True Crime

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January/February 2001


True Crime

By Stephanie Mencimer


New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s

By Andrew Karmen
New York University Press

Click on the title to buy the book

During the mid-1990s, I often found myself spending Saturday nights driving around in a patrol car in sketchy areas of Washington, D.C., taking in the sights with my boyfriend, a D.C. cop. Most of what I saw was a D.C. police department in a shambles. The city was in the midst of a crushing financial crisis, and it had failed to invest in the police department's infrastructure for years.

By 1995, scout cars were dropping wheels, brakes, and mufflers left and right, and the department couldn't afford to fix them. Station parking lots were littered with dead and disabled patrol cars, and officers showing up for work often would find that they had nothing to drive. They were using their own money to gas up their cruisers. Neighborhood groups held bake sales to raise money to buy toilet paper, radio batteries, and other critical supplies for local district station houses.

My friend's 4th District station was furnished like a 1950's schoolhouse, full of old desks, wooden chairs, and not much else. Officers used rotary phones--voice mail was unheard of, as were computers. When the station did get a few 486s, most officers didn't know what to do with them. They didn't have e-mail, and there was no central network for filing reports. All the crime reports were done by hand, on paper, and later sent to headquarters for processing.

The D.C. cops' crime fighting tactics weren't much more sophisticated. Officers would race from one crime scene to another in response to radio calls, doing very little in the way of proactive policing. I was amazed they ever caught any criminals--and most of them didn't. Ten percent of the officers made 90 percent of the department's arrests.

In the midst of all the chaos, after work my cop friend and his buddies would sit around a pitcher of beer at the Fraternal Order of Police clubhouse and talk shop. Their conversations frequently turned to the other police departments around the country that they considered real police departments. Number one on their list was the NYPD.

To D.C. cops, the New York Police Department was the shit. It had Compstat, the state-of-the-art technology system that connected all the various districts to headquarters and allowed precinct commanders to call up maps showing the latest crime trends on their beats, helping them shut down trouble spots before they got out of hand. New York also had William Bratton, the famed former transit cop chief who had cleaned up the New York subway system by applying the "broken window" theory to policing.

The broken window theory was coined by criminologist George Kelling, who had shown that neighborhoods that neglected little things like broken windows and litter invited more serious criminal activity into their midst.

Consequently, Bratton encouraged transit cops to crack down on small crimes, like turnstile jumping and panhandling, based on the belief that people who commit minor crimes also commit serious ones. The practice seemed to work beautifully, and Bratton became something of a celebrity. He became the NYPD police commissioner in 1994, and the number of murders in the city plummeted by almost 800 the next year. Suddenly other cities, including D.C., were clamoring to implement their own Bratton systems.

Naturally, he was happy to promote his ideas. (In 1996, Giuliani pushed Bratton out and the former commissioner took his act on the road as a consultant.) In 1998, Bratton wrote a memoir called Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, taking credit for New York's 10 percent annual crime rate drops for the two years he served as commissioner. Jack Maple, the gourmand cop in a bow tie and derby who served as Bratton's deputy, also wrote his own book in 1999 (called The Crime Fighter: Putting the Bad Guys Out of Business) claiming the lion's share of the credit for the New York crime drop.

Conservatives, too, jumped on the bandwagon, eager to declare New York proof positive that their law-and-order theories were valid, and that liberals' belief that such mushy things as alleviating poverty could reduce crime were intellectually bankrupt.

The funny thing, though, was that New York wasn't the only place the crime rate was falling; a similar phenomenon was taking place in D.C. Despite the sorry state of D.C.'s police force, the number of murders in the city fell from 482 in 1991 to 260 in 1998. That coincidence didn't keep the New York police brass from taking credit for turning the city around, though.

It was their claims--and the doubt cast on them by cities like D.C.--that prompted criminologist Andrew Karmen to take a closer look at New York City's 1990's "Crime Crash." In his new book, New York Murder Mystery, Karmen, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, deconstructs New York's falling murder rate, working under the old premise that "Politicians use statistics like drunks use lamp posts: for support, not illumination."

Karmen is no stranger to the crime reduction controversy. His refusal to validate the claims made by folks like Bratton and Maple earned him the scorn of much of the New York media--which relished quoting him so others could bash him as an outdated, soft-on-crime liberal. Karmen's background as a campus antiwar activist in the 1960s made him an easy target. At one point, the editorial board of the New York Post railed against the "Andrew Karmens of the world, who seem to believe that 'social forces' or lunar cycles or some such nonsense, are the most important factors affecting crime."

The debate over New York's crime reduction is similar to the debate currently underway about who is responsible for the economic boom. There are so many possible variables, each loaded with political overtones. But one by one, Karmen picks apart the various assertions that have been used to explain the "outbreak of better behavior that swept across the City" in the last half on the 1990s. He debunks the overwhelming majority of them.

