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.1 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 2,930.2 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 for another explanation, less flattering to law enforcement.
When the downward trend first began, in the early Nineties, criminologists pointed out that the number of males between fifteen and nineteen—now roughly the most crime-prone ages—had decreased by 20 percent during the previous two decades. That figure, however, soon leveled off and began slowly climbing again, yet crime continued to fall.3 Attention then shifted from demographics to economics: improved unemployment and wage figures. But the correlation between crime and the economy has never been close, and New York City, where the unemployment rate remains over 9 percent, has been conspicuously slow to bounce back from the recession of the early Nineties. The decrease in crime, moreover, has been concentrated in some woefully poor neighborhoods, where those most likely to commit crimes—young males—remain largely untouched by the improving economy.
And so, the search has carried a few dogged scholars back to the theory they initially rejected. “When you have eliminated the impossible,” Sherlock Holmes observed, “what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
In law enforcement’s own telling, or, at any rate, in George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles’s Fixing Broken Windows—the first of what promises to be a series of inside accounts—the miracle of declining crime begins with a dilemma that faced the officials who ran the New York City subway system in the Eighties. Thanks to a major capital improvement campaign, the subways worked and looked better than they had in years. But subway patronage was falling, as it had fallen over decades of chronic undermaintenance. Surveys were duly conducted. The public, it turned out, was not unaware of the new cars, tracks, and signalling equipment that had been purchased. The public’s mind, however, was stuck on conditions that hadn’t improved: rowdy teenagers, boomboxes, the smell of urine, people sleeping in cars and stations, and other manifestations of what Kelling and Coles call “disorder.”
The capital improvement plan had been conceived by Richard Ravitch, a builder and dabbler in elective politics, who, as the unsalaried chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—parent body of the subways—maneuvered through Albany, Washington, and Wall Street to emerge, in 1981, with improbable billions of dollars for renovating subway and commuter-rail equipment and stations. This was a remarkable political effort, undertaken at a time of appalling disregard for the subways in particular and public spaces and facilities in general. But when it came to the human issues that caused many New Yorkers to continue to shun the subways, Ravitch was unable to muster the same resolve. They were social issues, he declared, meaning not the subway’s problems.4 With the first wave of improvements complete, however—and with nothing to show for them at the farebox—Ravitch’s successor, Robert Kiley, and David Gunn, the President of the New York City Transit Authority, decided that this was a distinction they could no longer afford to make.
Fixing Broken Windows is a sequel to “Broken Windows,” a 1982 Atlantic article, which became scripture for the Transit Authority in its assault on disorder. Co-written by Kelling, a criminologist who does consulting on the side, and by the political scientist James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows” was, among other things, an excoriation of American policing in the second half of the twentieth century. Faced with rising urban violence—and prodded by the courts—the police, Wilson and Kelling argued, had concentrated on emergencies and felony crime, meanwhile all but decriminalizing such low-level offenses (akin to breaking windows) as spraying graffiti, playing loud music, getting aggressively drunk, and urinating in public. And yet, as Wilson and Kelling observed, these conditions were important to city dwellers, and, therefore, to the vitality of neighborhoods.
In Fixing Broken Windows, Kelling and Coles cite Jane Jacobs as a source of their ideas, and speak of the way in which disorder intrudes on the routine civilities that Jacobs has called the “small change” of urban life. When disorder is ignored, people don’t just feel less safe. According to the broken-windows theory, they are less safe. Public safety, as Jacobs observed, depends on a critical mass of confident and engaged citizens actively monitoring the scene. But fear makes people cower or stay indoors. It might be possible, then, for serious crime to go up as a result of a police determination to concentrate on serious crime.
In the subway chapter of Fixing Broken Windows, Kelling sheds his scholarly persona and, none too gracefully, enters the narrative in the third person; for it was he who, at Kiley’s and Gunn’s behest, oversaw the effort both to identify the specific conditions that made subway riders (and potential riders) uneasy and to lay out a set of remedies that would pass muster with the courts and not raise too many objections elsewhere. In Kelling’s plan, the subway system was to be blanketed with signs listing forms of prohibited conduct—lying down, for example—and, after due notice, the rules were to be strictly enforced.
