December 27, 2002

Article at The New York Sun

New York's Murder Rate Mystery

The incredible thing about what now looks to be New York's ever-declining murder rate is that no one predicted it - other than perhaps then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. In May 2001 Mr. Kerik found himself in trouble with his boss for telling journalist Jack Newfield that he hoped to keep the year's murders under 600. In a harsh reprimand, Mayor Giuliani called the under-600 goal, which hadn't happened since 1963, "very highly unrealistic."

Yet Mr. Kerik backed up his prediction with sound policing strategies. He said he was going to get murders down by sticking to basics: going after violent felons with outstanding warrants, focusing on gangs, getting guns off the streets, and fine-tuning the department's assault on drugs. By the end of 2001, Mr. Kerik's prediction was off by 44, as the city closed the books on 643 murders for that year. Still, this meant an impressive 67% drop over the course of the Giuliani administration.

For a while, New York's achievement looked good but not unique. Cities with different policing strategies from New York's, such as Boston and San Diego, also saw declining murder rates. Even Washington, with a police force that's generally regarded as deplorable, saw its murders fall from 482 in 1991 to 260 in 1998.

But the story continues, with New York now towering above many of its sister cities. Through December 15 of this year, New York had 548 murders, about a 12% decline from last year. Meanwhile, murders nationally increased 2.3% and many cities - including Washington, San Francisco, San Jose, and Jacksonville - experienced disturbing spikes.

What's more, New York's actual murder rate (as opposed to its raw numbers) is stunningly low compared to other cities. With a population of more than 8 million, New York's year-to-date murder rate is roughly 7 per 100,000 people, versus last year's rate of 8 per 100,000. (All year-to-date rates have to be estimated.) Contrast this with Los Angeles (population 3,694,820), which saw its murders increase from 587 last year to 627 this year for an estimated current rate of 18 murders per 100,000 Angelinos. Or take Chicago (population 2,896,016), which despite a 10% decline in murders since last year still endured a horrific 600 murders so far this year, giving it a rate of 22 per 100,000, nearly three times New York's actual murder rate. And then there's Washington, whose year-to-date rate is 46 per 100,000, up from last year's 41 per 100,000. This would earn Washington the "murder capital" title for major cities if journalists paid attention, as they should, to rates rather than raw numbers.

And remember that in 1990, New York City's 2,262 murders accounted for almost 10% of the nation's total. The city's decade-long decline in murder was so abrupt that it significantly affected the national murder rate, say criminologists George Kelling and William Sousa.

But here's the other thing about New York's declining murder rate: Just as no one predicted it, no one really understands it. Those who believe the accomplishments of the NYPD have been overstated all along continue to argue that policing has had a minimal affect on the murder rate. Instead they argue that the true cause of the decline in homicides is changing demographics (fewer crime-prone young males in the overall population), the end of the crack epidemic, increased incarceration of drug users, a strong economy, or even improved family values.

Of course, some of these factors - such as the end of the crack epidemic - are also inter woven with New York's aggressive policing, particularly the strategy of constantly disrupting the drug trade. Former Police Commissioner Bratton used to argue that even if he couldn't imprison every drug dealer - and he tried - his police officers would harass and arrest dealers and customers, interrupting business patterns and forcing the trade to move on.

Commissioner Kelly, who has continued this strategy, recently told The New York Sun that the NYPD will now focus its efforts on the precincts where murders have risen, such as the 67th and 70th Precincts in Brooklyn South. But the surprising thing about these two precincts is that their other statistics are pretty good. While murders in the 70th Precinct, for example, jumped from 11 in 2001 to 18 this year, rape is down 27% - far better than the 5% increase citywide. Grand larceny is up 9.4% (as opposed to the citywide decline of 2.9%), but grand larceny auto is down 10.2%. What are we to make of this?

We need to know more. When the NYPD cracks down hard on drug dealers, does this force the murder rate down? In 1997 the National Institute of Justice conducted a study of homicide in eight American cities, excluding New York, and found that homicide rates corresponded closely with cocaine use levels measured among arrested adult males. As positive cocaine test rates increased, homicide rates also increased. More drug users, more murders. As cocaine prevalence rates decreased, homicide rates decreased. Fewer drug users, fewer murders. Yet the NYPD says that the proportion of New York arrestees testing positive for cocaine or heroin declined only moderately during the 1990s.

Or take another NIJ finding: that homicides in which the killer and victim were intimates or related made up a relatively small portion of all homicides - but a sizable portion of female homicides. This finding is backed by a recent study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, which found that 30% of American women murdered in 1976-2000 were killed by an intimate partner, 11% were killed by a family member, and 22% were murdered by an acquaintance. Only 8.9% were killed by strangers (27.7% were undetermined). In contrast, only 5.7% of men were killed by an intimate, 6.8% were killed by a family member, 36.4% were murdered by an acquaintance - and 15.6% were killed by a stranger. Further, the Justice Department also found that 36.8% of the homicides of whites and 62.3% of blacks were related to drugs. How do these facts play out in New York's lower murder rate?

Finally, there's the odd matter of age. Common wisdom has long been that a critical mass of young males can produce an explosive increase in violent crimes, according to UCLA management professor James Q. Wilson. But in California cities, particularly Oakland and Los Angeles, a murderous epidemic has been attributed by police to "OG's," slang for older gangsters who have returned from prison to their old turf. New York has a far less serious gang problem, but its neighborhoods are increasingly vulnerable to returning former felons who have completed their prison terms.

The NYPD now provides crime data by precinct on its Web site for the public, which is a great service. It should go beyond that and publish a breakdown by gender, age, drug-related, stranger/acquaintance, etc., so New Yorkers can analyze these statistics for their own neighborhoods. For the first time in decades, the numbers are low enough to make this as feasible as it is urgent.