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A Safer City and Nation, With Asterisks

Aaron Chalfin

February 28, 2024

Explaining trends in violence and victimization

Explaining trends in violence and victimization

One year ago, Vital City asked some of the country’s and New York City’s most influential policymakers and researchers to comment on what had happened to crime since the dark days of 2020 and to speculate on what the future might bring. Murders had risen by 40% in 2020, and they increased again in 2021 before falling modestly in 2022. With murders remaining elevated and other crimes rising by over 20%, concern was in the air. Contributors debated the role that criminal justice reform and shifts in law enforcement might have played in the recent rise in violence — which had extended beyond the darkest days of the pandemic — and wondered aloud whether 2022 would become the new norm. But there was optimism too. Three of New York’s elected district attorneys reminded us that law enforcement continued to focus intensively on the drivers of violence, a strategy that had been paying dividends before the pandemic upended life as we knew it.

One year later, Vital City has commissioned a new collection of essays from a cross section of the city’s — and the nation’s — most important thinkers on crime and justice issues. There is new data to be analyzed and interpreted. After homicide rates fell slightly in 2022, 2023 was a banner year, with homicides falling by 12% across a sample of 175 of the nation’s largest cities. In New York City, homicides and shootings fell by 12% and 25%, respectively. Looking back, we now have two consecutive years of double-digit homicide declines and genuine momentum to build upon. At the same time, across all categories of major crime, incidents remained roughly constant across 2022 and 2023 and remain one third higher than they’d been in 2019.

Taking the long view, violence has tended to rise and fall in a series of broad generational shifts. Violence rose during the 1920s as World War I receded and America experimented — not entirely successfully — with Prohibition. Then just as Prohibition was repealed and the Great Depression ravaged the global economy, homicides declined nationally by half and remained historically low for more than three decades. From the mid-1960s until 1990, America’s homicide rate more than doubled — and New York City’s more than quadrupled, a defining experience for Baby Boomers and members of Generation X and one which has forged an era of American exceptionalism that fueled a global perception of America as a uniquely violent and punitive place in the industrialized world. Then, even more quickly than violence had risen, violence fell, with murders falling by 50% nationally — and 70% in New York City — during the 1990s. In the decade prior to the pandemic, New York — already among the safest large cities in the United States — incredibly experienced an additional 50% reduction in its murder rate during a period in which the national murder rate was flat. 

How can violence change so rapidly absent a meaningful shift in culture or in the “root causes” of crime? While the specifics are difficult to pin down, the answer surely lies in the tremendous concentration of lethal violence among a very small number of people and social networks.

Generational shifts in violence sometimes call out for generational explanations — major policy shifts (e.g., Prohibition) or broad economic, cultural and demographic shifts (e.g., deindustrialization, demographic shifts or the expansion of hard drug use). But there is also the short-term view to consider. Sometimes violence can change rapidly. Murders tumbled during the 1990s and ratcheted up suddenly in 2020. In the last two years, they have receded. While the broad contours of history will fill the pages of textbooks, history’s sharp turns offer some important lessons about crime control. 

How can violence change so rapidly absent a meaningful shift in culture or in the “root causes” of crime? While the specifics are difficult to pin down, the answer surely lies in the tremendous concentration of lethal violence among a very small number of people and social networks. In a city of nearly 9 million people, it is perhaps only a few thousand people who are responsible for the lion’s share of the risk. Public policy doesn’t need to change the behavior of millions, just thousands. It is therefore not so difficult to see how efforts by law enforcement — or community partnerships — to disrupt criminal networks, or simply a general perception that the game has changed, can move violence in a meaningful way. 

Predicting what will happen to violence is difficult, but recognizing the mathematics of crime concentration offers a clear lesson. In considering the effects of a shift in the economy, or law enforcement, or progressive reforms, or the availability of guns — or any variable of interest — the key is to consider how these variables will affect the thousands, not the millions. 

With these thoughts in mind, contributors to this volume offer a number of compelling insights into what happened in 2023 and thoughts about what 2024 will bring. 

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Download: Data, Chart Image
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Download: Data, Chart Image

John Roman and Anthony Washburn offer an analysis of national as well as city-specific trends. They note that, with respect to public safety, 2023 was a rising tide that lifted all ships and New York City is likely to have been the beneficiary of broader social forces — whether due to reversion to the mean or to some other feature of the social or policy environment. They consider the factors that might be relevant for projecting crime in 2024 and provide a framework for how a prediction might be made, noting that government employment in the city has recovered and work-from-home arrangements have stabilized. Building a simple prediction model based on past crime fluctuations, their best guess is that 2024 will look reasonably similar to 2023.

Peter Moskos reminds us that crime is intensely local. To borrow an analogy that he introduces in his piece, while inflation causes prices to rise everywhere in the country, it is possible for crime to rise in one place and fall in another due to differences in local conditions. Moskos presents a tale of two cities: Baltimore — which experienced a 21% decline in murders last year — and Washington, D.C. — which experienced a 35% increase in murders. To understand the crime trends, appeals to national data only go so far. As Moskos notes, any analysis of what is happening to homicides must engage with what is happening in specific communities.

