November 12, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

The Return of Crime

Homeowners and investors have poured billions of dollars into restoring renowned New York neighborhoods over the last 10 years, partly in response to the ever-plunging crime rate. Investment will only continue if crime stays low.

"'What about crime?' Every caller until three years ago would ask that first thing," one of Harlem's most prominent real estate brokers, Willie Suggs, said. "Now they don't bother. They know crime is down."

Ms. Suggs attributed the decreases in crime to conspicuous policing, attentive neighbors, and the renovation of vacant buildings into residences.

The "new Harlem Renaissance," as the uptown economic boom is often called, has been fueled by many factors, including Harlem's handsome but relatively under-priced housing stock. The renaissance never would have happened, however, without the neighborhood's dramatic drop in crime, which began in 1992.

Central Harlem's 32nd Precinct, for example, which includes landmarked areas such as Strivers Row, has seen a drop of 63% in major crimes over the last 10 years. Murder has decreased 75%, rape 49%, and burglary 78%.Yet some crime indicators have been heading back up in the last few months. The precinct has had 12 murders through October 26 of this year, compared to nine through October 26 of last year. Similarly, rape is up 2.8% and robbery is up 4.2%. These are small amounts - but some neighborhood residents regard the upticks as ominous.

Like Harlemites, New Yorkers in general have grown accustomed to the idea that their city is safe. And well they should. For most of its history, New York City had a far lower crime rate than the nation as a whole - until 1958, when violent crime started heading up. The common vision of a crime-ridden New York is, in fact, a historical anomaly - one that was neither anticipated nor understood at the time.

The UCLA historian Erik Monkkonen called the years 1958 to 1992 "a rogue tidal wave of violence." However, he also noted that in past cycles, once some "lower level of violence had been achieved, the mechanisms for control and the value of peace get forgotten, and a slow rebirth of violence begins." Neighborhood activists are determined that this won't happen again on their watch.

Ms. Suggs said that last summer some residents of the 30th Precinct's elegant Hamilton Terrace, angry over increased drug activity, set up a meeting between the residents of 145th Street and the precinct. They demanded - and got - officers assigned to the troublesome corner every day until the dealers moved on.

Not all neighborhoods get Harlem's level of cooperation from the NYPD. Residents of Brooklyn's 70th Precinct, which includes Ditmas Park, Beverly Square, Midwood, Kensington, and the famous Victorian Flatbush District, are pressuring the precinct to respond to what they say was a very bad summer, with a rash of ugly muggings and assaults. Yet the NYPD's crime data indicates the opposite - that all crime categories are down in the 70th, not up.

Residents aren't buying it. They said the precinct is simply not recording the crime - and they have pretty good anecdotal evidence to back up their charges. A Prospect Park South Association board member, Nathan Thompson, asked how many people at a precinct community council meeting in Flatbush last week had been a victim of crime over the summer. Some 50 to 60 hands shot up. "The violent muggings in Flatbush are not being reflected in CompStat numbers," he said.

The precinct had no record, for example, of three violent muggings within three blocks of Mr. Thompson's house. Nor did the precinct have a record of an attempted robbery of a UPS truck driver, even though the driver had written down a registration number from the muggers' car.

Part of the problem is that the computer system is often down, requiring officers to go to another precinct to enter the data. Another problem is that the 70th is short staffed. Although it's the fourth largest precinct in the city, protecting some 165,000 people, the 70th has only 177 assigned officers - down from 198 two years ago and almost 300 in 1992, Mr. Thompson said.

An advertising executive who writes a neighborhood newsletter for Flatbush residents, James Heaton, said that "the spike in crime over the summer doesn't show up in the data because crime in the impact zones - where the mayor targeted rookies - went down. However, some of that crime was simply displaced to formerly safe streets. Plus, we have a lot of crime that isn't 'index crime' - that is, isn't regarded as major crime - and therefore doesn't get recorded at all."

A 5-year resident of Prospect Park South who works at home, Mary Kay Seery, said, "We're not anti-cop. The few officers that we have are doing a good job. But we've seen a palpable change for the worse." She wrote the police commander, "Our normally quiet, tree-lined streets have witnessed four murders, at least six brutal muggings, a serious surge in drug activity and prostitution, dozens of stolen bikes, numerous break-ins, and countless quality-of-life crimes." She added, "We're told that the crime data don't support what we're saying. But I know what I see."

In fact, Professor Monkkonen said, people such as Mr. Heaton, Mr. Thompson, and Ms. Seery, know well what is happening in their neighborhoods and should be heeded. They sense the symptoms of change that those new to an area, including rookie cops or even police commanders, may not notice. The neighborhood has been the scene of several unsolved murders, including the recent killing of a Fairfield University student, Mark Fisher. And while homicides are statistically down in the 70th, they are again up slightly citywide.

Homicides in New York are often drug related - a characteristic of New York's previous tidal wave of violence - and many New Yorkers say that drugs are back in their neighborhoods. Analysis by a professor at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, Andrew Karmen, shows that homicides related to drug selling climbed throughout the 1980s, peaking at 670 deaths in 1991. In terms of relative share, 1986 may have been the worst year, when one-third of all slayings (2,154) revolved around drug dealing. Indeed, residents of the 70th are quick to bring up the 1980s.

A former president of the Midwood Park Association, Carey Graeber-Kozinn, has lived in Flatbush for 25 years - and has been through this before. In the 1980s, she notes, "We were under siege. Crack had a horrible run. We had such a rash of burglaries and muggings that you feared every day leaving your house. Many people moved out. Those who stayed worked with the precinct until things got much better."

In those days, crime was so bad that the precinct took reports over the phone rather than sending officers out. As Ms. Graeber-Kozinn said, "Houses that went for $300,000 in the early '90s go for $800,000 today. It's important for us as homeowners to keep our neighborhood safe. And it's important for us as a community to act together."

New Yorkers well understand the good life they live in their reviving neighborhoods. They are right to demand the return of uniformed patrol cops.