An educated guess about the year ahead
Crime forecasting is a risky business. Criminologists have a hard time explaining why crime rates rose and fell in the past, so predicting what might happen in the future seems doubly difficult. What follows is simply an educated guess — take it for what it is worth.
To predict what might happen in New York City this year, let’s look to what’s happened elsewhere in the country. Every city, even one as large as the Big Apple, is buffeted by regional, national and even international forces, so understanding these factors may yield some insights.
First, let’s examine the most reliable, non-fudgeable crime indicator: homicide rates. When one compares NYC rates with national ones over the past 30 years, it’s clear they are comparable, although as many have noted, NYC’s murder drop in the 1990s was steeper than the national one.
Last year, in 2022, murders declined 11% in NYC and a recent report from the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) estimates that murders declined 4% in major U.S. cities.
New York City and national trends are similar for other crimes as well. While homicides and shootings declined last year, other major crimes in NYC increased 22%. Nationally, the CCJ report indicates that while aggravated assaults and gun assaults declined slightly, robberies (up 5.5%), nonresidential burglaries (up 11%), larcenies (up 8%), and motor vehicle thefts (up 21%) all increased from 2021 to 2022 in U.S. cities.
Controlling violence depends in large part on proactively engaging those at the highest risk for it, and outreach was interrupted for much of the pandemic.
If the local and national trends are similar if not the same, explanations of national crime trends might shed some light on what has happened, and will happen, in NYC. Regarding violent crime, there are three leading theories for why violence surged during the pandemic.
The first is the pandemic itself, which disproportionately impacted marginalized communities where violence tends to concentrate. At the same time, the pandemic strained the institutions charged with keeping the peace, such as police, courts, treatment agencies and community-based groups. Controlling violence depends in large part on proactively engaging those at the highest risk for it, and outreach was interrupted for much of the pandemic.
That said, during the pandemic violence did not increase in most other high-income nations, which suggests that here in the U.S., COVID-19 was not the only explanation.
A second factor was the social unrest caused by high-profile incidents of police force against unarmed civilians. In the weeks immediately after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, community gun violence spiked in poor communities of color around the country, just as it did after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. This violence was not associated with protests; it concentrated among the small sets of individuals and groups already at the highest risk for violence.
Such incidents, and the controversy that follows, drive wedges between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve. When this happens, violence flourishes, both because police refrain from proactively investigating crime, and because community members cooperate less with law enforcement.
As the pandemic has waned, outrage caused by police violence faded (until just recently — see below), and the rate of gun purchases has slowed, rates of violent crime, especially involving guns, have slowed and are now declining modestly.
The third factor is the sizeable increase in legal gun purchases that happened during the pandemic. In 2020, Americans bought approximately 23 million guns — a 64% increase from the year before. While the vast majority of these weapons were used lawfully, data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives suggests that the number of guns whose “time to crime” — the time from when a firearm was legally purchased to when it was recovered after a crime — was six months or less increased by 90%. In short, during the pandemic, there were more guns, more of which fell into the wrong hands, and they did so more quickly.
As the pandemic has waned, outrage caused by police violence faded (until just recently — see below), and the rate of gun purchases has slowed, rates of violent crime, especially involving guns, have slowed and are now declining modestly. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go: Homicide rates are still 34% higher than when the pandemic began.
Based on these trends, it seems reasonable to believe that in New York City and around the country, there will be modest declines in violent gun crime this year. One important matter to watch closely, however: The brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis could cause violence in poor communities to spike as it did in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. If this happens, we should start to see it in city data soon.
For robberies and property crime, the pandemic appears to have reduced crime rates, albeit temporarily. When people stay inside, there are fewer opportunities for robberies. When they remain at home, burglaries become harder and riskier. When businesses are closed, there are fewer chances for larcenies like shoplifting.
We need to stop playing politics with crime and shift the public conversation from winning arguments to solving problems.
Our activity patterns are slowly returning to normal and opportunities to commit these crimes are coming back. If they haven’t already, it seems reasonable to expect that this year, robbery and property crime rates around the country will continue to increase to their pre-pandemic levels, then remain flat or rise only modestly. In NYC, where these rates already exceed pre-pandemic levels, the rate of increase may slow or stop entirely.
With violent crime remaining at elevated rates and other forms of crime rising, now is not the time for complacency, either in NYC or nationally. We need to stop playing politics with crime and shift the public conversation from winning arguments to solving problems. Instead of relying on sensationalized news coverage, we need to look at the research and data.
There are a number of evidence-informed strategies proven to reduce crime and violence. Some involve law enforcement, some involve community-based supports and services. We need both. In high-crime locations, targeted hot-spot policing can be combined with place-based investments. For those at the highest risk for gun violence, we can offer assistance while insisting on accountability if the shooting persists.
Finally, we have to stop looking at efforts to keep us safe and efforts to improve the fairness of the criminal justice system as somehow in tension with one another. They are not. In fact, in order for our system to perform effectively, it must be perceived as fair and legitimate, especially by those who are impacted by it the most. The brutality we witnessed in Memphis could lead to more violence — not from protests, but within communities. As the saying goes: no justice, no peace.