Karmen starts by examining the murders themselves, looking for patterns to explain who was no longer being killed when the body count dropped. Here, you won't be surprised to learn, he deduces that most of New York's killers are not serial killers or child abductors but poor, young black men, as are their victims, and that a good number of the murders are drug-related.

He then examines the changes at work within the NYPD. Karmen quickly refutes the notion that Compstat and the management changes that came with it could have accounted for such a quick and steep drop in crime. The crime rates in New York were already falling before the system was implemented.

Before finishing the book, I would have bet that Karmen would identify the booming economy as responsible for the crime drop, but he doesn't. Looking at data from the Census Bureau and other sources, Karmen finds that poverty actually intensified in black and Hispanic neighborhoods at the same time the body counts fell substantially.

Karmen also discounts another theory in vogue right now, which attributes the nation's crime drop to the huge number of people the U.S. has put behind bars over the past decade. New York also has not led the country in either its incarceration rate or prison expansion. Even when its inmate population did grow during the late 1970s and late 1980s, the crime rates did not fall.

So you're thinking, if it's not the incarceration rate and it's not the economy, it had to be the waning crack epidemic, right? But Karmen puts the kabosh on that idea as well, with data showing that the crack epidemic declined as much in Philadelphia as it did in New York without producing the same effect on the murder rate. And the overall proportion of New York arrestees with cocaine and heroin in their systems did not dramatically decline during the 1990s. Drug overdose deaths diminished, but hospital emergency room episodes increased, and the police continued to make large numbers of drug arrests throughout the decade--evidence, Karmen suggests, that New York's drug trade continued to thrive even while the murder rate was plummeting.

In the end, Karmen concludes that four major factors had a significant impact on the homicide rates in New York in the '90s: higher education, immigration, demographics, and, for lack of a better term, death.

The demographics come right out of Criminology 101, which teaches that crime waves occur when cities reach a critical mass of people at high risk to commit crimes, usually poor, young, black and Hispanic men. In New York, the number of poor minority young men fell significantly during the '90s, especially the 20-to-24-year-olds, whose numbers fell 19 percent.

Aside from the demographics, Karmen also credits the city's long-term social investment in low-cost college education for city residents. Noting the inverse relationship between college education and criminal behavior, Karmen writes that exposure to higher education "not only lowers the odds of committing murder but even reduces the chances of getting killed." Residents of New York, including low-income black and Hispanic folks, were more likely to have attended college and to have completed a degree than their counterparts in most other American cities.

Karmen convincingly presents the facts behind these two concurrent trends, but his case for the relationship between them reads suspiciously like the wishful thinking of the City University of New York professor that Karmen is.

More credibly, Karmen concludes that the huge wave of immigration that swept through New York in the '90s was tremendously beneficial for the city as a whole. Far from bringing criminals into the city, as conservatives often argued, immigration actually has helped preserve the city's tax base by replacing the middle class who fled during the "bad old days" with poor but motivated foreign immigrants. Immigrants, at least first-generation immigrants, according to Karmen, also tend to commit fewer crimes than other poor folks.

Karmen's other conclusion is more grim--and it hardly presents a model other cities would want to replicate. He finds that, essentially, the ghetto really is self-cleansing. The combination of a lot of homicides, a lot of drug overdoses, and the scourge of AIDS among IV drug users, (along with the deportation of a few criminal aliens) eliminated about 43,000 active lawbreakers from the city streets during the last decade--enough to put a big dent in the crime rate.

While Karmen's findings in New York are illuminating, he never really says whether the factors that led to the drop in murders in New York also contributed to the drop in say, D.C., or San Diego, where homicides dropped off almost as much as they did in New York. It's hard to imagine that those same forces were at work in D.C. at least. The District lost a larger proportion of its population than New York over the past decade, and immigrants coming to the area generally have quickly decamped to the suburbs. The District also has very little to offer in the way of higher education for poor people. Then again, murders in the District didn't fall nearly as far as they did in New York, where the body count dropped 72 percent in seven years.

And that's Karmen's point, too: New York is a unique place and trying to use it as a model applicable to anywhere else is frequently a foolish enterprise. In the end, he convincingly demonstrates that no single factor created the New York Miracle--not Bratton, not Maple, not even Giuliani.

The 1990s were simply a time when a number of trends happened to merge all at once. Karmen's answer seems right, though hardly satisfying--or even especially useful for the future. That's critical, because New York may be in for another tough ride: Even as the NYPD is basking in the glow of its success, Karmen notes, the murder rate is going up again.

Stephanie Mencimeris an editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email her byclicking hereor read her other articles byclicking here

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