The mystery behind the dramatic drop in New York City’s crime rates

A new book written by a criminologist examines why crime rates have dropped dramatically in New York City in the last two decades. It’s not all due to broken windows theory or Rudy Giuliani:

In the 1980s, the city was widely perceived as a pit of chaos and fear, an urban society stumbling toward anarchy. Between 1965 and 1984, the number of violent crimes nearly tripled. In 1984, there were nearly five murders a day. In the following years, things got worse still…

In his new book, “The City That Became Safe”, Franklin Zimring unrolls a litany of statistics that almost defy belief. The murder rate has dropped by 82 percent. Rapes are down 77 percent and assaults by two-thirds. Auto theft verges on extinction after dropping 94 percent…

So what accounts for the miracle? Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley, surmises that the biggest factors were focusing cops on high-crime areas and closing down outdoor drug markets, which helped curb gang conflicts that often turned deadly (though it had little effect on drug use). But much of what happened is a mystery.

That’s the bad news, since the New York experience yields no easy formula for safe streets. But it proves we can realize vast improvements in safety without first solving all the problems that supposedly cause crime — poverty, bad schools, out-of-wedlock births, drug use, violent movies and so on.

It would then be really interesting to see what lessons Zimring says can be applied to other cities.

It does seem worthwhile to conclude that this is a hopeful tale: crime rates can truly be reduced. We may not know exactly what to do but crime can be curbed. Yet, I don’t think it would be good if we then didn’t  pay attention to these other issues like a lack of opportunities and poverty. Imagine a world where poor neighborhoods have lower crime rates, perhaps not as low as wealthy suburban communities but lower than peak rates several decades ago. Would other problems receive as much media attention if crime stories couldn’t lead the local news? Do these issues simply fall more off the map than they already are within public and political discourse?

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