Can You Believe the New York Miracle?

Crime measurement, like crime-fighting, has been a shaky business for years. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was customary for municipal officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York, among other cities, to grossly underreport their crime statistics. And the habit was hard to break; increased honesty, after all, could easily be mistaken for increased crime. It could be, and, according to Above the Law, David Burnham’s illuminating study of the US Department of Justice, eventually it was. With the advent of 911 emergency telephone systems, in the late Sixties and the Seventies, the act of reporting became easier for the public and the act of suppressing statistics harder for the police—and crime soared. While some of the growth was undoubtedly real, some, Burnham suggests, was not. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation, our self-appointed national crime scorekeeper, acknowledged the potential for confusion; that is, the functionaries who published the Bureau’s uniform crime reports acknowledged it. Meanwhile, the FBI’s leaders, beginning with J. Edgar Hoover, eagerly promoted the idea of a terrifying increase in crime. Like the CIA’s inflated estimates of Soviet military might, it was good for business.

Even now, about half the victims of crime don’t bother to report it, and the police, too, retain some discretion about what gets counted, and how. In New York City, where the crime rate is said to have dropped by more than 40 percent over the last three years—“the New York Miracle,” it has been called—there have been sporadic disclosures of precinct or borough-level police commanders leaning on subordinates to downgrade robberies to larcenies or felonious to simple assaults. But suspicions of large-scale error or fraud run aground on the fact that murders and shootings, which have dropped the most (by about 50 percent each), are, of all crimes, the least manipulable. The annual tally of murders in New York City declined from 1,927, in 1993, to 986, in 1996; of shootings, from 5,862 to 2,930. You could fill Carnegie Hall, New York’s former Police Commissioner, William Bratton, liked to say (when the decrease was less pronounced), with people who would be dead if homicides had remained at their former levels. They would fill the Ziegfeld Theater now, and it would take Radio City Music Hall to accommodate the lucky souls who, by the same logic, have been spared bullet wounds. (Of course, finding them would be a challenge.)

This is a miracle that can’t be dismissed. How, then, to explain it? The administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani will brook no doubt that it’s the work of City Hall and the Police Department, with an assist from the district attorneys and the courts. But even as police leaders and consultants travel around the country preaching the new science of crime reduction to cities seeking miracles of their own, many of the people who make their livings studying these matters have felt impelled to look …

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