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It's the Cops, Stupid!

SINCE THE EARLY 1990s, New York City has experienced the deepest and most prolonged crime drop in recorded history. Homicide, robbery, burglary, and auto theft have all fallen by four-fifths; the city’s murder rate is now lower than it was in 1961. This massive crime rout has transformed the entire metropolis, but the most dramatic benefits have been concentrated in minority neighborhoods. Mothers no longer put their children to sleep in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets, and senior citizens can walk to the grocery store without fear of getting mugged. New businesses and restaurants have revitalized once desolate commercial strips now that proprietors no longer have to worry about violence from the drug trade. Over ten thousand minority males are alive today who would have been killed had homicide remained at its earlier levels; the steep decline in killings among black males under the age of twenty-five has cut the death rate for all young men in New York by half.

New York’s safety surge torpedoes all conventional understandings about crime. To be sure, the country as a whole experienced its own record-breaking crime drop in the 1990s, but New York’s crime freefall was twice as steep—80 percent, as opposed to 40 percent—and lasted twice as long. Whereas America’s crime decline stalled in the 2000s, New York’s continued, cementing Gotham’s previously unimaginable status as the safest big city in the country.  

You might think that criminologists would have flocked to New York to study how such a paradigm-shattering development happened. Instead, for the last decade and a half, the criminology profession has tried to look the other way. A favorite criminological pursuit in the 1990s was finding cities that equaled New York’s crime decline on a single front—homicide, say—in order to diminish the significance of what was happening in the nation’s largest city. San Diego and Boston were favorites of New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield and his professional sources, no matter how wildly different those localities’ demographics and overall crime rates were from New York’s. When, by the late ’90s, the crime drop in the rival cities had petered out or, as in the case of Boston, reversed itself, the profession lost interest in New York entirely. The city, after all, had two counts against it: it was presided over by a crusading Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who was targeting New York’s welfare culture as well as its violence and disorder, and all early indications suggested that responsibility for the crime decline lay with the newly focused, assertive tactics coming out of the New York Police Department.

Now Franklin Zimring has broken ranks with his profession and issued a long overdue call. The New York experience demands a revision in our understanding not only of crime suppression but of urban America itself, Zimring argues in his new book, the most important criminology work in recent memory. We now know, he writes, that “life-threatening crime is not an incurable urban disease in the U.S,” but rather that it can be greatly reduced without fundamental alterations in social and economic structure. And what made the difference in New York? Here, Zimring is at his most iconoclastic. It was policing, he claims. Nothing else in New York over the last two decades, besides its style of policing, can explain that large part of its crime drop that exceeded the national average.  

ACCORDING TO CONVENTIONAL criminological wisdom, crime can be significantly lowered only by eliminating its “root causes”: poverty, inequality, and racism. Policing, in this view, can only respond to crime after the fact by making an arrest; preventing crime from occurring in the first place lies in the domain of economic and welfare policy. What makes New York such a powerful natural experiment is that it is, in all respects but one, Zimring shows, nearly the same city as it was in 1990, when its homicide rate was five times higher. The previously assumed drivers of crime—poverty, income inequality, drug use—have not diminished; and family breakdown—conservatives’ preferred root cause—has worsened. Manhattan did experience a large loss of its black population, but the other large boroughs, with a more stable racial composition, enjoyed nearly comparable crime declines. Most importantly, New York lagged the nation on nearly all measures of economic and social well-being during the last two decades—its unemployment, school drop-out, and poverty rates were always higher than the national average—and yet it ran circles around the rest of the country in reducing predation. In Zimring’s most telling calculation, he estimates that New York’s homicide rate would have been 73 percent higher in 2007 had the city’s blacks faced the same homicide risk as blacks in San Diego, the former darling of the New York skeptics club.  

But New York policing has undergone a radical transformation since the early 1990s. In 1994, William Bratton became commissioner of the Police Department and unleashed a tornado of change, declaring that the police would actually lower crime, not just respond to it, and sweeping aside the department’s risk-averse culture that had prevented officers from getting too close to criminals. His staff rolled out strategy after strategy for getting guns off the street, dismantling local drug gangs, and combating the pervasive disorder of the city’s thoroughfares and subways. The nerve center for this revolution was Compstat, a high-pressure weekly meeting in which top brass ruthlessly grilled precinct commanders about lawlessness in their jurisdiction, with the assistance of increasingly sophisticated crime-mapping technology. Compstat immediately became a dynamic laboratory for discovering and disseminating effective anti-crime methods, eagerly attended by law enforcement officials and prosecutors from across the metropolitan region.