Building upon the contributions by Roman, Washburn and Moskos, which consider the national and local factors at play, Morgan Williams Jr. focuses on the role that gun availability and gun trafficking has played and continues to play in violence in New York City. While New York has strict gun laws and mandatory minimum penalties for carrying an unlicensed firearm, it is connected by the Interstate 95 corridor to a number of states with considerably laxer gun laws. A large number of firearms have been purchased in nearby states in recent years, which may have enduring implications for gun crimes in New York City beyond 2020.

While plenty of uncertainty remains, at the beginning of 2024, the data suggest that it is reasonable to be more optimistic about serious violence in New York City than we were a year ago.

With respect to interpreting the data, John Pfaff and Rafael Mangual offer competing interpretations, albeit not without some overlap. Pfaff calls upon the idea that addressing rising homicide rates can be a little like stopping a runaway train barreling down the tracks. Even when you apply force to stop the train, it’s likely to continue to move forward, driven by its previous momentum. Homicides can be sticky because they travel through social networks, driven by the desire for retaliation. Just as the Hatfields feuded with the McCoys in 19th century West Virginia, today’s homicides are often driven by a sense of duty and revenge. Pfaff then marvels at the speed with which homicides have come down and wonders how this was possible. While this could simply be an artifact of gravitation to the mean, drawing on a theory advanced by criminologist John Roman, Pfaff speculates that the recovery in government employment — including the police as well as other government workers — may have had something to do with it. After all, there are many government workers who perform duties that help to fight crime, from teachers to caseworkers. 

Mangual calls for us to think more deeply about the underlying data. While acknowledging welcome news with respect to declining homicides, he notes that the picture is far less rosy when it comes to other serious crimes and that there are some reasons to worry that analyses of the aggregate data could mask some concerning harbingers of bad things to come. Mangual notes that New York City’s population appears to have fallen by 5% since 2020 and that fewer suburbanites are coming into the city for work. Fewer people might lead to downward pressure on crimes, but with crimes holding steady, they should make us worry that relative crime risk might be continuing to rise underneath our noses.

Building upon Mangual’s concerns about a potential overreliance on the data, Siena Research Institute Director Don Levy focuses on the widening gulf between perception and reality. Analysts will run the numbers, but, regardless of what the numbers say, many everyday New Yorkers are telling us that they feel less safe than they did a few years ago. It is difficult to know what to make of these data. On the one hand, it’s possible that perception is a lagging indicator and is slow to adjust to new information. On the other hand, it’s possible that survey respondents know something we don’t — that besides the happy outcome of declining homicides is the possibility that crime, or its precursors, is rising overall. Paying attention not only to crime numbers but also to public perceptions deepens our understanding of public safety and, of course, the politics of public safety. 

With respect to solutions, echoing Moskos’ reminder that crime is a local phenomenon, National Institute of Justice Director Nancy La Vigne notes that the concentration of crime at known hot spots and its stickiness over time suggests that local problems require community-level solutions. While research informs us about what works generally, improving public safety requires that we zoom in on the micro level. Public safety requires a portfolio of approaches, and we do our best when each approach engages with other approaches and with community institutions. Providing effective public safety means that police, business owners, community organizations and other public agencies work together to identify problems and solve them. 

Michael LiPetri, the NYPD’s chief of crime control strategies, reminds us that policymakers and law enforcement remain deeply engaged with crime and violence. Returning to the idea that crime is a deeply local phenomenon, Lipetri speaks to the work that the nation’s largest police force is doing to identify violence hot spots and use a variety of evidence from ballistics technology to surveillance cameras to identify the drivers of violence and incapacitate those individuals. The police have identified individuals who are suspected of being “trigger pullers” and have done investigative work to better understand who these individuals are. Over time, the share of individuals on this list who are incarcerated has risen, a sign that the police are using precision tactics that are heavily focused on the drivers of violence. The NYPD has also shifted personnel to the hot spots and continues to use data analytics in order to make adjustments when needed. There is a wealth of informed speculation in LiPetri’s piece, and it is a fascinating read that distills crime trends down to some of their constituent parts. 

While plenty of uncertainty remains, at the beginning of 2024, several variables suggest that it is reasonable for us to be more optimistic about serious violence in New York City than we were a year ago.  For one, while major crimes held steady from 2022 to 2023, felony arrests in the city were up by 16%, indicating that the police have become more efficient at identifying and apprehending individuals who are suspected of committing serious crimes.  Felony prosecutions are up too,  by 19%, indicating not only that more individuals are being prosecuted for felony crimes but also that the rate of felony arrests that are prosecuted has risen.  While it is always difficult for law enforcement to completely arrest its way out of a crime problem – and these issues will require work by not only the police, but also community members, social service providers and business owners – a rebound in felony prosecutions suggests downward pressure on major crimes.  All of this, of course, interacts with the completeness of the return to pre-pandemic rhythms of life, a process that we are continuing to navigate as a society.