Known Unknowns in Policing

NYPDshieldThe City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control by Franklin E. Zimring. Oxford Press, 2011. 257 pp.

Police are nothing new in America, but the national discussion regarding their role in society is growing. The past year has witnessed mass protests spring up in several cities. These have been nearly uniformly handled awkwardly, commonly with asymmetric violence. The spotlight has turned to the officers who forcefully disperse protests as well as the administrators and elected officials who are responsible for their actions and for public safety.

After peaking in 1990, crime in the United States declined tremendously. The drop in crime in New York City, however, dwarfs this improvement. America’s largest city has enjoyed a fall in crime more than twice as long in duration and steeper than the national average. The statistics are no secret, yet a policy-relevant explanation for this anomalous shift eludes scholars. Frank Zimring gives it a try with The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control. Unfortunately, in this book he falls short. He does not deal sufficiently with the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop-and-frisk tactic and his own reasoning leaves his conclusion on shaky footing.

Zimring is a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley (who spent the last year in residence at NYU) known for his work on juvenile crime, the sentencing of convicted criminals and family law. He chairs a criminal justice research branch of the university’s Institute for Legal Research, and has written several books on the politics of capital punishment and juvenile justice. In fact, The City That Became Safechiefly cites one author for expertise on the national crime decline: Frank Zimring.

The book begins by framing Zimring’s research question: what factors have led to New York’s uniquely precipitous fall in crime rates over the last two decades? This precedes a deluge of statistics intended to hammer home the fact that New York experienced unparalleled decline in each of the seven “index” crimes: homicide, rape, assault, burglary, robbery, larceny, and auto theft. In reality, the statistics are overwhelming and unneeded to convince the reader that there was indeed something special about the case of New York. The first four chapters of the book are a slog, and mostly recap the many tables and charts that accompany the text. But perhaps the author’s intent is to drown potential rebuttals to his later claims in a tsunami of data.

Once his groundwork is smoothly paved, Zimring sets forth on a mission to demonstrate that the root of this crime decline was some change in police behavior. To do this, he embarks on a process of elimination, discussing in his course the evolution of New York’s racial and juvenile demographics as well as the relationship between drugs and crime in the city.

Demographic changes in New York in the 1990s and 2000s, Zimring concludes, do not suggest a fall in crime. The shifts in ethnic and racial groups were too small to account for such a large effect on crime rates. Prison populations also declined during this period. In fact, the percentage of youth population – traditionally a high-crime subset – rose sharply as crime fell during the 1990s. In addition, drug use (which received an upward jolt in the 80s with the spread of crack cocaine) has not fallen significantly, though drug-related crime has. These observations lead Zimring to infer that police practices must be the driving force behind New York’s crime decline.

One major shortcoming of The City That Became Safe is that the examination stops there. Zimring thoroughly discusses the topics above — but what about other changes in public policies during this crime decline? Welfare reform of the mid-1990s does not receive a mention. Any serious social scientist would want to investigate the effect of Clintonian reform legislation on the urban landscape. Zimring, however, does not seem interested.

Zimring is to be commended for grappling head-on with the myth of the misguided “broken windows” theory of crime control. (To his credit, Zimring has pushed back against the public infatuation with the work of the late James Q. Wilson, this theory’s progenitor, since a 1995 journal article.) The statistics related to “quality of life” policing that the broken windows theory advocated show little to none of its claimed effects. In this and other ways, The City That Became Safe contains a good deal of useful information for policymakers and analysts of any political persuasion to heed.

Zimring also does not shy away from the topic of marijuana arrest rates. Misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession have soared in tandem with the rise in street stops made by the NYPD of black and Hispanic men. Zimring correctly identifies these numbers as a smoke screen for stop-and-frisk arrests of otherwise faultless individuals. Unfortunately, his language stops short of criticism of policy practices. The strongest critique he offers is the following: “The problem with using a predicate offense – alcohol, loud radio noise in a car, marijuana – as a justification for selective enforcement of non-serious crimes is that it really does become the moral equivalent of racial profiling.” Sadly, this statement comes in the context of a discussion centered on former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and his Deputy Commissioner for Crime Control, Jack Maple. The truth of Zimring’s statement has not changed in the Ray Kelly era of NYPD policy. It is frustrating that he shies away from contemporary debate, especially as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly scale up their defense of the policy and offer hollow promises of reform (most prominently, Kelly’s open letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn).

Zimring employs an easy analogy to public awareness of crime and the police. “Just as people only think about dentists when they have toothaches,” he says, “only periods of concern about crime generate sustained attention to crime policy.” Here he is plainly wrong. If crime statistics are accurate and New York is a much safer place overall, why is stop-and-frisk such a major topic? The reason is that the public is awakening to the injustice of selective enforcement of our laws.

The City That Became Safe leaves its reader with the following thought: the cause of the huge decline in New York City crime is most likely a function of police behavior, but not enough research has been done to either pinpoint the effective component tactic or to weigh the benefits of reduced crime against its costs. He calls on sociologists and criminologists to provide the context for analyzing various crime reduction policies. If only Zimring had done this work himself or waited to write this book until the completion of relevant methodological studies, it would be of much greater value to the public. Instead, we are left holding a possible explanation that beats around the bush on one of today’s most pressing social issues.

Note: this article appeared in The Wagner Review on June 18, 2012.

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