But what didn’t happen in New York, Zimring argues, is as significant for urban policy as what did happen. New York slashed its crime rate without winning the war on drugs—drug use has stayed relatively constant—and without increasing its prison population. The NYPD aspired to eliminate the mayhem associated with the street drug trade, not drug use itself, and it succeeded to an extraordinary extent, driving down drug-related violence over 90 percent. And although the number of city residents behind bars rose 19 percent from 1990 to 1997, the prison and jail census started dropping thereafter. By 2008, there were 10,000 fewer city criminals in state prisons and local jails than in 1990. By contrast, the national incarceration numbers kept growing throughout the 1990s and 2000s, so that by 2008, the national per capita rate of incarceration had risen 65 percent over the previous eighteen years, while New York’s rate had declined 28 percent.

In Zimring’s telling, the New York crime story—lowered violence and a lower prison population—explodes what he calls “supply side criminology,” the view (not actually widely held by academics) that because criminal predilections are fixed, the only way to lower crime is to incapacitate criminals behind bars. New York has shown that criminals can be deterred by “modest and even temporary alterations in the environment of the city,” Zimring writes, without resorting to incarceration. And if policing can change behavior, maybe it is time to reconsider formerly discredited social programs like midnight basketball, Zimring suggests, only half impishly.

HOWEVER WELCOME ZIMRING'S analysis, anyone who comes to The City That Became Safe hoping to understand how the New York Police Department achieved its monumental breakthrough will be disappointed. The book is an object lesson in the limits of purely quantitative analysis. Zimring appears to have set a rule for himself: never speak to a past or present participant in the New York policing revolution. But the number-crunching that is his main means of analyzing New York policing not only fails to capture the drama and the details of the departmental turnaround—it also gets certain matters flat out wrong.

Zimring asserts, for example, that NYPD leaders in the Compstat era have never believed in so-called “broken windows policing” (also known as quality-of-life policing), whereby officers enforce such low-level offenses as graffiti, aggressive panhandling, or drinking in public as a way of restoring a sense of order and lawfulness to troubled neighborhoods. His sole basis for this claim is an exceedingly clever interpretation of prostitution and gambling arrest data over the last two decades.

Had the police cared about broken windows policing, Zimring argues, prostitution arrests should have gone up, especially since James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, authors of the Atlantic magazine article proposing the “broken windows” concept, had mentioned prostitution as a classic public order offense. Instead, prostitution arrests stayed flat in the 1990s, then dropped in the 2000s, while arrests for gambling (another public order offense) rose through 1997, then dropped after 2001. These two patterns show that the police only care about quality-of-life enforcement, Zimring says, when there is a chance that the broken windows violator is also a serious criminal, wanted, say, on an outstanding warrant for robbery. Since the police already knew that street-walkers, being female, were not likely to be also sticking up bodega owners at gunpoint, the police ignored them from day one, as the prostitution arrest graph allegedly demonstrates, and they lost interest in illegal gambling once they discovered that crap shooters were also not usually involved in violent crime.

The assertion that the NYPD does not subscribe to the order maintenance concept is a very large one to rest on two graphs. Had Zimring bothered to run his theory by any current or former members of the department, he would have been forced to jettison it. So committed is Ray Kelly, the current NYPD Commissioner, to “broken windows” policing that he has his own squad of photographers who roam the city documenting illegal street conditions, such as unlicensed vendors. Kelly then emails the pictures to the commanders in whose precinct the illegal behavior is occurring, to shame them into taking action. An illegal seller of tube socks is not a high risk for the commission of street crime, but he does contribute to the perception that a neighborhood has lost control of its public space. As for the early days of Compstat policing, it is true that the late Jack Maple, a Compstat architect, publicly questioned the value of pure quality-of-life policing. But “that is besides the point,” says William Bratton, “he worked for me and I’m a strong advocate of broken windows policing.” The department’s numerous strategies in the 1990s for restoring public order back up that assertion.

Zimring’s specific claim that public prostitution was no concern to the department is also false. Bratton placed a high enough priority on the problem that he used to supervise the department’s prostitution sting activity from an unmarked van. Precinct commanders were given authority for the first time to address prostitution themselves, rather than hoping that the vice squad would show up. They targeted the johns, seizing their cars and publishing their names and photos, since arresting a hooker merely meant that another one would show up the next day. The strategy worked: street-walking has largely been eradicated from those areas where residents and storeowners had complained the loudest—the Upper West Side, Harlem, and Times Square. The goal of the department was not to generate prostitution arrests but to eliminate the problem, which it did.            

The failure to interview any NYPD personnel has also left Zimring with a thin understanding of Compstat. He deems Compstat a mechanism for centralizing authority in the department, when in fact it is as much a tool for driving responsibility and accountability down to the precinct level. It is not just one tactic among many; it informs everything the department does. Moreover, it has created a sense of life-and-death urgency about fighting crime that has never left the NYPD. Maintaining that urgency is the hardest challenge any department faces, which helps explain why the New York crime drop has continued while other cities’ petered out.

