The Received Wisdom Proved Wrong

Heather MacDonald on New York City’s “indispensable institution.”

An excerpt:

In 1990, murders in New York City reached an all-time annual high of 2,262. Six years later, they had dropped over 56 percent, to 984. By 2008, homicides were down nearly 77 percent, to 523, and all felony crime was down over 77 percent.

The turnaround in the city’s public image was equally dramatic. As the 1990s began, the national media were proclaiming New York a disaster zone. News reports recounted the brutality of its rampaging youth packs, the chaos of its streets, and the devastating decline in public services, caused by plunging tax revenues. Yet by 1996, the media’s story line had changed radically. the big apple comes roaring back, declared U.S. News and World Report. New York showed that “winning the war against crime” was possible, Time proclaimed. In 1998, a new cable TV show portrayed New York as a glittering mecca for beautiful, libidinous women, who managed to squeeze time for exciting careers into their complicated bedroom itineraries.

This wave of positive publicity paid off royally. From 1991 to 1997, the number of tourists visiting New York rose 39 percent, to nearly 32 million. The city’s universities were deluged with applications from students who wanted to be part of this suddenly attractive urban oasis. Cutting-edge restaurants opened in what used to be forlorn drug outposts in Manhattan and Brooklyn, bringing more development in their wake. After dropping sharply from 1988 through 1993, real-estate values stabilized, then blasted off in 1998. By 2005, building-construction permits had reached their highest level in over three decades. Job growth revved up in 1997, stalled after the dot-com bust of 2000 and the 9/11 terror attacks, but then resumed its upward trajectory from 2003 to 2008.

The cause of this bust-to-boom revival is largely uncontested: the city’s victory over crime. If New York’s lawlessness had remained at its early 1990s levels, the city by now would be close to a ghost town. But the cause of the crime rout itself remains hotly contested. Though New York policing underwent a revolution in 1994, vast swaths of the criminology profession continue to deny that that revolution was responsible for the crime drop. They are wrong—and dangerously so. The transformation of New York policing is the overwhelming reason why the city’s crime rate went into free fall in 1994. And that transformation, in turn, was aided by an increase in the size of the police department…

The most important change in the New York Police Department in the early 1990s, however, was conceptual and managerial, not volumetric. The reigning philosophy among criminologists and even many police chiefs was that cops could do little to lower crime. Since crime was a reaction to poverty and racism, the received wisdom held, only government-driven economic and social change could bring the crime rate down.

Commissioner William Bratton, Mayor Giuliani’s first police chief, rejected that excuse for failure. He announced that the NYPD would lower violent crime by 10 percent in his first year. No police leader in living memory had announced such a numerical benchmark. Visionary police strategists Jack Maple and Louis Anemone turned the department into a data-driven crime-fighting machine. Using increasingly sophisticated crime-mapping technologies, police leaders could evaluate on a daily basis which strategies were working and which were not.

Precinct commanders now had to account for everything that happened on their watch, an unprecedented shift in managerial expectations that reflected the new belief that the police could and would lower crime. The weekly meetings between top brass and precinct commanders in which this accounting took place became known as Compstat, and the entire management shift under Bratton, the Compstat revolution. Meanwhile, Maple and Anemone continued to roll out strategy after strategy to get guns off the streets, fight public disorder, and shut down outdoor drug markets.

Bratton not only met his crime-lowering targets; he exceeded them. Felony crime dropped 12 percent in 1994, compared with 1.1 percent in the rest of the country. The enforcement of low-level public-order laws nabbed high-level felony offenders. The rigorous debriefing of every arrested crime suspect yielded information for solving other crimes. The aggressive use of stop-and-frisks lowered the rate of gun-carrying and hence of shootings. “The word on the street became, ‘You’ll be frisked if you carry a gun,’ ” says Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone. “There was pressure not to carry, which stopped the killings.” At the end of 1994, Bratton upped the ante: he would lower crime by 15 percent in 1995, he said. In fact, crime fell 16 percent in 1995 while staying virtually flat in the rest of the country.

The crime drop occurred across the entire city, but its effect was most startling in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, where a virtuous cycle set in. With property and violent crime plummeting, investors started building housing on vacant lots that had once served as breeding grounds for disorder and lawlessness. The new residents, with a stake in their communities, watched their neighborhoods more closely and demanded even higher levels of service from the police and better behavior from neighbors. “Crime went down when the vacant lots became developed in the latter part of the 1990s,” recalls Walter Campbell, district manager of Community Board 5 in East New York, one of Brooklyn’s poorest areas. “You’d see one [lot] being fixed up, and then everyone would jump on board. Every nook and crack had a new home. Everyone wanted a piece of the rock.”

Commercial development followed the new homeowners. The Home Depot, Staples, Target, and Bed Bath & Beyond opened stores in East New York on once-fallow property. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, people were “moving in and fighting back,” says Nadine Whitted, district manager of Community Board 4. “There were no more vacant lots to hide this and that on.”

A 2003 study by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Public Policy at New York University confirmed these ground-level observations. Property values in New York in the late 1990s rose most where crime fell the furthest, helping spark what the study’s authors called “the remarkable revival of the city’s poorest areas.” New York’s population grew 15 percent in the 1990s, a feat unmatched by any other large industrial city, after dropping 5 percent during the dark days of the 1970s.

The retail sector benefited from the crime drop, too. “You can’t have a thriving retail sector in a high-crime area,” observes Richard Schwartz, a former Giuliani aide. “Shopping reflects a willingness to go out in public and carry merchandise; it’s a life-affirming activity.” When crime started going down, more stores removed their roll-down security gates, sending a message that their neighborhoods were safe. Picking up on that message, more people came out to shop, especially at night. Their presence deterred crime further. Retail employment rose to meet the new consumer demand, so much so that the city was able to place many former welfare recipients in service jobs with employers like Federated Stores and Duane Reade.

New York’s restaurant scene exploded, as residents and out-of-towners lost their inhibitions about wandering dark streets late at night. Restaurants are the “lifeblood of neighborhoods,” notes John McFadden, who manages the Pershing Square restaurant across from Grand Central Terminal. During the Dinkins years, McFadden oversaw a restaurant on the balcony of Grand Central. “A customer would have her pocketbook stolen once a week,” he recalls. “Now,” in the adjacent location, “we’ve had, at most, two thefts in two years.” Twenty-five years ago, the restaurant company for which McFadden works had 40 employees in New York; today, it employs 400.

In the 2000s, tourism continued to capitalize on New York’s growing reputation for safety. From 1997 to 2007, the number of tourists visiting New York each year jumped 26 percent, to 46 million; those 46 million visitors spent $28.8 billion in 2007 alone and supported over 350,000 jobs, which generated $17 billion in wages, according to the city’s tourist bureau, NYC & Company. New York is now the Number One destination in the country for foreign tourists and ranks second, after Orlando, for domestic visitors…

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