As Mayor Giuliani leaves office amidst a worsening economy, many New Yorkers fear crime will return, that all the record gains in neighborhood safety and quality-of-life will be undone. Our research shows they shouldn’t be.
Much of the fear comes from a continuing disbelief that the city’s plummeting crime rate was really due to the radical police reforms, such as “broken windows” policing and CompStat, implemented after Giuliani took office in 1994.
One would think the numbers speak for themselves: murder down over 70 percent, robbery down over 60 percent, total violent crimes down by over 50 percent and total property felonies down over 60 percent.
But there have always been vocal critics who contend that the crime drops had little or nothing to do with police behavior.
These critics, largely criminologists and their friends in the elite media, argue that socio-demographic factors caused the crime drops of the 1990s: The improving economy, or the decline in crack-cocaine usage or decreased numbers of teenage males was really behind Gotham’s resurgence, they claim. (Some have grudgingly acknowledged that police may have had some impact, but only at the unacceptable cost of mindless “zero tolerance” policing or “stop and frisk” policies.)
With few exceptions, these critics had little experience in New York City. They never worked with NYPD data, except at the grossest aggregate level; never set foot in One Police Plaza, let alone any precincts; and certainly have not ridden or walked with police officers as they do their duty.
Like many people, we thought these critics were wrong--but we, too, had little proof to support our views. So we decided to do something that no one had ever done: Get the best available data to see to the degree possible what actually caused New York’s crime decline.
We collected precinct-level police data on violent crime (murder, rape, felonious assault and robbery) and misdemeanor arrests. We also collected data on patterns of school enrollment and drug-use patterns, and on the unemployment rate. We then analyzed the relationship between these data and the precinct-level crime rates.
And on the precinct level, we found that the implementation of “broken windows” policing was significantly and consistently linked to declines in violent crime. Indeed, we estimate that more than 60,000 fewer violent crimes were committed over a 10-year period (1988-1998) because of “broken windows” policing.
We also found that the critics were wrong: Changes in the number of high-school-aged males were not significantly associated with drops in violent crime. Neither were changes in drug use.
Changes in levels of unemployment are weakly associated with the crime declines--but in the opposite of the way the critics predict: As unemployment rose, violent crime dropped. (Ours is not, by the way, the first study to have found this).
The data are not available to allow us to rigorously test whether the implementation of CompStat caused part of the crime decline, but further research suggests it was.
In addition to building the model, we observed police strategy and tactics and collected data in six precincts in 2000. We specifically looked at whether a particular type of crime declined after changes in police tactics were adopted because of CompStat. (That’s the system’s point: Identify a specific problem, then devise specific tactics to combat it.) We consistently found that the rate of the crime targeted (burglary, auto theft, etc.) dropped.
So what does all this mean? First, it means that New Yorkers should stop listening to critics who contend that police tactics matter little, if at all, in determining crime rates.
(These critics had been parroting what is virtual dogma in criminal-justice circles, that crime is caused by “root causes” such as racism, poverty and social injustice. This study places the “root cause” theory of crime in serious jeopardy.)
“Broken windows” policing and CompStat have proved to be a solid foundation for restoring order and reducing crime. Mayor-elect Mike Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly can build on this.
It does not mean that these reforms should be implemented mindlessly, as some critics have alleged they were. Nor does it mean that on occasion officers have not responded in a rote fashion.
However, “broken windows” policing is not a “zero tolerance” philosophy: It is a philosophy that says police can help reduce serious crime by paying attention to minor crimes that affect the character of a neighborhood.
To do that well, officers have to pay attention to context and do only what is necessary--including doing nothing, when warranted--to maintain public order.
Fortunately, in the course of our research we found that officers already employ this type of discretion. We watched officers on their rounds address quality-of-life issues as they arose in daily life, and invariably they took a prudent approach to solving the problem at hand. Sometimes they issued a citation, sometimes they issued a warning, and sometimes they just passed a problem by.
Make no mistake, we do not find that police did it all. New York City’s drop in crime was also the result of the actions of community groups, business improvement districts (BIDs), the faith community, the evolution of community courts and prosecution--and, yes, in some neighborhoods, changing demography, economics or drug-use patterns.
But police remain a crucial factor. The strength and direction of crime rates is always dependent upon their local context, and police activities help shape that context.
The New York City Police Department has built a solid foundation that will ensure its ability to continue to maintain order, solve problems and prevent crime. When the NYPD’s capacity is linked to the community’s commitment to order and safety, New Yorkers have little to fear in the coming years.