How New York City Became Safe Again

Over the last 11 months, violent crime in New York City reached a historic low, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner William Bratton said Tuesday.

The news continues the city’s ascent toward safety, an astounding recovery considering its murder rate peaked only 24 years ago in 1990. By the end of that decade, however, violent crime had dropped 56%.

Many credit former mayor Rudy Giuliani and his “broken windows” theory for the turnaround. And he doesn’t really argue.

Other factors, however, likely transformed the crime rate in New York City, including more hands-on police work. In fact, newer research shows broken windows may have done more harm than good.

‘Broken Windows’ Theory

Giuliani has suggested time and again that his administration saved New York City. During the 2007 republican primary debate in Orlando, he even said he “brought down crime more than anyone in this country — maybe in the history of this country” while serving as mayor, according to On The Issues.

The former mayor believes the “broken windows” approach changed New York City’s streets for the better. This theory suggests police can make cities safer by cracking down on minor crimes like vandalism — and the Big Apple definitely did in the 1990s.

The broken windows theory stems from two criminologists, George Kelling and James Wilson, who suggested that minor disorder, like vandalism, acted as a gateway to more serious crime. By focusing on smaller offenses, often referred to as “quality of life” crimes, Kelling and Wilson thought violent crime and other less desirable issues would decrease.

“If the neighbourhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place,” the duo claimed in their Atlantic Monthly piece.

Several academic studies, however, have questioned, and even criticised, the effectiveness of broken windows.

Brian Watkins murdered New York City

AP Photo/Mike Albans
A Flushing resident, known as Popo love, paints a memorial sign Thursday on Sept. 6, 1990 in New York for Brian Watkins of Provo, Utah, who was murdered in a New York subway station.

Criticism for ‘Broken Windows’

When University of Chicago professors Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig revisited broken windows, they reported criminologists knew very little about the theory’s effectiveness. Even further, their paper found no evidence, outside of Kelling’s work, to support that cracking down on minor offenses decreases more serious crime.

Aside from lack of evidence that cracking down on minor offenses reduced felonies, much of the new research found targeting minor crimes harms poor people as well as blacks and Hispanics.

A later paper, again by Harcourt and Ludwig, found that broken windows, albeit indirectly, led to a disproportionate number of drug arrests for blacks, The New Republic reported. From 1993 (the year that broken windows took hold) to 2000, misdemeanour arrests for smoking marijuana in public jumped from 10 per year to 644. At only 25% of the city’s population, blacks accounted for over half of the arrests.

“It is definitely time for law enforcement to stop focusing on minor disorder and to target, instead, serious crimes involving guns and physical injury,” Harcourt wrote in Legal Affairs magazine.

Berkeley Law School professor and author of “The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control,” Franklin Zimring,
only gives “derivative credit” to Giuliani though. Instead, he praises the police.

‘A Two-Mayor Phenomenon’

“Years ago, we thought it was a myth that cops prevented crime,” Zimring said. In theory, criminals could just commit crimes in corners of the city where cops didn’t patrol.

“But crime is a heck of a lot more situational than we thought,” Zimring explained. If a criminal wants to rob somebody on 125th and Lexington but sees a cop there, he’ll probably just throw in the towel for the night, Zimring says.

When former Mayor David Dinkins came into office, he proposed a $US1.8 billion plan to “fight fear” in New York and hired 8,000 new officers, the LA Times reported at the time. He also hired an effective new police commissioner, Lee Brown, who supported “community policing,” the practice of having cops patrol neighborhoods and get to know people to help solve problems — instead of just answering 911 calls. Crime’s hold on the city really started to falter while Dinkins still sat in City Hall from 1990 to 1993.
Data from shows the murder rate in New York City peaked in 1990 and dropped 30% by 1994.

To be fair, Giuliani also hired 3,660 new officers once he came into office, On The Issues found.

“The growth in police is a two-mayor phenomenon, and it really was extraordinary,” Zimring told BI.

Other Theories

Other factors beyond the increased police presence could have caused crime to drop more drastically in New York than many other parts of America during the ’90s. (The nation as a whole did get a lot safer then, too.)

First of all, unemployment dropped hugely in New York City — 39% from 1992 to 1999, according to the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER). Some researchers have found ties between low unemployment and a drop in violent crime.

Others credit an increased arrest rate for the improvement. Again, NBER reported that felony arrest rates rose 50 to 70% in the 1990s, which might have taken more criminals off the streets.

Regardless of other explanations on the table, Giuliani has stuck by broken windows program.

“It worked because we not only got … an improvement in the quality of life, but massive reductions in homicide,” Giuliani told the Academy of Achievement, “and New York City turned from the crime capital of America to the safest large city in the country.”

Murder in New York City Business Insider, New York MagazineThe number of murders in New York City from 1965 to 1995.

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