The final causes of New York’s violence spike are less important than if elected leaders act to correct it.
In the early 1990s, something miraculous happened in New York City. Crime, which had risen almost uninterrupted for three decades, began suddenly and precipitously to decline. This drop happened in cities across the country. But New York City’s decline was, criminologist Franklin Zimring found, twice as long and twice as deep. For this remarkable reduction, Zimring labeled New York “the city that became safe.”
That miracle was foundational to the city’s revitalization and renewed growth. Without it, modern New York’s vibrancy would have been impossible. And it was foundational to recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Policymakers assumed that crime would continue to fall, and so the system needed to do less. The post-miracle level of safety has become, in other words, a condition of city life and city politics.
This is why New Yorkers are so concerned about the recent rise in crime. By preliminary counts, there were 433 murders in the city last year, down 17% from 2021 but still up 36% over 2019 — the last year of historic lows — and still deadlier than any other year since 2011. Shootings, too, peaked in 2021 and fell slightly last year. But they were still 67% higher than in 2019. Some property crime is now surging too: 2022, NYPD data indicate, saw the most burglaries since 2014, the most robberies since 2013, and the most auto theft since 2006. In the early months of 2023, elevated crime looks likely to continue.
The homicide surge, at least, is not unique to New York. Nationwide, murder jumped nearly 30% in 2020, and probably another 4% in 2021. Shootings followed similar trends. Crime analyst Jeff Asher has found that violence probably dipped slightly across big cities in 2022, as it did in New York. But it did not return to 2019 lows, suggesting that elevated death rates are the new normal.
Modern New York is built on a level of safety that its leaders are no longer providing.
New York’s new crime problem could be caused by whatever is driving violence elsewhere. There are lots of theories: COVID. Depolicing. Guns. Conclusive answers are unlikely to emerge soon. We still only have guesses as to why homicide spiked nationally in 2015-16, for example, or why it rose through the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
But questions of where the increase came from are only sort of relevant to the more urgent question of whether it will abate. Debating origins can run afoul of what James Q. Wilson called the “causal fallacy,” the idea that issues can only be addressed by attending to their “root” causes. In reality, Wilson argued, policymakers should care about which causes they can most easily affect, to the largest effect on the policy variable of concern.
Modern New York is built on a level of safety that its leaders are no longer providing. Whether crime will go back down to prior levels is about whether government is willing to use its tools — particularly the criminal justice system — to push it back down. A return to peace is, in other words, a policy choice.
This was not what seems to have happened in 2020 and 2021. Mayor Adams, who took office on Jan. 1, 2022, ran on a platform of stepping up activity. But, as former NYPD Chief of Department Ken Corey put it to me, it’s hard to restart the machine of policing. As of the most recently available data, three indices of police activity — arrests, summonses and stops — all remain well below even 2019 levels, when the rate of certain crimes was notably lower than today.
Some will observe that crime and police activity fell in parallel through the de Blasio years, at least until COVID hit. This is true enough. But we know that policing reduces crime. In fact, it made the city safe enough through the Bloomberg era that the de Blasio administration could ratchet it back and the community could still protect itself. Then came a shock to the system — the pandemic, the protests, etc. — and “collective efficacy” declined. More formal enforcement, therefore, became necessary to sustain the same level of crime.
Are things really so bad now? In “Murder in New York City,” the late criminologist Eric Monkkonen constructed estimates of 200 years of homicide rates in New York. Against the backdrop of Monkkonen’s data, today’s homicide rates look like a reversion to the mean.
But look a little closer, and the 2010s become a low watermark even by historical standards. Monkkonen’s data are valiant guesswork, and the pre-1930 figures especially are almost certainly underestimates. That means 2017’s 3.4 murders per 100,000, the lowest rate since 1944, starts to look like an outlier. New York may have historically enjoyed a low rate of homicide, but that was before consolidation, before suburbanization, before the Great Migration — before it became a modern city. And the data show clearly the tumult that followed from that modernization.
One can argue that a higher rate of violence, because it is below the highest levels, is something residents should just accept. But the New York miracle was also a radical promise.
The modern city becoming safe was a policy decision. Zimring, after much analysis, attributes the lion’s share of New York’s exceptional drop to “the expansion of police and the radical changes in police strategy.” He does not, as some do, emphasize “zero tolerance” or “broken windows” policing. But the scale of policing activity is, in his view, a major determinant of New York’s exceptional decline.
One can argue that a higher rate of violence, because it is below the highest levels, is something residents should just accept. But the New York miracle was also a radical promise. Peace is a service that government provides to citizens, and citizens have come to expect a certain level of peace — it is, again, a condition of city life and city politics.
Of course, the exigencies of politics could stop policymakers from taking action. Things may well not get as bad as they were. But the city is already shrinking, businesses already struggling. These trends can reinforce the decay of social control, producing a vicious cycle. New Yorkers can live in a less safe New York — but asking them to do so represents a profound failure by their leaders to live up to their promises.