One of the authors of the innovative criminal justice research that has played a major role in reducing crime rates—first in New York City, then across America, writes in City Journal about how other organizations and government in New York played a major role in that initial success.
"Just 20 years ago, New York City was racked with crime: murders, burglaries, drug deals, car thefts, thefts from cars. (Remember the signs in car windows advising no radio?) Unlike many cities’ crime problems, New York’s were not limited to a few inner-city neighborhoods that could be avoided. Bryant Park, in the heart of midtown and adjacent to the New York Public Library, was an open-air drug market; Grand Central Terminal, a gigantic flophouse; the Port Authority Bus Terminal, “a grim gauntlet for bus passengers dodging beggars, drunks, thieves, and destitute drug addicts,” as the New York Times put it in 1992. In July 1985, the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City published a study showing widespread fear of theft and assault in downtown Brooklyn, Fordham Road in the Bronx, and Jamaica Center in Queens. Riders abandoned the subway in droves, fearing assault from lunatics and gangs.
"New York’s drop in crime during the 1990s was correspondingly astonishing—indeed, “one of the most remarkable stories in the history of urban crime,” according to University of California law professor Franklin Zimring. While other cities experienced major declines, none was as steep as New York’s. Most of the criminologists’ explanations for it—the economy, changing drug-use patterns, demographic changes—have not withstood scrutiny. Readers of City Journal will be familiar with the stronger argument that the New York Police Department’s adoption of quality-of-life policing and of such accountability measures as Compstat was behind the city’s crime drop.
"Yet that explanation isn’t the whole story. Learning the rest is more than an academic exercise, for if we can understand fully what happened in New York, we not only can adapt it to other cities but can ensure that Gotham’s crime gains aren’t lost in today’s cash-strapped environment.
"As New York suffered, an idea began to emerge that would one day restore the city. Nathan Glazer first gave it voice in a 1979 Public Interest article, “On Subway Graffiti in New York,” arguing that graffitists, other disorderly persons, and criminals “who rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers . . . are part of one world of uncontrollable predators.” For Glazer, a government’s inability to control even a minor crime like graffiti signaled to citizens that it certainly couldn’t handle more serious ones. Disorder, therefore, was creating a crisis that threatened all segments of urban life. In 1982, James Q. Wilson and I elaborated on this idea, linking disorder to serious crime in an Atlantic story called “Broken Windows”