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Baltimore can learn from New York City’s decline in crime

Photo: Deanna Staffo, License: N/A

Deanna Staffo


Crime is declining in Baltimore, as it is across America. Baltimore has experienced a multi-year downward trend in almost every category of crime—in some, the numbers have fallen to levels not seen in decades. The 34-year low for homicides in 2011 could fall even lower in 2012; there were four fewer homicides in January of this year than last.

Governor and former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley reflected on the city’s homicide numbers late last year, suggesting metaphysical forces were at work: “So to be at 195 on Dec. 28, and to see that 175 mark on the horizon, to think of all the moms and all the dads that aren’t going to be standing by graves of their kids, I don’t think there’s anything about which I will ever be more grateful in public service, and I’m not going to quibble with God over the timing,” he told a group of reporters.

O’Malley’s invocation of both public service and God is an apt symbol of our cognitive dissonance about declining crime in Baltimore. Politicians of various stripes and officials in law enforcement take credit, as is their nature, but have difficulty explaining precisely how and why such a decline is happening, and why now. Others have trouble even believing that the decline is real, that crime stats are not a mere sleight-of-hand confidence game.

The decline in crime also challenges a whole range of assumptions and deeply held social beliefs we have about who criminals are, about the nature of urban life, about the role of law enforcement and our system of punishments, and about what has become, to many, an essential feature of life in Baltimore.

No one has analyzed the meaning of America’s crime decline in more detail than University of California, Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring. His widely praised 2007 book The Great American Crime Decline examined a wide range of explanations for the country’s crime drop—and found most of them wanting. It was not record levels of imprisonment, a drop in the use of crack cocaine, or even, as some analysts offered, the effects of legalized abortion. No one cause, but a combination of forces and comparatively modest changes in how the police force does its job brought about this significant drop in crime, Zimring argues.

Zimring extended and focused his analysis of that decline in 2011’s The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and its Control. New York City, Zimring points out, has had a 19-year “decline in rates of serious crime that is unprecedented in modern American history.” He notes, for example, that “[r]ates of homicide, robbery and burglary have dropped over 80% in 19 years” in New York. “Auto theft,” he reports, staggeringly, “has dropped 94%.”

As the book’s subtitle makes clear, there are lessons to be drawn for urban crime in America from this astounding New York story, including for a seemingly criminogenic place like Baltimore. And we in Baltimore have more personal reasons to look to New York for an explanation of our current decline in crime. No other American city at the beginning of the 21st century wanted to replicate the trend in New York City as badly as did Baltimore. O’Malley, as an ambitious city councilmember, famously went to New York like a pilgrim seeking the true way. In Esquire magazine’s 2002 adulatory profile, O’Malley let the world know he would make his public service mission reducing crime in Baltimore. “He became Johnny One-Note,” Esquire declared. “Better law enforcement. He’d visited New York as a councilman and had seen Zero Tolerance and the Broken Windows Theory in action, and he told Baltimore that if they got tough on crime, people would come back to the city and there would be justice.”

So what is it that Zimring says has happened in New York, and what are the implications for Baltimore? “The amazing facts of New York City’s crime decline have been condensed into a sound bite in which a heroic mayor and aggressive police created a zero tolerance law enforcement regime that drove crime rates down,” Zimring writes. Through examining the data, he shows this sound bite to be “equal parts truth and fantasy.” About half of the total drop in crime in New York, Zimring says, was simply part of the larger trend of decreasing crime across America.

Yet Zimring does go on to say that what drove crime in New York to historic lows was in part the expansion of the police force and that force’s policing strategies. Zimring writes that the NYPD expanded its patrol forces significantly (and later scaled them back), used targeted aggressive enforcement, and focused its efforts on specific and limited criminal behavior. For example, controlling violence associated with the drug trade rather than drug crime itself became the end around which police built their tactics.

“But it wasn’t zero tolerance,” he’s quick to point out, “and there was no consistent quality of life emphasis in the New York strategy.” The real lessons of New York are “much more important than the myth, and more of a surprise.” The surprise is what didn’t change as crime rates plummeted:

There were no major changes in the population and ecology of New York. . . . Active offenders sharply curtailed rates of predatory crime without major increases in incarceration. Drug-related violence fell by more than 90%, while levels of illegal drug use remained relatively stable. Persisting patterns of single-parent families, educational problems, limited economic opportunity, and gross economic inequality did not prevent the most dramatic crime reduction yet documented in any modern big city.
New York’s experience challenges the major assumptions that have dominated American crime and drug policy for more than a generation. It shows that huge increases in incarceration are unnecessary and inefficient. It proves that targeted violence-prevention policies can reduce drug violence and reclaim public areas from drug anarchy without all-out drug wars.
But the most important lesson of the past two decades is that very high rates of violent crime are not hard-wired into the populations, cultures, and institutions of big cities in the United States. Life-threatening crime is not an essential feature of American urban life.

It is worth reflecting on Zimring’s story precisely because it is so difficult for many to even imagine this kind of narrative for Baltimore. When I call Zimring to ask about his work and its implications here, he is, appropriately, hesitant. “I am not really familiar with the numbers in Baltimore,” he says. “And even perfect replication [of policing strategies] wouldn’t produce the over 80 percent reduction in total crime in New York.”

Yet when I mention some of the declines in Baltimore, including in homicides, Zimring responds with a biblical metaphor he uses in the book. “That’s the ‘loaves and fishes,’” he says with a laugh. As recently as a decade ago, he says, many believed such reductions “were not possible. . . . And New York shows those numbers are not an essential part of city life, any city.” There is no reason to think Baltimore’s numbers can’t be significantly lower, he tells me.

What’s clear, he says, is that if cities like Baltimore are to be successful they need to get away from “supply-side criminology.” In The City That Became Safe, Zimring writes that that approach “predicts and explains the volume of crime in a population area by determining the number of chronic offenders unrestrained in a community and assumes that they continue to offend at relatively fixed rates until they age out of crime or are removed by incarceration.”

Baltimore law enforcement’s current claim that it is focusing only on the “bad guys with guns” echoes this belief about chronic, fixed-rate offenders. And in another clear case of supply-side thinking, in 2010, when the United States saw its first drop in prison population since 1972, Maryland’s prison population increased, fueled significantly by Baltimore City residents. Maryland’s numbers suggest the state remains committed to the false notion that incarceration and incapacitation are necessary prerequisites for crime decline. New York’s experience—and increasingly that of the United States as a whole—shows this to be untrue.

Similarly, Zimring says that police departments need to be much more transparent in the public disclosure of their data and tactics. For example, Zimring says, New York police did expand the practice of “stop-and-frisk” but it did not lead to increases in incarceration nor, as it did in Baltimore, to the police department paying almost a million dollars in 2010 in a suit filed by the NAACP and the ACLU for hundreds of arrests made in the city without probable cause. “Police departments are still parts of municipal government, without any strong investment in transparency or in ceding power to outside evaluators,” Zimring says. “The very successes that have made specific findings about what works best more important have insulated successful police chiefs from the pressure to prove that their tactics work in policy evaluations.”

What New York’s story shows, Zimring concludes, is that much of both liberal and conservative orthodoxy about crime is simply wrong. “New York City has proved that mass imprisonment is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to control urban crime,” he writes in the book. “It has also demonstrated that drug violence can be controlled without major changes in the incidence and prevalence of illegal drug use. The central contrast in New York City was this: a very modest set of changes in urban populations and institutions contributed to a very large change in crime. . . . [I]t is now clear that chronically high homicide and robbery rates are not an essential part of modern city life.”

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