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Crime & Justice

What we can learn from New York City's dramatic crime drop

File: The New York City skyline.
File: The New York City skyline.
Flodigrip's World/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

Crime is down all over the United States, including in LA, but nowhere has seen a plummet like New York's. In a decade, New York City's violent crime rate dropped 30 percent. In the rest of the country, it fell 5 percent. The homicide rate is now 18 percent of what is was in 1990; the burglary rate is now 16 percent of what it was in 1990. How was New York able to pull off this apparent miracle?

A recent book by UC-Berkeley Professor Franklin Zimring examines the topic, as does a study released Thursday by the Center for Court Innovation. 

First off, there are a few ways the crime drop didn't happen:

For those crying "gentrification," keep in mind: we're talking about all of New York City, not just Manhattan, and Zimring's research demonstrated that the demographics of the city changed little during the same period. 

It also didn't happen because of tougher sentences for offenders. California is just beginning its prison realignment process, shifting thousands of prison inmates to county jails and local treatment programs. New York started realignment years ago, and the great crime decline occurred during a 18 percent decrease in the state's prison population and a 38 percent drop in NYC's jail population.

And it didn't happen because of any fundamental changes in opportunities or social services for the city's residents: poverty rates, unemployment, and other social indicators show NYC's population is generally worse off than the national average. 

Remarkably, the crime drop seems to have happened, at least in part, because of the city's police force. (I say "remarkably," because for a long time, common thinking has said that there's little police can do to proactively prevent crime — they can simply react to it, and hope that their presence and their solve rate act as deterrents.)

The city's police force has grown monumentally, to 34,500 officers for 8.2 million residents (LA, a city of 3.8 million, had 9,917 as of April 2012) so their presence is felt more keenly through the city. They started using statistics to pinpoint and patrol places where crime is likely to occur and attacked particular crime-prone phenomena like open air drug markets. And perhaps most controversially, police started using a practice called "stop and frisk." 

Which brings us to the third factor Zimring has identified that changed in New York City during the great crime drop: police aggressiveness. Zimring says misdemeanor arrests in the city skyrocketed, meaning police were arresting people "for any pretext" they could find, in order to try to determine if something bigger was going on. 

"Are minority males in tough neighborhoods singled out? You bet they are," Zimring says. Seeing that there are about 700,000 stops and frisks each year in the city, and the total population of Black men between 15-25 is close to that, that means "if you're a young Black man, you're likely to be stopped and frisked in every given year," Zimring says.

What's unclear, Zimring says, is if that degree of aggressiveness adds value. "We know that the way New York did it was aggressive, we don't know if that's the way they needed to do it," Zimring says. "And don't know means don't know."

If that aggressiveness is needed to bring the crime rate down so dramatically, Zimring says the tradeoff's a tough question, mostly because the main beneficiaries of the crime decline are those who're also on the receiving end of police aggressiveness. 

For young, Black men in New York City, "their odds of going to prison have gone down 70 percent in 30 years," Zimring says. Their homicide rate has gone down more than 70 percent. Death rates are down by more than half.

"If it's a tradeoff, it's a difficult one," he says.