New Yorkers were murdered each year, and 3,668 were victims of larceny.

Today, in an astonishing twist, New York is one of the safest cities in the country. Its current homicide rate is 18 percent of its 1990 total -- its auto theft rate is 6 percent. The drop exceeded the wildest dreams of crime experts of the 1990s, and it's a testament to this transformation that New Yorkers now seem more likely to complain about the city's dullness than about its criminality.

In his fascinating new book, "The City that Became Safe," Franklin Zimring, a professor of law and chairman of the Criminal Justice Research Program at the University of California at Berkeley, looks at the real reasons behind that change -- and his conclusions might surprise you. Contrary to popular belief, Giuliani's "zero tolerance" bluster had little to do with it. Instead, it was a combination of strategic policing and harm reduction by the New York Police Department. Police targeted open-air drug markets, and went after guns, while leaving drug users largely alone. The implications of the strategy could make us revise not only the way we think about crime, but the way we think about our prison system and even human nature.

Salon spoke to Zimring over the phone about Giuliani's crackdown, the unique nature of New York violent crime and what other cities can take away from this change.

How unexpected was New York's decrease in crime over the last decade?

What happened in the United States during the 1990s was itself a major surprise. After essentially not being able to make any substantial progress in crime control over three decades, all of the sudden crime dropped over an eight-year period by something close to 40 percent. Now what happened in New York City was essentially twice as much of a crime decline, a four-fifths drop from its 1990 peak. That is to say more than 80 percent of the homicide, the burglary, the robbery that New York was experiencing in 1990, New York is no longer bedeviled by. And the decline lasted twice as long as the national crime decline.

How significant is that kind of crime drop?

It is absolutely unprecedented. That is to say, a city where there are no revolutionary changes in population, or institutions, or economy going from extremely high crime and violence to, by American standards, extremely low crime and modest-to-low interpersonal violence was something that we had never experienced before. That doesn’t mean that simply because it was unheard of people can’t very quickly take it for granted and forget that they ever had a problem.

I'm reminded of the Village Voice's billboard campaign from a few years ago that celebrated the old crime-filled New York with slogans like "Where did all the junkies go?" It seemed a little perverse to me.

The low crime environment in New York is taken for granted and crime is no longer such an interesting issue in the city. It’s no longer a media issue. It turns out that crime is like a toothache. You only think about dentists when your teeth hurt and the municipal teeth are no longer hurting.

I've always been under the impression that New York got a lot wealthier during that time, but as you point out, that's not the case. How did New York change during that period?

The big story in New York City is not just the huge change in crime, but the massive contrast between the very modest changes that happened in the city and the huge results. Yeah, there were 3- or 4,000 extra police by the end of the period, in a city of 8.3 million. That’s a pretty superficial change. There wasn’t a flood of new jobs, the schools didn’t get wonderful, economic equality is worse rather than better. The basic populations and processes of the city didn’t change, but those relatively minor changes had huge impact on crime.

So what does that tell us about the nature of crime?

We used to have what I call a supply-side theory of crime. That is the notion that once people get in the habit of committing crime, of robberies, and burglaries, and drug sales, they are either going to be locked up or they are going to persist in criminality. That supply side theory of persistent criminality just animated all of our assumptions about what worked in crime control and what didn’t. That notion of persistence meant that we were very, very pessimistic about the capacity of police to make a dent in crime for a very simple reason; because police are temporary and our notion was that criminal propensities were more or less permanent. You send three cops to 125thand 8thAvenue and the criminals just go to 140thStreet. Or you send a lot of cops on Tuesday, and the robbers strike on Thursday instead.

That was the assumption, and what we found out in essence was this: that if you send a lot of cops to 125thStreet on Tuesday, that’s not only one less robbery on Tuesday, but that’s one less robbery in 2011 and the reason for that is that the things which determine criminal propensities are a lot more situational and contingent than we thought. If you say there isn’t going to be a robbery on Tuesday, that’s one less robbery in New York City. That doesn’t mean that people are saving it up for the long term.

Which means, in turn, the tremendous growth in the prison system we've witnessed over the last few decades is terribly misguided.