That job, of course, fell to the police—to the New York City Transit Police Department, or, as it was known in the trade, the “cave cops.” The city cops and the cave cops were separate entities, but applicants took a single test and got channeled one way or the other by lottery. The transit department thus consisted largely of people who, having hoped to become city cops, had been sent into the caves against their will. So they were a badly demoralized lot from the moment of their swearing-in, and further indignities awaited them.
As long as there have been police, those in power have expected them to deal with “undesirables”—that is, with people who manage to cause offense without necessarily committing an identifiable criminal act. Hubert Williams, the former police chief of Newark, New Jersey, has nicely described what tends to happen in these situations: a sergeant or lieutenant tells his assembled subordinates, “Don’t do anything illegal, but get them out of there.” The cops understand these words to mean, “Do whatever it takes, and cover your ass.” They understand further that when theory and practice collide, they—the cops—will be held responsible. So they tend to drag their feet. That, in any case, is what the transit police did, until Kiley and Gunn decided to give them a new chief.
William Bratton, the man they turned to, was a postal worker’s son who had risen through the ranks of the Boston Police Department with what his superiors there had come to regard as unseemly haste. By the time the Transit Authority recruited him, Bratton had run two police organizations in his home state. Nevertheless, he had a healthy contempt for the bureaucratic cast of mind, as well as the insight (rare in paramilitary organizations) that a chief should sell his policies to the rank and file. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Bratton made a nocturnal inspection of the troops. He found one of them slouched against the wall of a station, smoking a cigarette. The average police chief, beholding such a shabby representative of the profession, would take his name and give him a tongue-lashing. Bratton asked the cop what his post was. “This is it,” he replied, explaining that he was under orders to spend an entire tour of duty in that one spot, protecting the token booth and deterring fare-beaters—a stultifyingly boring assignment that, in his view, didn’t deserve to be called police work.
Farebeating, as it happened, was a major item on Bratton’s agenda. Besides being costly in its own right, it contributed to the sense of a system that was out of control. In some stations, “coinsuckers” would whisk paying customers in through half-cocked turnstiles, and then remove their tokens with breath-power. (At my stop, 72nd Street and Broadway, the coinsuckers went about their business so genially, and with such self-assurance, that they might have been taken for doormen.) Nevertheless, Bratton was moved by the cop’s complaint—so moved that he resolved to hire private guards to control farebeating.
In this decision, however, he failed to anticipate the reaction of the transit police union, which, boredom or no boredom, rushed to the defense of its turf; and once again Bratton listened. The cops got their farebeating responsibility back, and with it, a new mode of deployment: a group of officers would descend on a station dressed in civilian clothes, with the aim not of preventing farebeating but of catching farebeaters in the act and arresting them. Bratton also had a city bus converted into an ersatz booking office. In the past, farebeaters had been compelled to spend a night in jail, and many cops were reluctant to impose such a penalty for an offense that, as Kelling notes, “…on a case-by-case basis…amounted to the theft of $1.25.” Now they could be taken to the “bust bus” and released with a summons in a matter of an hour or two. (Of course, many failed to keep their court dates; but if they got caught again, they were locked up, however briefly.)
The link between disorder and crime, as Kelling and Wilson imagined it in their article, was a subtle one. In the case of the subways, Bratton discovered an unsubtle connection: some of the people who got arrested for minor violations proved to be carrying guns or to be wanted on felony warrants. (At the outset of the anti-farebeating campaign, one out of seven farebeaters was wanted on a warrant, and one out of twenty-one had a weapon.) Bratton also discovered Lieutenant Jack Maple, commander of the transit system’s robbery squad. Maple was the kind of character police departments normally keep at a safe distance from headquarters. Born and raised in Queens, he affected a homburg, black-and-white spectator shoes, and bowties that matched his socks. He was also a devoted student of computer statistics and a prolific source of anticrime ideas—ideas that had been largely ignored by prior management. The subways were then experiencing a wave of “wolfpack robberies,” in which groups of half a dozen or more young men overwhelmed a victim. Promoted to, in effect, assistant anticrime czar of the caves, Maple put pressure on detectives to identify and arrest every last accomplice—an obvious notion, perhaps, but a sharp break with tradition, which had been to consider a case solved with the arrest of a single suspect.5
The incidence of subway crime had never been as high as people supposed. Nevertheless, about nine months after Bratton’s appointment, it began falling; and it has gone on doing so through two more chiefs—disciples of his—and after a merger of the Transit Police with the NYPD, which Bratton championed when he became the city’s police commissioner in January of 1994. Between 1990, when he took over the transit police, and 1996, subway felonies (mainly robberies) dropped by 80 percent. Farebeating, according to the Transit Authority’s estimates, has declined even more, by about 90 percent, from 250,000 to 25,000 incidents a day. The number of paying passengers, after bottoming out in 1991, has risen steadily—last year, to the highest level in a quarter-century.6
Bratton’s term in the subways was a dazzling audition for the job of Police Commissioner of New York City. Rudy Giuliani, for one, was so captivated that he picked him despite a premonition (as Giuliani remarked to an adviser at the time) that the new commissioner would have trouble remembering which of them had been elected by the people. 7 The subways were also a testing ground for the broken-windows theory, and, some say, proof of its crime-reducing power.
