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Forgotten Lessons of the War on Crime

Culture, Public Safety, Cities Culture & Society, Policing, Crime Control, New York City

History tells us how to win again

In 1990 one of us was arriving in New York City to serve as chief of the Transit Police Department. The other was in pre-K. Crime, however, was on both of our minds. One of us was formulating a plan to fight it underground. The other was hoping a “bad guy” wouldn’t get the drop on his NYPD dad. That year, more than 2,260 New Yorkers were murdered — a hair under 10 percent of the more than 23,000 murdered throughout the country. 

Over the next decade, the country’s homicide rate fell by more than 40 percent — driven downward in no small part by the homicide decline in New York City, where the trend toward less violence continued long after the turn of the century. But in 2015, some American cities, such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, saw violence start to tick back upward. Others, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, saw public spaces fall into terrible states of disorder, bringing to mind the “broken windows” our late friend George Kelling wrote so eloquently about over the course of his life.

Many of us who follow such things began expressing concern about rising violence in the wake of those spikes. Then, on the heels of last year’s nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, homicides and shootings exploded across the country, leading to America’s deadliest year since 1995.

Homicides and shootings seem to be leveling off in some places (such as New York). Still, far too many cities across the U.S. are struggling with elevated levels of serious criminal violence and disorder as 2022 approaches.

The decline in homicides and other violent crimes between 1990 and 2000 constitutes one of the greatest achievements in the history of urban America. Like all great achievements, it did not come easy. It took a strong political will and many years of hard work. The deterioration of that progress, by contrast . . . well, that process is a lot less involved. That some cities have seen their homicide numbers near and, in some cases, even surpass their 1990s peaks illustrates just how quickly a quarter century of pro­gress can be undone.

Twenty to 30 years may not sound like a long time, but even a few years of relative peace can shorten a country’s memory, which seems to be what’s happened since the turn of the century.

The recent spikes in serious violent crime were, in many places, preceded by mostly well-meaning, if in some cases misguided, police and criminal-justice “reforms.” Rather than consider the possibility that some of these initiatives made cities more vulnerable to crime, activists have doubled down on de-policing and decarceration — in some cases going so far as to call for the abolition of police and prisons.

The calls to “defund” or “reimagine” the institutions (police departments, prosecutor’s offices, and correctional systems) that played such prominent roles in America’s victory in the War on Crime are, to put it mildly, foolish. This is not to say that there do not exist inefficiencies and inequities within criminal-justice systems or that these shouldn’t be addressed. No one with any credibility would argue that America’s criminal-justice systems are so perfect as to be exempt from critical examination. But, from where we’re sitting, it seems quite clear that when many of the loudest voices calling for police or criminal-justice reform say they want to “reimagine” public safety, they really mean relentlessly pursuing an approach that seeks to dramatically reduce the size, scope, and strength of the institutions that were central to America’s comeback a generation ago.

This is the wrong approach. A better one would be to refine and then redeploy the strategies and tactics we know worked, and to do it in light of the lessons we’ve learned from past successes and failures, the technological advancements we’ve since made, and the knowledge we’ve since acquired.

Among those lessons is that police have an enormous capacity to both detect and prevent crime and disorder — sometimes simply through their presence. Making the most of that capacity, however, requires an investment, which, in turn, requires public support.

Over the past several years, the capacity of police to prevent crime has been significantly diminished for a multitude of reasons. For one thing, the number of sworn officers across the country has been declining for nearly a decade. In 2013, there were more than 720,000 cops on American streets. By 2018, that number had fallen below 690,000. For another, because of explicit and implicit discouragement from both the public and political leaders, officers in many jurisdictions seem to be growing wary of being proactive in the field, despite the benefits that such proactivity has been shown to produce.

If cities are going to get violent crime back under control, they are going to need more cops to do it. The 1994 “crime bill” reflected a recognition of this reality among policy-makers by funding the hiring of many tens of thousands of new officers. Many, if not most, of those hires left policing in recent years as they became eligible for retirement. Now would seem an appropriate time for Congress and the Biden administration to consider a similar program to address the workforce crisis that so many police departments face. At the local level, politicians should communicate their support for police, the vast majority of whom do their best to make their communities better every single day. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they should stand silent when an officer misbehaves. But neither does the pursuit of justice demand the derision and disinvestment so many departments have been subjected to. That derision has no doubt demoralized police to an enormous extent.