The temporary solutions that police and policing can provide turn out to have permanent impact on crime. Sending people away for 28 years all of the sudden sounds inefficient because instead of being able to assume that they were going to be active criminals for all 28 years, that variability in criminal propensities means that our investment in locking them up provides much less assurance that we’re saving crime. Between 1990, which was the high point in New York City crime, and 2009 which is the end of the books measuring period, the percent of people released from prison who are reconvicted of a felony in three years, and I’m using that really as a measure of criminal activity, that percentage in 1990 was 28 percent. In 2006, which gives them three years on the street by 2009, the percentage of people reconvicted of a felony having been active criminals and been sent to prison and been released, drops from 28 percent to 10 percent. That means that the personal crime rate of former high-rate offenders has dropped 64 percent. In a way, that’s absolutely necessary if the general crime rate goes down by more than 80 percent, but what it says about our investment in prisons as long-term crime control, is all of the sudden the gains we got from locking people up, have also dropped 64 percent. So prison is a lot less cost-effective.

How does New York prisoner size compare to the rest of the country?

Over the period from 1990 to 2009, the rate of imprisonment in the United States, outside of New York City, went up by 65 percent. Even though there was a general crime decline, we kept throwing people in prison. In New York City, the rate of imprisonment and jailing didn’t go up at all, it went down 28 percent. So what you have is that the one American city that did best in the crime control sweepstakes of the 1990s and the 21stcentury actually had less use of incarceration than everyplace else. If this were an experiment, what happened is that the kids who didn’t brush with Crest had vastly fewer cavities. This is a country that had only one answer to its crime problems for 45 years. This is a country that increased the number of people it locked up by sixfold over the 40 years after 1970. So in essence what New York has done was demonstrate that the major investment we were making in controlling crime was simultaneously inefficient and unnecessary.

There's an assumption that the New York crime decline was tied to Rudy Giuliani's crackdown on small crimes -- squeegee kid, and the homeless, and petty criminals. Is that true?

When you come back and you count your change carefully on these histories, you are always going to find a mixture of myth and reality. The chief tactition of the police changes in New York City, of the crime-control part, was a character named Jack Maple, now deceased, who wrote a book in the late 1990s that was an extremely honest and very forthright analysis of what the problems were and what they did with policing. The combination of reading carefully the historical record and then doing a massive historical research leads to a number of very, very clear conclusions. Clear conclusion No. 1 is this: that what went on never was order-maintenance or broken-windows [zero tolerance] policing.

The broken windows theory, which was a James Q. Wilson and George Kelling theory of tremendous impact in the early 1980s, was that the signals you send that essentially repress non-serious crime make people feel better. The police essentially ignore the worst neighborhoods in the city, the ones with the highest rates of violence, they go to the marginal ones, the places that are at risk of becoming serious problems but haven’t made it all the way to the center of the second circle of crime-control hell yet. Because what Wilson and Kelling said about the highest crime areas, is that they were probably hopeless. Well, that’s the opposite of what the New York City police did.

If you’re going to drive the homicide rate down by 82 percent, you have to go to the hot spots where homicide and robbery and burglary keep happening. And that was the focus of the New York City police. And not only were they interested in the highest crime areas, but what they were interested in, the people they wanted to take off the streets, were not the people who were committing less serious crimes, they wanted to take the robbers and the burglars and the shooters off the streets. The way in which they did that is that they took suspicious persons and they instrumentally arrested them for small crimes.

"Suspicious persons" is a loaded term …

Marijuana was not a priority of the New York City police, but they had a huge number of public marijuana arrests. Why was that? That was because they were only arresting minority males who looked to them like robbers and burglars and they used as a pretext the less serious crime arrest to find out whether the particular person they were arresting had a warrant our for a felony and was a bad actor. In the immortal words of Jack Maple, who wrote that book in the late '90s, they were looking for sharks not for dolphins.

Now there are some real problems of selection and minority with that strategy, but having said that, it doesn’t do us any good to misconstrue what the strategy was and to announce that somehow it was the maintenance of order that created the high crime impact. The reason that order maintenance can’t do that is because serious crime is deeply more concentrated in the worse parts of the city than order-maintenance issues. So you have to decide where you are going to invest your resources. And what New York City’s police department did from Day One was to invest their resources where serious crime was.

Doesn't it send a worrisome message to other cities, that potentially racist stop-and-frisk policies may have been so successful in New York?

You bet it does. But there was a whole kitchen sink full of changes that took place in New York City policing. Now the question is, was all of this aggressiveness -- focused on poor minority males in high-crime neighborhoods -- necessary to these dramatically successful results? And the answer is a resounding “we don’t know.” We don’t know how necessary the most costly parts of aggressive policing are to the results of policing in New York. We don’t have a detailed crime control recipe book here. I’d love to have written the Julia Child cookbook of urban crime control. Here’s the recipe for an 80 percent reduction that will work in your neighborhood! We are way away from that. We don’t know how we can produce 80 percent in Toledo or in Seattle or wherever.

