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The Mysteries of Crime

January 1, 2018

You’re going to hear a lot about crime this week as the mayor preens and revels in the city’s year-end statistics: how crimes in each of the major felony categories — murder, manslaughter, rape assault, robbery burglary, larceny — have fallen to record lows, lower even than last year’s record low.

Click here to read what the police brass say about NYPD ConfidentialHow murders, which totaled 2245 in 1990, came in at fewer than 300 in 2017, the lowest number since the 1950s.

All this as police make fewer arrests, use less deadly force and scale back Ray Kelly’s notorious Stop and Frisk, which during his 12-year tenure accounted for five million stops, largely of poor black and Hispanic New Yorkers, virtually none of whom had committed a crime.

You’re also going to hear a lot about “precisions policing,” “neighborhood policing,” the increased use of stun guns and God knows what else to explain the causes of these crime declines.  

Don’t believe it.

There is nobody — either in academia or in policing or for that matter, anywhere in the universe — who can explain why crime in New York City — murder in particular — is at its lowest since, as Wall Street Journal reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs put it, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

Click here to read the New York Times profile of Leonard LevittBut we can say this, looking back over the past two decades: if there is any one person responsible for the city’s record-low crime rate, that person is Rudy Giuliani.

It’s never been fashionable in certain circles to praise Giuliani. And it’s one of the few times NYPD Confidential has done so.

Nonetheless, to be fair and honest it was Giuliani — despite his personal flaws and despite the Amadou Diallo shooting and the Abner Louima brutality incident, both of which occurred during his tenure — who set the NYPD on its current course. The Times Square clean up; white millennials moving into Harlem; people walking around formerly crime-ridden neighborhoods safely at all hours of the night — this all began under Giuliani with his zero-tolerance/broken windows policing policies and the reforms initiated in the NYPD under Bill Bratton circa 1994-96.

Every police commissioner since then — Howard Safir, Bernie Kerik and Kelly — and every mayor — Michael Bloomberg and currently Bill de Blasio — are riding on Giuliani’s and Bratton’s coattails.

As a former deputy commissioner put it, “Each succeeding police commissioner added something to make it better. But the recipe was cooked in Giuliani’s kitchen.”

What was Bratton’s role in this? He changed the culture in the NYPD, which had all but given up on fighting crime, what with the police layoffs stemming from the city’s bankruptcy in the mid-1970s to the crack epidemic that raged through the city’s minority neighborhoods in the 1980s.

And believe it or not, during those years, the department’s first priority, as Bratton’s Chief of Department John Timoney used to say, was not fighting crime. Rather, in the wake of the Knapp corruption scandal of the early 1970s, it was keeping cops out of corruption-prone areas like narcotics, with the result that crime soared.

Bratton changed this. With his aide Jack Maple riding shotgun, the department established what is known today as the COMPSTAT model, which became shorthand for accountability. And woe be to those who didn’t get with it.

Those early COMPSTAT meetings were literal free-for-alls. Fist fights broke out. At one meeting someone threw a chair. Maple and Chief Louis Anemone accused the Chief of Detectives of “treason” and “heresy.”

At another meeting, the newly appointed Brooklyn South borough commander explained how he had begun to reduce crime. On a screen behind him, Anemone flashed a computerized drawing of Pinocchio with his nose growing.

Click here to read the Washington Post article on NYPD ConfidentialOne would be naïve to believe that the city’s crime declines were solely the result of altered police policies. Out there in the highest-crime communities, which are primarily black and Hispanic and universally poor, something in the culture may be changing as well. Maybe it’s the sense that there are opportunities outside crime that didn’t previously exist. Maybe it’s a sense that today’s millennials don’t harbor the same racial prejudices as older generations.

Ironically, it is the hard-policing policies begun by Giuliani that are now bearing fruit in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, which were once viewed as unsafe but are now bastions of “diversity,” a term and a policy favored by Bill de Blasio.

Giuliani opened the door to these neighborhoods that people were once afraid to move into. Ed Koch famously said that if you build housing for the homeless, they will come, as Mayor de Blasio is learning.

Let’s paraphrase that: “If you make a neighborhood safe and livable, middle-class people will come.”

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