But that overstates the case, since a crackdown on small offenses was just one element of a broader strategy. In the subways, and again in the city at large, serious crime got plenty of attention in its own right, and Bratton, despite a fondness for black-tie events, press attention, and the company of millionaires (indulgences that are said to have cost him his job), proved to be a leader with a brilliant sense of what would inspire cops and give them a sense of purpose. That instinct may have had as much effect on the city as any theory about disorder.
In one major way, however, the NYPD stuck close to the original Wilson-Kelling theory. When crack cocaine first appeared, in the mid-Eighties, the police took a deplorably long time to react. As part of the legacy of the Knapp Commission scandal of the early Seventies, cops who made drug arrests were widely presumed to be corrupt; the people they arrested, the supposition ran, were those who had refused to pay them off. Crack, since it was sold one hit at a time, was a labor-intensive business. The epidemic spread as fast as it did because of the salesmanship of teenage drug dealers who, often with the police standing idly by, operated with astonishing brazenness, selling in the open and relying on nine-millimeter semiautomatics to settle their quarrels.
Under Bratton, the department launched an unprecedented campaign of “buy and bust” operations using plainclothes officers, and it exhorted the patrol force to do its part as well. The actual use of crack may not have been much affected; what changed were the Wild West manners of the young traffickers. The risk of being checked out by the police increased sharply, and because the DAs, under pressure from Giuliani and Bratton, began treating firearms charges more seriously, crack dealers and others were moved (or so Bratton, among others, argued) to reexamine the wisdom of carrying weapons in public. “Now people leave the guns at home or in less accessible places,” Bratton said. “What does that mean? Well, when somebody gets in somebody else’s face, they might throw some punches—they might swear at each other—but very often they’re going to have to go home to get the gun, and by the time they get home, they’ve thought twice about it, or by the time they get back, the other guy’s gone.”
This variation on the broken-windows script raises questions: if the police strategy comes down to more stops, searches, and arrests, the basis on which they are justified might not matter much. A police officer could reasonably feel that he was reducing crime by, say, breaking up a group of young men on a street corner. In New York, you can hear plenty of such tales these days, some of them on radio call-in shows. But what has been surprising is the relatively benign state of police- community relations. While there have been awful episodes, like the recent killing of a young Bronx resident, Anthony Baez, whose only demonstrable offense against society was a football pass that struck a police car, New York has been through nothing to compare with, say, the Rodney King incident. Nor have New Yorkers heard from their police leaders the kind of rabid rhetoric favored by Los Angeles’s deposed chief, Darryl Gates. At the beginning of 1997, Bratton’s successor, Howard Safir, announced a campaign to reduce the number of citizen complaints against the police; they were down 21 percent through the first five months of the year, while violent crime continued to fall.
Under the sway of the broken-windows idea, theorists as well as practitioners can construct a very broad definition of the responsibilities of the police. Fixing Broken Windows has a lot to say, for example, about panhandlers, who are insistently portrayed as menacing and “aggressive.” In one farfetched passage, Kelling and Coles speak of a “phalanx of importuning street people.” They are also critical of “radical libertarians who would perpetuate urban chaos,” by whom they appear to mean, chiefly, the public-interest lawyers who opposed the Transit Authority’s anti-panhandling campaign. They write admiringly of Judge Frank X. Altimari, whose decision made begging (a practice as old as recorded history) definitively illegal in the subways. Talk about judicial activism.