Zimring’s typology of which elements of New York policing contributed to the New York crime decline is artificial, and seems as much influenced by the political sentiments of the academy as by his criterion of whether a tactic has been validated in a controlled experiment (all conducted outside New York). He gives an unqualified thumbs-up to so-called “hot spot policing,” whereby the police flood a high-crime zone with officers to try to break the criminal culture there, but puts proactive street stops and quality-of-life policing, both of which the professoriate routinely denounces as racist, in the suspect category of “open questions.” But proactive street stops and quality-of-life enforcement are the primary tools of hot spot policing (in addition to stepped-up narcotics arrests): they are what the police do in high crime areas to disrupt the grip of lawlessness.

Zimring rates the NYPD’s effort to get guns off the street a “probable” success, but here, too, street stops played an important role. The increased risk of getting stopped, questioned, and possibly frisked if you were acting suspiciously deterred gun carrying by criminals; the proportion of arrested suspects who had guns on them was 39 percent lower in August 1995 than in 1993 because people were afraid to carry. Disappointingly, Zimring cites Columbia law professor Jeff Fagan’s argument that, since the rate of gun confiscations from street stops has gone down, those stops are ineffective, without considering whether the lower rate of gun hits shows that the strategy is working.

Street stops and quality-of-life policing also contributed to the incarceration decline that Zimring deems the most important take-away of the New York crime story. Though felony arrests (and felony crime) have dropped during the Compstat era, misdemeanor arrests have more than doubled, as Zimring discloses at the end of the book. Indeed, admissions to Rikers jail increased over the last two decades, but because the stays were so short, they did not register as an overall increase in the jail population. Had the proportion of felony and misdemeanor arrests stayed the same as it was twenty years ago, there would have been no prison drop. That drop is the result of the much shorter time that offenders are being confined, not from a drop in the rate of confinement.

What is going on here? The police are interacting with potential felony offenders before they actually commit a felony, by accosting and sometimes arresting people for low-level quality-of-life offenses or questioning them for suspicious behavior. If someone is drinking in public, an officer may simply warn him regarding his violation and pour out his whiskey, or the officer may issue a summons. In either case, an interaction at 11 a.m. may avert a stabbing at 11 p.m., when the whiskey drinker is good and drunk. If an officer sees a group of teens who appear to be casing a potential victim in an area that has been experiencing a spate of robberies, he might stop and question them, thereby averting a robbery, but adding to the NYPD’s controversial tally of street stops.

The alternative to long sentences and a high prison count is not less law enforcement, but likely more—more aggressive policing that results in swifter, surer, but shorter deprivations of liberty, whether being questioned during a stop, spending the night in a station house, or going to jail for a few days. These police interventions, built around quality-of-life offenses, respond to community demands for a more orderly environment, but they also send the message to potential criminals that the police are watching.        

It is unlikely that social service programs could have the same effect as the intense policing that produced New York’s simultaneous crime and incarceration drops. Zimring calls New York policing a “modest environmental modification.” Compared to the re-ordering of society contemplated by the root-cause theorists of crime, the NYPD’s revolution may indeed be a “modest” change. But the phrase seems a little inapt, given the round-the-clock struggle of the NYPD to keep crime down. Zimring asks the key question: where have all the criminals in New York gone? They haven’t gone anywhere, he concludes. The NYPD knows that better than anyone else. The criminal culture has not changed, commanders and officers will tell you, and new cohorts of potential offenders are appearing every day. But they are being deterred from serious crime by the NYPD’s relentless efforts to reassert the rule of law in areas from which it had been absent for decades.

THE CITY THAT Became Safe contains discrepancies between numbers given in the text and those that appear in corresponding graphs, and between numbers in the text and their external sources. Zimring claims, for example, that there were 480 homicides in New York in 2007, yet his source for that claim, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, gives the 2007 homicide total as 496, as does the NYPD. Such errors cast doubt on all his figures, but not on his overall thesis. Even in the highly unlikely event that all his numbers were off by 3 percent, say, that would not come close to narrowing the huge and confirmed difference between the New York and the national crime drops, nor to dislodging Zimring’s conclusions regarding the source of that difference.  

The drop in crime in New York is the greatest public policy success story of the last quarter of a century. Nothing that government has done in the inner city comes as close to achieving the positive effect as Compstat policing. In his final act of apostasy, Zimring concludes with obvious reluctance that the large drop in violent death and imprisonment among minority males is probably more important than what he errantly calls the “promiscuous” targeting of minority youth for stops and misdemeanor arrests. The architects and graduates of Compstat policing have been replicating its success elsewhere, most notably in Los Angeles (under Bratton), without much fanfare. The City That Became Safe should start a far wider dialogue about the value of reasserting law and order in high-crime neighborhoods.

Heather Mac Donald is a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.