A New York Times story earlier this year explored a counterintuitive trend: despite the recession, crime rates in New York have fallen. Los Angeles and other large American cities exhibit similar patterns. This challenges a commonly held belief that crime rates rise and fall in large part based on economic changes.
So why do crime rates fall?
Everyone seems to have their pet answer for this question. Besides the economy, some will point to a rise in the number of law enforcement officers, tougher sentencing laws, even the legalization of abortion (according to the authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, anyway). I once had a student who was an ardent supporter of one political party and was convinced that crime rates rose when the other party was in power.
If only solving the crime mystery was so simple. Criminologists have been studying this issue and have come to a startling conclusion: we really don’t conclusively know why crime rates rise and fall.
Between 1990 and 2000, crime rates in the Unites States dropped precipitously. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, homicide fell 39 percent, rape rates fell 41 percent, and robbery fell 44 percent. Since that time, crime trends have leveled off for the most part.
But New York’s crime declines put these numbers to shame: 73 percent decline in homicide, 52 percent decline in rape, and 70 percent decline in rape—as well as an astonishing 78 percent drop in auto thefts. Analysts focused specifically on New York to see if any changes there could reveal clues about what causes crime to decline.
I lived in New York in the late 1980s as a college student at New York University, and it doesn’t take a sociologist to notice the drastic changes that have taken place in the city since then. Walking through Washington Square Park (at the center of the university’s main buildings) involved dodging rats and drug dealers at all hours of the day. There were many nearby neighborhoods students were warned not to venture into, especially at night.
I was one of the first to live in a new dorm that was just east of most other university property. Prostitutes regularly walked the streets around the new building, and a group of transients lived across the street in front of an abandoned building. My roommates and I casually watched one afternoon as New York Police officers barricaded our block and raided what we referred to as the crack house across the street. While moving in across the hall, one student had his clothes and other possessions stolen when his parents’ car was broken into. A block or two away stood the porn theater where Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle picks up Jodi Foster’s character (a child prostitute) in the classic 1976 movie, Taxi Driver.
New York City in the late 1980s
In one of the movie’s opening lines, Bickle describes New York as “an open sewer.” I wouldn’t have described life there in the late 80s in exactly the same way, but it was a different world when I returned years later. The “crack house” I once lived across the street from now features ground level shops like Ben & Jerry’s and small clothing boutiques. The gritty drug-infested neighborhoods we were warned away from are now upscale, gentrified neighborhoods with young families and sky-high rents. Even The Bowery, which was an open sewer of a street that reeked of urine and despair, has become a Mecca of new development, as seen in the new luxury high-rise building pictured below.
What reduced crime in New York?
Law professor Franklin E. Zimring explores this question in his book, The Great American Crime Decline. He suggests that there are many reasons for declines in New York and elsewhere in America.
It might seem like the most obvious reason for crime to decline in New York is the exploding rents and cost of real estate, pushing out low-income residents who might have more motivation to commit property crimes, for instance. Zimring notes that while this might make sense for Manhattan, New York City is comprised of five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx), yet crime fell throughout the city.
As Bradley Wright blogged about, some attribute the crime decline to the aggressive policing tactics former police chief William J. Bratton employed during his tenure in New York from 1994-1996. Bratton’s strategy mirrored the broken windows theory, the idea that if you eliminate small, quality of life problems like vandalism then you send a message to criminals that larger crimes will also be aggressively prosecuted. And yet crime rates also fell in cities that hadn’t changed policing strategies. Zimring attributes some of the decline to policing (from 25 to 50 percent, in his estimation), but also considers the high population density and strict gun laws as other potential factors. He also suggests that because of the high level of crime in New York before the drop, it had further to fall. Once again, there is no singular explanation of why crime fell in New York or in any other city.
Zimring concludes his analysis with several lessons we can learn from the crime decline, one of which is that we need to do more to compare crime declines in the U.S. with declines in other countries like Canada, where similar drops were observed but even though there were no significant changes in policing or criminal justice. He suggests that crime rates can drop “without major changes in the social fabric” (p. 206). In other words, it doesn’t necessarily take huge social changes to bring down crime rates.
The fact that crime rates have fallen so much is great news. But the fact that there is no simple solution can make it difficult for lawmakers to communicate the importance of some policies to their constituents. We tend to like simple solutions, but in this case there are none.