Judge Altimari, moreover, allowed the Transit Authority to prohibit panhandling by individuals, while permitting it by organized charities. In a lawsuit that sought to overturn the new rules, the Legal Action Center for the Homeless (now the Center for Urban Justice) argued that the government had no business making such a distinction—a feeling, I suspect, that the Founding Fathers would have shared. In fact, it was litigation filed by the same group that forced the city to reduce the capacity of its shelters, to rely more on nonprofit organizations as shelter-builders and managers, and to build more single-room-occupancy hotels. As a result, large numbers of homeless people have been lured off the streets. In this way, the “radical libertarians” may have done as much as the police to improve the sense of public order.
For all its actual or potential excesses, however, the broken-windows theory is at heart rudimentary and commonsensical. It’s how well-to-do, well-connected citizens have always managed their neighborhoods; at the first signs of trouble, however minor, they complain, and it doesn’t take much complaining, on their part, to secure police action. Poor people living in poor neighborhoods deserve the same treatment, which—for all the city’s self-congratulatory talk of an enhanced “quality of life”—they still don’t get.
A number of different approaches to crime are to be found in Fixing Broken Windows. But its underlying argument does not entail—nor would it be well-served by—brutish policing. On the lecture circuit lately, as anticrime experts sponsored by the conservative Manhattan Institute, Kelling and Coles have warned police leaders (including New York’s) against street-sweeping tactics and “curbstone justice.” It’s not enough, they say, for a city to resuscitate an old and discredited anti-vagrancy statute; new regulations need to be fashioned that will be “accepted as legitimate by virtually all elements of the community.” The public needs to be involved, neighborhood by neighborhood, in the process of refining—and upholding—those regulations.
Residents, for example, will legitimately caution youths when their youthful exuberance leads to minor infractions—a little bit too much horseplay, music a little too loud—that erode community life. Police and other officials will assist citizens, restraining them if overzealousness edges toward vigilantism, acting as peacemakers where the consensus is under strain in a neighborhood, making certain that citizen enforcement does not violate the fundamental rights of individuals. In the final analysis, however, citizens must accept their responsibility to control their neighborhoods—and once invested in restoring order, they generally take on this role. Restoring order and controlling crime in neighborhoods are only in part the responsibility of police and criminal justice agencies.
The link between disorderly behavior and crime may not be proved—when it comes to crime, very little is. But the idea is certainly plausible, and there is strong circumstantial evidence for the notion that law enforcement has had a hand in cutting down on crime. Indeed, the case has been well made by critics as well as proponents. In a recent Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post (“New York Story: More Luck Than Policing”), Richard Moran, a professor of sociology and criminology at Mount Holyoke, noted that crime was falling rapidly in a few cities where police policies had remained fairly constant. Which cities? As his leading example, Moran could do no better than offer East St. Louis, Illinois, population 41,000.
Violent crime, it is true, has been dropping nationally, especially in urban areas, over the last few years. Nowhere, though, has it fallen as sharply or steadily as in New York. Between 1993 and 1996, the murder rate in Chicago fell by about 7 percent, and Philadelphia by about 6 percent. New York’s reduction, meanwhile, was 49 percent. Its closest competitors were Houston, with 41 percent, and Los Angeles, with 34 percent. Thomas Reppetto, of New York’s Citizens Crime Commission, points out that if this were purely a New York/California phenomenon, it might—as Moran, among others, has suggested—merely represent the leading edge of a national trend, according to the widely held belief that trends tend to originate on the East and West Coasts. Texas, however, doesn’t fit that theory.
Skeptics have made much of the fact that the decrease in New York’s crime began in 1992, when David Dinkins was mayor. But what was at first a gentle fall became a steep one in the second half of 1994—Giuliani’s (and Bratton’s) first year in office. Lending further support to the law-enforcement theory, the records show a surge of misdemeanor arrests at that time. On the other hand, the fact that crime has fallen moderately elsewhere, and that it started falling in New York before some of the advertised causes were in place, points strongly to the possibility of another factor—something that has been making the police’s job easier.
