The precipitous decline in violent crime that began nationwide in the 1990s caught criminologists by surprise. There were some criminologists like John Dilulio and the late James Q. Wilson who had predicted a rise in violent crime based on their demographic forecast that the increase in the juvenile age group would mean American society would be overrun with super predators.
The opposite occurred as America witnessed the widest and deepest crime decline in its history. The decline that began in 1990 essentially lasted until 2014. Homicides were reduced nationwide from approximately 24,000 to 14,000. The murder rate per 100,000 plunged from 9 per 100,000 to 4 per 100,000. There were different explanations for the decline. Some attributed the decline to the new aggressive policing, some to the phenomenon of mass incarceration and others to changes in drug markets. None of the explanations was definitive largely because of the prevalence of arm-chair analysis and the paucity of ethnographic research particularly in inner city communities.
Alarm bells were sounded in the midst of 2016 as cities with over 250,000 inhabitants reported a spike in violent crime in 2015. The precise measure was inexact as the F.B.I.’s Uniform Crime Report perennially lagged until late in 2016 to report the data for 2015.
The Justice Department, troubled by the reports, commissioned one of the nation’s leading criminologists, Prof. Richard Rosenfeld, to provide them with an interim report. Rosenfeld explored three possibilities for the homicide increase (1) de-policing or the Ferguson factor (2) a change in drug markets or (3) criminal justice reform had returned hardened criminals to the community who were instrumental in driving up the violent crime rate.
Those factors were quite speculative and the sizeable increase that Rosenfeld had measured in particular cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, Nashville, etc., when grouped with the macro-data subsequently reported by the F.B.I.’s Uniform Crime Report for 2015, the homicide rate had increased by 10.8 percent. Such an increase was significant and the worry was that the nation perhaps had entered a new cycle of violent crime. The Uniform Crime Report issued later in 2017 will definitively tell us if the 10.8 percent increase from 2014 to 2015 has continued or was simply an outlier. Already in the case of Chicago, the homicide rate in that windy city is swirling out of control as over 760 homicides have been recorded in 2016 in contrast to less than 500 homicides in 2015. There is cause for concern as there is no question that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
As the crime decline unfolded nationwide, New York City was in the vanguard of the decline. Befittingly, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Prof. Andrew Karmen titled in his book published in the early 1990s that what was occurring in the City was a New York Miracle. The miracle has continued to bewilder students of crime.
The consistent crime decline in New York City has continued unabated irrespective of who is the occupant of City Hall or who is the top dog at 1 Police Plaza. From the 1990s, we have elected and un-elected four Mayors - David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg and Bill De Blasio. There have been police commissioners beginning with Lee Brown, Bill Bratton, Howard Safir, Bernard Kerik, Bill Bratton again and now James O’Neil.
As of December, 2016, there had been 330 homicides committed in the not-so-naked city. In 2015 that figure was 352 at the close of play. When one puts these figures in some historical perspective, the decline is staggering. Using the benchmark of 23 years ago, homicides have declined by 82.7 percent.
In 1990, the City recorded an astronomical 2,262 murders. By 1998, the murder figure had dropped to 629 and by 2015 to 352. Similar reductions are recorded for robberies, burglaries and automobile theft. Robbery throughout the city has declined by 83.1 percent, burglary by 87.6 percent and automobile theft by 95 percent.
When the macro data are disaggregated, even in the poorest of neighborhoods, the crime decline in New York City is remarkable. The 40th Precinct in the South Bronx has recorded impressive declines. In 1990 there were 72 murders in that Precinct where there was and is a concentration of public housing and homeless shelters. Reflecting the renaissance in the larger City, in 2001 there were 27 homicides and in 2015 nine homicides were recorded in the communities of Mott Haven and Melrose, neighborhoods that encompass the 40th Precinct. Robberies had declined by 76.2 percent and automobile theft by 91.6 percent. Nonetheless, for 2016 homicides increased to 14.
The contrast with other cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, etc., would provide us with scholarly insights as to the dynamics of crime and social organization in inner city communities. I suspect that New York City has been more caring and more creative vis-à-vis the criminal justice system than in some of the other cities. The economic recovery in New York City began in the late 1980s and this improved economic position enabled David Dinkins in his mayoralty to expand New York City Police Department by nine thousand new cops.
Certainly Giuliani and Bratton were a tour de force in institutionalizing the new policing of zero tolerance and the quick turnaround of crime data which enabled Precinct commanders to deploy their troops in a preventive and in an arrest-prone posture.
But as the New York City courts were inundated with misdemeanor and felony arrests and the war on drugs, the Judicial System in the state in its wisdom opted for alternatives to incarceration. The Courts enabled first time drug offenders to enter treatment programs rather than to serve mandatory sentences. Also in the New York State prison system rather than becoming bogged down in mass incarceration, we began to see a decline in the prison population from 71,000 at the beginning of the twenty-first century to a decline of 51,000. Similar declines occurred in citizens on parole and probation. Much of that reduction was not uniform throughout the state but disproportionate to New York City. The state was able to close prisons and to reduce the cost of incarceration.
Thus for almost three decades we have observed in New York City a precipitous decline in violent and property crimes, a decline in the State and in the jail population, a decline in folks on parole and probation and a pivot to alternative to incarceration in the court system.
Poverty rates have remained stubborn and are much higher than the national rates. The City is also plagued with rising income inequality and the dearth of affordable housing. New York City is far from the city on the hill but the City has demonstrated a resilience and civility despite the heterogeneous nature of the population and its army of undocumented workers.