One thing you point out that was very important for the overall decline of crime in New York  was the decline in open-air drug markets. 

The largest growth in police efforts during the 1990s was in narcotics. The narcotics squad was increased not by the 40 percent that was the police expansion, but by 137 percent between 1990 and 1999. And what the cops did was destroy public drug markets -- places where ordinary citizens would have to stay away, places with incredible rates of homicide -- and for a particular reason. If I’m a drug seller in a public drug market and you’re a drug seller in a public market, we’re both going to want to go to the corner where most of the customers are. But that means that we are going to have conflict about who gets the corner. And when you have conflict and you’re in the drug business, you’re generally armed and violence happens.

The good news is that drug violence went down tremendously. There are a couple of different ways in which the police department measures the number of killings associated with drug traffic in New York; both of those measures that they use are down more than 90 percent so that the streets themselves have been changed, people can walk there, and the number of dead bodies associated with illegal drug traffic has gone way, way down. Now what happened to the amount of drug use in New York City, to cocaine and heroine ingestion? And all of the indications that we have on that, and there are lots of ways of measuring it, suggest that illegal drug use was really relatively stable, that the amount of heroine and cocaine ingested in 2009 in New York is not hugely different from the percentage of the population using cocaine and heroine in 1990 or the amount of cocaine and heroine they use. Now our cocaine users are a little bit older in the later period there, but the big difference is between the drug use, which is relatively stable, and the drug violence, which has gone way down.

The hard-line notions of William Bennett, our first national drug czar, was that the only effective way to go after the costs, the violence, the HIV of drug abuse, would be to substantially reduce drug use. And that was the official policy in this country for many years. The opposite approach, the public health approach, was called harm reduction. And what the harm reduction advocates said, and these were usually people who were doctors or masters of public health, they said, Look, if you are interested in something like HIV transmission, go after that. And, among other things, they suggested to exchange clean needles for dirty ones. That was something that the all-out drug warriors hated. Now the New York City police strategy wasn’t an all-out war on drugs in which all drug arrests are created equal. They went after the harm-producing public drug markets and they invested all their resources in taking the most violence-prone aspects of drug use and targeting them. The focused priorities were on the costs associated with drugs, not the number of people who were taking drugs or the number of kilos of drugs.

One of the really interesting things that comes out of the book is that, although many different kinds of crime in New York have decreased dramatically, and yet violent crime remains proportionally high when you compare them to cities like Toronto and Paris. Does this mean there is a different kind of criminal in New York City -- a more violent one?

Fifteen years ago Gordon Hawkins and I published a book called “Crime Is Not the Problem,” about lethal violence in the United States. The big contrast in New York after its crime decline is this: Everything went way down, but when you compare this tremendously successful crime control effort in an American city with what the situation is in other world capitals, you get a very different contrast. For auto theft and for burglary, the rates of crime and presumably the number of active criminals in New York City is less than it is in London, is less than it is in Paris, or in Toronto, or in Montreal. We have less property crime and presumably less property criminals than other major Western cities. But when you look at our homicide and robbery rates, they are still higher in New York City and would be higher in Los Angeles and other American cities than in Western capitals.

And the reason for that may explain the cultural limits of what I have been calling situational and contingent crime control. There is simply more of a streak of violence in American urban populations and what that suggests is that while we have been tremendously successful in crime and violence reduction using just situational and contingent, essentially superficial remedies, at some point the effectiveness of those superficial remedies ends. You are going to scrape bottom. The homicide rate in New York City went from 30 per 100,000 to under six per 100,000. That’s phenomenal. If you had asked me 20 years ago whether that were possible, I would have assured it wasn’t. But with that under six per 100,000 I think you start bumping up against the limits of what happens in a country that still has a lot of guns and an awful lot of structural inequality, and an awful lot of social isolation in urban ghetto and barrio areas.

We have to be talking about making deeper changes before we get to larger progress. Nothing is going to make New York City into Tokyo or Hong Kong or Beijing. Cultures are different and susceptibility to levels of violence as a problem-solving mechanism is much more deeply engrained in the American city than in many areas of the modern world. Most of the extreme problems of violence as well as crime that New York was experiencing in 1990, and that other American cities had been experiencing on a chronic level, can be effectively addressed without the basic progress that we all think would be better. So we don’t have to fix the schools, and we don’t have to fix the economy, and we don’t have to fix the culture to reduce 80 percent of our violence problem. That’s wonderful news. It still would be a good idea to fix the culture, and the economy, and the schools, but we’ve got more time to do it and more freedom to experiment with those deeper substantive changes because we are living in a world where crime would be much less of a problem.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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