While many skeptics have acknowledged the police’s part in reducing crime, some see their contribution as mainly one of throwing more people in jail. The nation’s incarceration rate quadrupled between 1970 and 1995, partly the result of longer (and mandatory) sentences for drug offenses, and even some experts who oppose that practice, like Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University, speculate that it may have reduced crime. But the greatest growth in the incarceration rate occurred, both nationally and in New York, during the Eighties. (A Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo, may be remembered as the biggest prison-builder in New York State’s history.) Since 1993, the number of people in New York State prisons (70 percent of whom are residents of the city) has gone from about 64,500 to just under 70,000—a huge number, but not a huge increase. Among the large industrial states New York’s incarceration rate is roughly in the middle. Texas, with a rate nearly twice as high, is first. Texas’s experience, then, could argue for the positive effects of incarceration on the crime rate; New York’s experience does not.
It has become “almost sport,” Michael Farrell, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Policy and Planning, said recently, “to see who could explain the decline in crime in New York City without reference to the New York City Police Department.” For some of the police, certainly, the effort to devise an alternative theory of crime reduction seems to have been inspired by something other than reflection on the evidence. The academic world has not distinguished itself in this field of inquiry. Two New York academics, however, have put forward an interesting explanation of their own. Based on separate research projects involving, in each case, interviews with young people from inner-city neighborhoods, Richard Curtis (of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) and Jeffrey Fagan (of the Columbia University School of Public Health) see what amounts to a generational turn away from violence. The rise of crack was accompanied by a large increase in shooting incidents—and in the number of innocent victims, many of them children and infants, who happened to get caught in the line of fire. Thus a great many people now nearing adulthood have seen friends and relatives killed or disabled, and many of them (so the theory goes) have come to abhor not only the drug but the gunplay associated with it.
This “little-brother syndrome”—as Curtis has called it—hasn’t received much attention, and it’s been widely ridiculed by public officials, just as its own supporters have scorned the law-enforcement theory. But similar cycles run through the history of drugs in America; heroin use, for example, spread swiftly in the early decades of the twentieth century, and fell after people got wind of the dangers. Memories of that earlier period had to fade before the drug became popular again, in the Fifties. The little-brother theory and the law-enforcement theory, in fact, follow a curiously similar logic. It would be remarkable if a dramatic rise in misdemeanor arrests (and, one can surmise, in police-citizen encounters) had no effect on criminal behavior; it would be equally remarkable if criminal behavior were in no way modified by the carnage that crack dealers and other armed young men have inflicted.
More than most arguments, the crime argument has been a vessel for feelings that go beyond the subject. It has given rise to two distinct schools of thought—the lock-’em-ups and the root causers, let’s call them—and to a vast amount of demagoguery and vitriol. The downturn in crime has, predictably, produced more of the same. To the lock-’em-ups, the suddenness of the decline, and the fact that it has been largely unaccompanied by initiatives for social justice, stand as proof of the irrelevance of deep social causes. “The New York Miracle,” a delirious headline-writer at The New Republic wrote a few months ago, proves that “the Cause of Crime is Crime.”
Of course, it doesn’t really prove anything about the cause of crime. But it may suggest that fear of crime is ultimately not the best basis on which to press issues of social justice. Academics have had a lot to say, in recent decades, about the ineffectuality of law enforcement, and they have made some telling points. In Fixing Broken Windows, Kelling and Coles recall a moment, in the Thirties, when certain pundits in the police world, dazzled by advances in radio and automotive technology, imagined that with fast enough cars and smooth enough communications, it would soon be possible to surround virtually any criminal before he could escape, and thereby, in the authors’ words, “wipe out urban crime altogether.” But the postwar era brought new challenges for which law enforcement was strikingly ill-equipped, and some basic police assumptions came to look exceedingly foolish—the value of rapid response, for example. According to the findings of a study conducted in Kansas City in 1974 and 1975, the average crime victim or witness waited half an hour or so before calling the police—if such a call was ever, in fact, placed.
Preventive patrol was another cherished idea that withered under scrutiny: radio cars passing back and forth through a neighborhood (so concluded a second, more attention-getting Kansas City study) have no detectable effect on crime. Yet another study, in Newark, New Jersey, indicated that cops on foot—the vogue of the Eighties and Nineties—did not, by their mere presence, reduce crime, either.
