When Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced this week that New York had once again recorded one the lowest crime rates the city has ever seen, they symbolically stood near an exhibition of sepia-toned photos from the city’s notorious past.
“This is extraordinary in comparison to that past, and this exhibit is so powerful,” Mayor de Blasio said at the news conference at the Brooklyn Museum. “I urge everyone to really look at it because it reminds us of all of the work that went into changing things.”
In 2016, the NYPD reported 998 shootings – the fewest since the city started tracking them, officials said. The rate of major felonies in New York, too, fell 4.1 percent from 2015, also to the lowest level ever recorded. The department reported 335 murders in 2016 – a drop from the 352 in 2015, and just short of the record low of 333 in 2014.
“Absolutely amazing,” said de Blasio, who has had a stormy relationship with the NYPD’s rank and file during his three years in office. “And to give you a perspective, just 25 years ago there were over 5,000 shootings in a single year in the city,” as well as over 2,000 murders. “Look how far we have all come together,” he said, noting that in 2016 the city also saw the fewest number of robberies and burglaries, ever.
Yet even as New York sets record lows, for many other American cities, comparisons to their pasts have been more ominous. Many have seen dramatic spikes in violence over the past two years that echo the 1990s – especially Chicago, which, though one third the size of New York, saw more than 4,300 shootings and 750 murders last year.
Indeed, 16 of the nation’s 20 largest police forces battled increases in homicides last year, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. In Memphis, Tenn., there were a record 228 homicides in 2016, eclipsing the previous record of 213 set in 1993. Baltimore, Milwaukee, and St. Louis continued to see spikes in violent crime, and Las Vegas and San Antonio each saw the highest numbers of homicides in 20 years.
Scholars point out that, despite the current spike in violence in some cities, crime remains near historic lows throughout the United States.
“But, in the case of New York City, there is clearly something special going on,” says Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who studies the social sources of criminal violence. Even as crime throughout the US fell by nearly half since the 1990s, he notes, New York’s transformation has always been a particular wonder.
And among the swirl of causes behind the fluctuation in crime rates, one of the reasons New York has sustained such low crime rates, many experts say, is indeed the policing innovations long pioneered by the NYPD.
Last month, a delegation from the Chicago Police Department, including Superintendent Eddie Johnson, came to observe some of the NYPD’s methods, said Commissioner O’Neill during the museum press conference.
More than 911
“It’s now much more than answering a traditional 911 call,” O’Neill said. “It’s about a deeper problem-solving.” He and other NYPD officials described the further evolution of the department’s long-vaunted CompStat analysis, which is now pinpointing gang members and habitual criminals.
Such efforts, however, have in the past included an aggressive “broken windows” focus on penny-ante crimes, and the department's notorious stop-and-frisk tactics were ruled unconstitutional in 2013. Both have been dramatically curtailed, however, and the department has dedicated itself to working with affected communities after every criminal takedown.
“We’ve held community meetings there with the people who live and work there, so they can ask questions about what our teams were doing there that morning – about exactly who we arrested and why,” O’Neill said. “We’re overwhelmingly being told, ‘You got the right people.’ We’re also being told thank you.”
Yet experts say that policing is just one part of the nation’s fluctuating long and short term crime rates, and many criminologists say it’s enormously difficult to locate precise reasons crime rates rise and fall.
“Crime follows what statisticians refer to as a random walk,” says Shawn Bushway, a criminal justice policy expert at the University of Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy in New York. “Another famous random walk is the Dow Jones average. You can explain what happened a bit in retrospect, but it’s hard to model going forward.”
Public fear doesn't match reality
The recent spikes fueled worries during the election that the nation may be heading back toward those crime-ridden eras in the 1980s and early 1990s.
And it didn’t help that, as a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly made false claims about the nation’s crime rates.
“You won’t hear this from the media: We have the highest murder rate in this country in 45 years,” the president-elect said during a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the end of last October. “You don’t hear that from these people. They don’t want to talk about it.”
That is not true. In fact, in 1971 the homicide rate in the U.S. was 8.6 per 100,000 people, rising to a peak of 10.2 homicides per 100,000 in 1980 and then again to 9.8 in 1991. By 2015, however, the homicide rate fell dramatically: to 4.9 homicides per 100,000, according to FBI data.
To be charitable, the president-elect, who often speaks off-the-cuff and tends toward hyperbole, was probably referring to the spike in murders in 2015, which jumped nearly 11 percent -– indeed the largest single increase since 1945, according to FBI statistics.
But during the election, nearly six out of 10 voters believed crime had gotten worse since 2008, including nearly 80 percent of those who supported Mr.Trump, and nearly 40 percent of those who supported Hillary Clinton, according to a Pew Research survey in November last year.
In fact, overall violent crime in the United States has fallen 19 percent over the past eight years. Property crime, too, has fallen 23 percent since 2008, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
More development, less crime
Some scholars have tied the nation’s decades-long drops in crime to the ban on the use of lead-based materials in the 1970s, which were tied to aggressive behavior and cognitive delays. Others have tied it to the growth in attention-deficit medications. Looking back, Professor Rosenfeld, also chairman of a National Academy of Sciences roundtable on crime trends, sees at least one deeper reason for New York’s special drop in crime over the past few decades: a “virtuous cycle” of crime reduction and economic development.
“What we had in New York City was a pent up demand for new housing, a pent up demand for development ... because, among other things, high crime rates were in the way,” he says. “But as crime rates came down, that dam broke.”
Cities like Miami and San Francisco saw a similar cycle, Rosenfeld says. “Initially you need some break in crime for the investment to begin, but then what you get is one of these virtuous cycles in which reduced crime invites greater investment, and greater investment reduces crime even further. And you can see that on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.”
But as in the past, the NYPD’s innovative policing methods will be studied by other police departments hoping to battle the current rise in violent crime in their own cities.
“The way we do business here has evolved over the years,” O’Neill said. “I think there’s a lot of our principles that can be universally applied,” he added, noting his department’s “precision policing” techniques. “I think that’s how we can continue to push crime down, and that’s how other cities can do it, too.”