Walking and seeing the city, part 2: crime in New York City

In my two months in New York City last year, with up to two hundred hours spent walking the streets, approximately 250 subway rides and visits to every borough of the City, I am pleased to say that I did not see one crime committed, nor the evidence of any crimes.  I was never threatened, or felt threatened and of the many thousands of local residents and visitors, I found an astonishing lack of concern for safety.  I walked in Central Park more than twenty times, about half of them very early in the morning.  I saw many single women on their own, older people, young kids walking to school and the great range of people.  In other words, people in New York City are not scared.

It was not always thus.  I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the post-war years; the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were not kind to the City of New York.  In fact, according to crime statistics, the crime rates of New York steadily rose and only started to drop in 1990.  Yes, this also happened around the United States, but they dropped even faster in New York City.  Here are some useful links:

– A 2004 paper entitled “The Remarkable Drop in Crime in New York City”

– The Wikipedia entry on crime in New York City

– Heather McDonald’s City Journal article on New York police

– And especially, the October 2011 book The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control  by University of California criminologist Franklin E. Zimring , which has been extensively discussed in the media – see the New York Times and KQED.

Zimring particularly identifies the role of policing.  Check out the Oxford University Press links to a number of supporting tables.  And here’s a simple set of tables: New York Police Department borough by borough law enforcement staffing from 1990 to 2009 – a full twenty year period.  What we find here is that police numbers have risen from 25,839 in 1990 to 35,628 in 2009, an increase of almost 38 percent – paralleling the drop in crime.  Zimring examines all sorts of factors, including use of illegal drugs (not down by much, but drug-related violent crime sure is), the number of people in jail: again, New York has released far more people than most other places in the United States – meaning that the objective of putting problem people in jail as a way to reduce crime simply is not the answer.  What appears to be the answer is the sort of intensive policing of identified crime “hot” spots, and the result appears to be that when a “crime is prevented on 125th Street, it does NOT go to 140th Street”, according to Zimring.

And that’s one thing I observed in New York this (northern) autumn: large numbers of police.  Sure, we were there for the tenth anniversary of September 11th, and for a UN General Assembly vote on Palestine, but the numbers are substantial, visible and impressive.  It’s interesting that more jurisdictions, including here in Australia, are not following the New York methodology more closely.


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