Most criminologists eventually arrived at the conclusion that the police, while they might occasionally solve a crime and bring a malefactor to justice, had, at best, a marginal influence on the crime rate. Many police leaders came to a similarly low judgment of their abilities. They, too, tended to believe that crime would go on increasing, whatever the police did (or didn’t do). By the early Nineties, with major corruption and brutality scandals sweeping through one department after another—in Miami, Washington, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among others—the profession’s reputation was at a low ebb.
And yet, in their ability to obtain material resources and sterner laws and more prison space, the police, like the criminal-justice system as a whole, prospered. If the record of the crime debate proves anything, it is that when people are scared, they go for more law enforcement, not less, even if they have little confidence in its utility. Fear is a game that the lock-’em-ups will always win.
Physical security has been a growth industry in America lately, and the drop in crime has emboldened some conservative ideologues to call for yet tougher, and yet more, law enforcement. The anticipation of just such a turn of events, I suspect, accounts for the enterprise with which the root causers have gone about their attempts to discredit their opponents. Both camps, however, could be in for a surprise. The trajectory of Rudy Giuliani’s political career, at any rate, suggests a different outlook. In his campaign for mayor, Giuliani talked about crime incessantly, and with a harsh edge; David Dinkins, he lost no opportunity to say, was the mayor who had paid for a drug dealer’s funeral—a charge that the late Lee Atwater would have enjoyed. (Fearful of a riot in Washington Heights after a police shooting that at first appeared to have been unjustified, Dinkins had gone out of his way to show he was sensitive to the distress of the victim’s family.) In the first two years of his administration, Giuliani often came across as a one-issue mayor. The job he really coveted, some columnists suggested, was Bratton’s.
Nowadays, in the glow of “the New York Miracle,” Giuliani’s concerns seem to have broadened. Public-opinion polls show crime moving down the scale of New Yorkers’ major worries; as their attention has shifted, so has the mayor’s. In recent months, he has discovered the plight of the public schools, and perceived that some of their needs are for material and financial help. Not every educational problem, it appears, can be solved with a dose of parochial school-style discipline and austerity, as Giuliani once implied.
However some people interpret it, the drop in crime is one of the more heartening as well as unexpected news stories of the present decade. The reasons can only be guessed at, and no one knows how long the trend will continue. But it has already had profound consequences—good ones, all of them. Beyond the lives saved, the wounds averted, and the anxieties soothed, it has changed the way the city is perceived. According to a recent New York Times poll, 34 percent of New Yorkers think the city is improving. Only 10 percent thought so in May 1993.8
For as long as most of us can remember, the fear of continually increasing crime has fed the fear of continually decaying cities. Crime was a major cause of the middle classes’ flight to the suburbs and of the shift of suburban life away from the idea of the city as a commercial and cultural hub. Former city-dwellers and non-city-dwellers—and, for that matter, the more affluent city-dwellers—grew increasingly reluctant to dip into their pockets to pay for the upkeep and improvement of public spaces and facilities. With crime falling, all these tendencies may, if we are lucky, be eased or even reversed.
August 14, 1997
David Burnham, Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes, and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice (Scribner, 1996), Chapter 4, “The Numbers Game.” Burnham points out that when the Justice Department began its victimization surveys in the mid-Seventies, they showed crime holding steady, even as police/FBI crime statistics continued to suggest dramatic increases. ↩
These are New York City Police Department statistics. The shooting figures refer, more precisely, to the number of victims. ↩
Demographic statistics cited in Citizens Crime Commission, “Reducing Gun Crime in New York City: A Research and Policy Report,” pp. 42-43. ↩
See James Lardner, “Painting the Elephant,” The New Yorker, June 25, 1984. ↩
See David Remnick’s article on Maple in The New Yorker, February 24, 1997. ↩
The 1972 figure was 1.1 billion subway rides; the 1991 figure was 995 million. Last year, it was back up to 1.1 billion. ↩
Raymond Harding, interview with me. ↩
Adam Nagourney, “Poll Finds Optimism in New York, But Race and Class Affect Views,” The New York Times, March 12, 1997, p. 1. ↩