Policing Expert Hails NYC’s Success, Warns Against Over-Zealousness

BY NATHAN RILEY | It sounds like a Chamber of Commerce press release. Or a talking point designed to keep alive presidential speculation about one very rich mayor.

In the last 20 years, New York City has experienced “the largest and longest sustained drop in street crime ever experienced by a big city in the developed world.”

The “largest,” the “longest sustained drop” — not in the United States alone, but in the “developed world.”

A boast like this is almost worthy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, but it is presented as sober fact in an upcoming issue of Scientific American.

And the report is not a case of only looking at the bright side. If read carefully, it reveals as well many sharp pebbles on the road to tranquility and equal justice in a safer New York. Fewer crimes means fewer offenders, yet the NYPD pursues relentless stop-and-frisk policies that ensnare young people of color — gay and straight — a pattern the new study is not afraid to question.

These dramatic conclusions about crime in New York represent the considered judgment of an internationally recognized expert on policing from the University of California. Franklin Zimring’s reputation is based on his impressive body of work, and his findings are written with the authoritative air of a distinguished professor at Bolt Hall, the Berkeley law school that rivals Harvard’s.

The credibility of Zimring’s conclusion is further enhanced by Berkeley’s pioneering role in the development of professional policing. “The founder of modern policing” was August Vollmer, a Berkeley police chief who, after his retirement, became a professor at the university. His experiences during Prohibition led him to reject the policy. Zimring is the heir to a tradition that simultaneously seeks to stifle crime while respecting cultural differences and civil rights.

The Scientific American article is not puffery. Rather, it critically analyzes a stunning development — a two decades-long drop in serious crime. A falling crime rate of this duration, Zimring insists, “has never been documented before” in a major metropolis.

In fact, during the 1990s, most experts believed it impossible for violent crime to plummet 80 percent. Yet, according to the New York Times City Room blog, the number of murders in 2009, lower than the total in 1961, was just 18 percent of the figure for 1990. For rape, the 2009 level is 23 percent of 1990’s.

To be sure, many large American cities saw crime drop during the 1990s, but New York’s decline was roughly twice as great as other cities. And that decline continued after 2000. The New York police are doing something right, and that is the main reason Zimring set about his research to uncover the causes — and implications — of this impressive fall-off in crime.

From Zimring’s perspective, New York City has become a laboratory for studying change. Population, cultural diversity, and income disparities remained stable here over the past two decades, but life-threatening crime is way down. One startling, if heartening, conclusion: “The homicide and muggings in modern big cities aren’t hardwired into the populations, cultures, and institutions of these cities.”

Explanations keep coming back to intelligent police practices. Drug use didn’t decline; the cliché — that drug use is compulsive, and users unable to pay for their habit turn into desperate criminals — doesn’t explain crime waves.

Another eye opener is that the prison population in New York State fell while crime declined, yet hardened inmates back on the streets did not produce chaos. The hard-liners’ favorite refrain — “If they are locked up, they can do no harm” — doesn’t explain the safer streets. In fact, more and more convicts were released from prison as the crime rate fell.

Like a true expert, Zimring is willing to debunk any idea — even his own — if it doesn’t hold water. He has retreated from his belief that a social safety net is required to control crime, and believes intelligent policing plays a more decisive role than previously understood.

Reduced crime has altered life in poor neighborhoods. Starting from the assumption that adult convicts released from prison commit more crimes than the general population, we can see that the rate of offenses by these young men has gone down even more than the overall drop in crime across the city. At-risk youth are in less danger than they were in 1990, and they are less dangerous. While the city and the nation were quick to see the threats from escalating violent crime rates, both are hesitant to acknowledge law-abiding conduct and shape policies accordingly.

And there lies the rub. Stop-and-frisk policing and marijuana arrests — 15 percent of all arrests by the NYPD — keep rising, but the department can no longer justify such aggressiveness in the name of cubing violent crime. In fact, the evidence is that drug use is not linked to overall crime rates.

Zimring concludes “about 65 percent of the reduction in homicides were black and Hispanic men between ages 15 and 44.” They are 13 percent of the population, and policing policy had its “greatest impact on the people who needed help the most.”

But what the police give with one hand, they too often take away with another. “Aggressive street policing” hits young men of color, Zimring writes. “Police aggression fall[s] the hardest on those who can least afford more trouble from the government.”

Among those least able to handle more problems in their lives, of course, are LGBT youth, especially those of color and from marginal economic circumstances. The lack of venues that accommodate adolescent sociability and sexuality — and the enforcement of the legal drinking age and the high cost of indoor entertainment — leaves many young gay kids out on the street, where too often they are targets for arbitrary law enforcement harassment.

Drug reformers, fresh from their recent success in changing the state’s draconian Rockefeller-era drugs laws, web of aggressive enforcement are calling on the City Council to investigate this problem. The findings of any such investigation will undoubtedly reach the Legislature and the governor in Albany.