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The Killing of Murder

As the homicide rate continues to drop, the impossible beckons: What would it take to go all the way to zero?

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Illustration by Julien Pacaud  

Four days before Christmas, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had especially good reason to celebrate. Beyond the windows of his office at One Police Plaza, nightfall was nudging all of New York one sunset closer to a milestone that must have been particularly gratifying to the city’s 66-year-old top cop. For the first time since the NYPD began keeping reliable records in 1963, the number of homicides recorded in all five boroughs was likely to fall below 500 for the entire year. Murder was down almost 80 percent in seventeen years. A reasonable person might even conclude that it was a nasty old habit just one New Year’s resolution away from extinction. Not Kelly. Asked if he could envision any combination of measures that could push the murder rate to zero, the commissioner opted for a joke. “Mass evacuation,” he said.

That same joke might have been made in 1990, of course, when homicides peaked at 2,245 and New York reigned as the murder capital of America. The difference today is that the city has succeeded in shrinking the eternal problem of human violence to a size that invites purposeful dreaming. In the New York City of 2008, the most interesting question is no longer can violent crime go lower but what would it take—if we were willing to consider everything short of a mass evacuation—to make homicide extinct?

There is ultimately no such thing as an irreducible level of violence in the city—violent crime can always go lower. It’s a matter of deciding what costs we’re willing to incur, how much Big Brother we’re willing to let into our lives, how much faith we put in science to curb the excesses of human behavior. Trying nothing new would be the easiest way forward. Surprisingly, that’s a strategy worth deeper consideration.

Solution 1.
Let the game ride.

It would help our thought experiment, of course, if everyone agreed up front how murder dropped as low as it has. Commissioner Kelly is among those who argue that the size of the police force made the biggest difference. In 1990, when David Dinkins was mayor, it was Kelly, then first deputy commissioner and soon to be promoted to the top job, who spearheaded a successful effort to increase the NYPD’s manpower by 25 percent. “There’s a direct correlation between boots on the ground and crime reduction,” he says. “That’s how we do our business—people.” The difficulty with proving that argument is that Kelly’s immediate successor as commissioner revolutionized police management, thus blurring the benefits of pure shoe leather.

The consensus among academics these days is that the NYPD benefited substantially in the nineties from broader trends that were bringing down crime rates across the country. Though the city’s crime-age population was initially growing and its economy was in recession, the crack boom of the eighties was settling into a less-volatile middle age by 1991. How much credit can the police reasonably claim for the crime declines? Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has constructed a strong argument that puts the number at 25 to 50 percent.

New York’s declines would take their steepest drops after Rudy Giuliani was elected and chose William Bratton to be Kelly’s successor. Much of Bratton’s initial success came from targeting street guns and giving free rein to his colorful deputy, Jack Maple, who demanded that crime be tracked daily and that precinct commanders arrive at regular meetings downtown prepared to explain how problems on their turf were being addressed. Maple’s system, which became known as CompStat, made the perpetual pursuit of a safer city the central business of the NYPD for the first time.

Looking back at the city’s early victories against homicides now, one could argue that members of Bratton’s regime plucked the lowest-hanging fruit. They resolved to make carrying an illegal gun a serious arrest risk, and sure enough, arrest records indicate that New Yorkers began leaving their guns at home. Shootings declined dramatically, and so did shooting murders. What’s more, Bratton’s crew had first crack at the city’s busiest drug-world enforcers, its biggest illegal-gun dealers, and its most incompetent push-in robbers. By 1997, the annual murder count had fallen to 770. By the time Kelly reclaimed his old post in January 2002, following the reigns of Howard Safir and Bernie Kerik, national crime numbers were flattening out or rising. Yet Kelly became the first commissioner to break the 600 threshold. To Zimring, the more modest declines of the past seven years, unaided by national trends, might be entirely due to the NYPD’s efforts.

Kelly hasn’t abandoned CompStat. He’s embraced new technology that speeds the flow of information to cops in the field, and he’s borrowed CompStat’s mapping logic to create his own signature anti-crime program. Rather than spreading police academy graduates throughout all five boroughs, Kelly has been sending most of his rookies to about twenty small hot spots across the city where crime remains stubbornly high. He recently announced plans to double the manpower, a show of force he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg hope will further discourage illegal activity.

Meanwhile, the constant, organizationwide pressure to beat the crime numbers of previous years produces a certain momentum. The caseload is diminishing. That means the murder rate might keep falling if law enforcement keeps doing what it has been doing.


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