Another lesson learned in the ’90s is that addressing disorder in public spaces is a worthwhile endeavor. Trust­ing police to use their discretion in responding to offenses such as public urination, property defacement, open-air drug dealing, etc., would be responsive to what has been, in the experience of us both, one of the top concerns of residents in the cities we’ve lived in, worked in, and visited. Taking the concerns of residents seriously is core to the legitimacy of police departments in the eyes of the public they serve.

Order-maintenance can also produce meaningful public-safety benefits. Accord­ing to the criminological theory of “routine activities,” crime requires three things to thrive: motivated offenders, vulnerable targets, and an absence of what the theory’s developers referred to as “capable guardians.” By addressing quality-of-life offenses, police signal to the community that they are being vigilant “capable guardians,” which can discourage both serious and petty criminal activity. Signaling vigilance can also help restore the confidence that residents need to reinforce pro-social norms in their neighborhoods. A senior citizen, for example, is more likely to wave off the teenagers drinking and playing loud music in front of her stoop if she has confidence that the police will back her up. So too are the teens more likely to disperse. Moreover, strategic, targeted enforcement of laws against open-air drug dealing, gambling, and alcohol consumption — which have been associated with violent crime — can also have outsized impacts on safety. By pushing potential targets and offenders off the street, police can help make crime in those spaces less likely.

Now, neither of us is advocating a “zero tolerance” approach to fixing broken windows. Nevertheless, the reality is that for police to be effective on this front (and others), they need to have a credible answer to the question “Or what?” Sometimes, asking nicely doesn’t work. In those situations, cops need to be empowered to make arrests, and those arrests should be backed by prosecutions.

Calling for more enforcement may not seem fashionable in today’s polarized political climate. That’s somewhat understandable given the extent to which we, as a society, overcorrected in the punitive direction in our haste to address the bloodshed that plagued American cities in the ’80s and ’90s. That, however, is less of a risk today. Not only do we have a history to learn from, but new technologies and years of study have positioned us to undertake enforcement efforts with more precision, so that we are much less likely to ensnare those whose arrest, prosecution, and incarceration would hurt more than help.

One of the things we’ve come to learn is that crime is hyperconcentrated. In New York City, for example, less than 5 percent of all street segments see 50 per­cent of violent crimes, the most serious of which tend to be carried out by a small subset of the population that is often involved in street gangs. Concentrating enforcement efforts on the people and places most closely associated with violent crime can produce massive crime reductions. This point was nicely illustrated by a study published this summer, showing that “gang takedowns explain nearly one quarter of the decline in gun violence in New York City’s public housing communities over the last eight years.” Our ability to incorporate rigorous risk assessments into decision-making processes at all levels of the criminal-justice system can help mitigate the risk of over-enforcement that perhaps informs some of the skepticism about calls for a tougher approach.

Finally, just as we rightly worry about the prospect of over-enforcement, recent history also gives us good reason to worry about the risks associated with under-enforcement. Because crime is so concentrated, the social costs of crime are not evenly distributed. Every year in New York for more than a decade straight, at least 95 percent of shooting victims have been black or Hispanic. Nationally, black men are more than ten times more likely than their white counterparts to be the victim of a homicide. And because people of color — particularly black men — are disproportionately impacted by crime, they disproportionately benefit from crime declines. Between 1991 and 2014, the U.S. experienced a sharp decline in homicides. A recent analysis of that drop-off showed that “the decline of homicide-specific mortality led to increases” in life expectancy of 0.14 years for white males versus 1.00 years for African-American males. To contextualize that data, that same study’s lead author, Patrick Sharkey, wrote in his 2018 book, Uneasy Peace, that “the impact of the decline in homicide on the life expectancy of black men is roughly equivalent to the impact of eliminating obesity altogether.”

Losing sight of these racial disparities in the pursuit of more parity in terms of other criminal-justice outcomes is no way to pursue justice.

This is a crucial moment for policing and criminal justice in America. As the institutions that were once regarded as the noble guardians of the public’s safety have come under attack, we’ve seen the alarmingly rapid erosion of the progress those institutions made. Whether the tide of rising violence is stemmed will depend on what our society does next. Luckily, we don’t have to decide in the dark. History’s lessons are right there for us to apply. Here’s hoping we do just that.


Rafael A. Mangual is a fellow and deputy director for legal policy at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here

William J. Bratton is executive chairman of Teneo Risk. During a 46-year career in law enforcement, Bratton led six police departments, including seven years as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and two nonconsecutive terms as police commissioner of the City of New York.

This piece originally appeared in National Review