The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control

The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control

The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control

The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control


The forty-percent drop in crime that occurred across the U.S. from 1991 to 2000 remains largely an unsolved mystery. Even more puzzling is the eighty-percent drop over nineteen years in New York City. Twice as long and twice as large, it is the largest crime decline on record.

In The City That Became Safe, Franklin E. Zimring seeks out the New York difference through a comprehensive investigation into the city's falling crime rates. The usual understanding is that aggressive police created a zero-tolerance law enforcement regime that drove crime rates down. Is this political sound bite true-are the official statistics generated by the police accurate? Though zero-tolerance policing and quality-of-life were never a consistent part of the NYPD's strategy, Zimring shows the numbers are correct and argues that some combination of more cops, new tactics, and new management can take some credit for the decline That the police can make a difference at all in preventing crime overturns decades of conventional wisdom from criminologists, but Zimring also points out what most experts have missed: the New York experience challenges the basic assumptions driving American crime- and drug-control policies.

New York has shown that crime rates can be greatly reduced without increasing prison populations. New York teaches that targeted harm reduction strategies can drastically cut down on drug related violence even if illegal drug use remains high. And New York has proven that epidemic levels of violent crime are not hard-wired into the populations or cultures of urban America. This careful and penetrating analysis of how the nation's largest city became safe rewrites the playbook on crime and its control for all big cities.


Sustained changes in rates of violent crime happened twice in the half-century after 1960, in each case altering both the realities of urban life in the United States and public attitudes toward criminal justice. the first nationwide shift in crime and violence started in 1964 and ended a decade later, doubling rates of criminal homicide and more than doubling serious street crimes such as robbery, burglary, and rape. While there were some variations in the size and timing of the crime wave of the 1960s, most urban areas had rather similar track records of explosive increases (Barnett et al. 1975). After the expansion from 1964 to 1974, the next two decades experienced fluctuations around the new high rates of 1974, dropping back in the mid-1970s only to return to the 1974 homicide rate in 1980, dropping again in the early 1980s only to climb back close to the 1980 high by 1991.

The nine years after 1991 were a second nationwide tidal movement of rates of crime and violence, but this time the tide was receding. During the 1990s, rates of all seven “index” crimes fell in the United States, with decline for five of the seven clustered in a range between 37% for auto theft and 44% for robbery, with homicide (down 39%), rape (down 41%) and burglary (down 41%) in this narrow window around 40%. This national decline wasn’t as large as the increase during the 1960s and 1970s, but it was the largest documented crime decline of the twentieth century. But since I have already written a book on this important national adventure (Zimring 2006), why this book? What is there about New York City that justifies yet another major statistical study of recent crime trends?

One prominent feature of the crime wave years after 1963 was that major urban areas had similar patterns of growth. a contemporary analysis concluded that “differences in recent murder growth among the cities can largely be explained as typical random fluctuations around a . . .

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