One of the most encouraging developments to emerge in recent years is that it has become increasingly unlikely that the victim of a New York City slaying will never before have set eyes on his or her killer. Police estimate that fewer than 100 of last year’s 494 homicides involved perpetrators who were strangers to their victims. That represents a drop of 100 stranger-on-stranger homicides since 2004, and more than 600 since 1993.
The 400-plus murders that involve killers known to their victims can be broken into two broad categories. While a sizable share could be labeled crimes of passion, the first area to look for significant gains may be in homicides that can be attributed to particular economic and social incentives.
The most obvious source of such incentives is the illegal drug trade. Economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, the authors of the 2005 best seller Freakonomics, have a bracing prescription for effecting a radical pacification of New York: Legalize drugs. “If drugs were legal, they wouldn’t be sold on street corners by gangs; they’d be grocery-store commodities,” they wrote in a recent e-mail. “Drug-related homicides—which is to say, the bulk of all homicides—would probably vanish.”
Levitt and Dubner may be overestimating how many murders the drug trade contributes to New York’s tally. The NYPD’s chief spokesman, Paul Browne, concedes that the drug trade may play a role in more than half of the city’s homicides, but only about a quarter are formally categorized that way. The rest likely have to come from murders that the police attribute to “disputes” (27 percent in 2006), “revenge” (10 percent), robbery/burglary (10 percent), and gangs (6 percent).
But Levitt and Dubner are undoubtedly right that the great majority of drug-related homicides are perpetrated by sellers and distributors, not by end-of-the-line customers. The violence associated with the trade arises, they say, because business disputes between sellers can never be settled through, say, an advertising war or a civil lawsuit. “In the 1920s, Al Capone and his rivals left a trail of dead bodies as they fought over the profits from bootlegged liquor,” the pair wrote. “When Prohibition ended, it was folks like Anheuser-Busch who took over the business.”
The Mafia allusion, however, points to an inescapable limit on how many murders drug legalization would eliminate. Enterprising criminals will always find another market when one is taken away from them. If they fail to come up with a new drug that can compete with FDA-approved heroin, they can start extorting construction-site managers or robbing check-cashing outlets. The bodies of their victims or rivals would still pile up. Incentives, in other words, are slippery things. Shutting down the illegal-drug market would eliminate all commerce-based killings only if it also triggered, or coincided with, a widespread cultural shift.
There are less theatrical ways to change the incentives equation, though, than legalizing narcotics. Every after-school chess club or career program has a chance to tip the balance for a handful of kids. When crime is in retreat, small-bore efforts become that much more pivotal.