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The city that became safe: New York's lessons for urban crime and its control
  1. David Hemenway
  1. Correspondence to Professor David Hemenway, Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Harvard School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA; hemenway{at}

Statistics from

Edited by Franklin E Zimring. 2011. Published by Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, pp 272, 8 chapters, References, Index, hardcover. USD29.95. ISBN 978-0199844425.

The 1990s witnessed a large decrease in crime in almost all major US cities. However, while crime rates levelled off in most cities, the decrease continued in New York City throughout the 2000s. From 1990 to 2009, the homicide rate in New York City fell by 76%; the robbery rate fell by 81%, the burglary rate by 85% and the auto theft rate by 93%. ‘The size and the length of the decline are without precedent in the recorded history of American urban crime’ (p. 1).

In a previous book, The Great American Crime Decline, legal scholar and criminal justice expert, Franklin Zimring, examined the broad crime decline of the 1990s and concluded that the cause remains largely a mystery. In his new book, The City that Became Safe, Zimring analyses the reasons for the continued decline in crime rates in New York City in the 2000s.

He concludes that the usual suspects–changes in demographics, reduction in drug use, increase in the size of the police force and increase in incarceration–cannot explain any of these successes witnessed in New York. Indeed, during the 2000s, there was little change in demographics, drug use remained the same, the police force was reduced in size and incarcerations fell.

By default, Zimring concludes that the reduction in crime was probably due to changes in strategy of the police force. ‘The circumstantial evidence that some combination of policing variables accounts for much of the New York difference is overwhelming. There was simply nothing else’ (p. 101).

Key features of the New York Police Department's strategies, begun in the 1990s, were: (1) crime reduction rather than arrests as the central priority; (2) ‘hot spot’ areas identified and resources allocated there; and (3) very aggressive targeting of suspicious persons for ‘stop and frisk’ and arrests for minor offences.

Crime statistics (Comstat) were used for planning and for the evaluation of patrol performance, and were also used for gaining top-down control of a previously fragmented and somewhat parochial police department. Frisking after police stops, and arrests for minor offences, were seen as ways to remove both guns and risky individuals from the streets in part by identifying persons wanted for other crimes. Fingerprints were obtained through ‘instrumental’ arrests; misdemeanour marijuana arrests went from under 1000 in 1990 to over 45 000 in 2009. More than 580 000 ‘stop and frisks’ occurred in 2009.

Zimring does not know which of these police tactics were effective, but argues that: ‘Never mind that so little is known about the why of New York's transition to safe streets, the scale of the change itself is important evidence that similar levels of change are achievable futures in other cities’ (p. 199).

The New York City experience ‘has proved that mass imprisonment is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to control urban crime. It has also demonstrated that drug violence can be controlled without major changes in illegal drug use’ (p. 152). The New York experience calls ‘into question long-standing assumptions about the depth and intractability of the cultural and structural determinants of violence and serious crime in America's major cities’ (p. 152).

Zimring then asks, ‘Where have all the New York criminals gone?’ The answer is ‘No place’. There was little out-migration and a decrease in incarceration. The success must have been brought about by a large reduction in crimes committed by the most dangerous people in the worst neighbourhoods. The book does not provide, but calls for ‘careful study of how and why individual citizens in New York came to behave differently’ (p. 154).

Zimring claims that the large reduction in crime in New York City over the past two decades ‘is as close to the miracle of the loaves and the fishes as criminology has come in the past half-century’ (p. 153). The fact that small changes in the environments of high-risk individuals could produce such big changes in the number of serious crimes they commit also augurs well for the possibility of large benefits from the policy of prevention. Zimring argues that it provides encouragement ‘for a very wide spectrum of anti-crime interventions including public health interventions’ (p. 195).

The New York experience shows that ‘crime rates can change by 80% in big cities without basic structural changes…We don't have to change the world to substantially reduce safety crime’ (pp. 202–4).

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