In October, FBI Director James Comey caught the Administration and Justice Department off guard when he said that “additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive.”
Mr. Comey’s comments continued to lend credence to the “Ferguson Effect” theory that “is far from settled: that the increased attention on the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals.”
But the data out of New York show that crime actually dropped in the city this year. The New York Times reports this morning that, while “many New Yorkers said they felt less safe,” “fears that New York City was slipping back to a more dangerous time contrasted with reality.”
“As reflected in the reported levels of the most serious types of crime, the city in 2015 was as safe as it had been in its modern history. A modest decrease in reported crime is expected by year’s end,” the paper reports. “The Police Department is reporting a 2 percent decline, as measured by seven major felonies that are tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: murder, rape, robbery, serious assault, burglary, grand larceny and car theft.”
However, murders did tick up from 333 last year, a historic low, to 339 as of December 25 this year. Putting those numbers into better context, in 2010 the number was 536.
Moreover, “despite an early increase in gun violence, the final tally of shootings for the year is set to come in slightly lower than last year’s figure.”
Once again, these data show the need not to overreact to short-term trends in crime. There is a bigger picture that factors into annual crime rates and an even bigger picture of a longer term trend.
“As we end this year, the City of New York will record the safest year in its history, its modern history, as it relates to crime,” said Commissioner William J. Bratton. At the same time, it is has been a tough year for the department, which lost four officers in the line of duty. “It has been a year of great contradictions,” he said, struggling for words.
The New York Times editorial this morning puts all this into better context.
They write: “The warnings began even before Bill de Blasio was sworn in as New York City’s mayor in January 2014. A safe New York depended on the aggressive policing tactics that began in the 1990s and flourished under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly. Without those tactics, the doomsayers said, the city would be swamped by a 1970s-style crime wave.”
The Times continues that Mr. Kelly warned the public when a federal judge invalidated “stop and frisk.” He said, “Violent crime will go up… No question about it.”
Writes the Times, “That prediction has, of course, been proved wrong, as crime in the city remains at historic lows under Mayor de Blasio and his police commissioner, William Bratton, even as arrests, stops and summonses continue to plummet after a peak in 2011.”
The Times cites a report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that provides analysis behind the rise and fall of police “enforcement actions” over the past decade. That report found that, between 2011 and 2014, “the total number of these actions — defined as arrests for felonies and misdemeanors, criminal summonses, and stop-and-frisks — fell by more than 800,000, or 31 percent.
“The biggest drop was in street stops, which had skyrocketed to more than 685,000 in 2011 from 160,000 in 2003.”
Writes the Times, “Some officers admitted they felt constant pressure to meet arbitrary productivity quotas, but the effect was to disproportionately target young African-American men, most of whom were doing nothing wrong. By 2014, the number of stops was under 46,000 — a 93 percent decline in only three years, with stops going down most sharply in those poorer and minority neighborhoods where they grew the fastest over the previous decade.
“Why did the Police Department pull back on this behavior while Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Kelly and their defenders were proclaiming the need for continued aggressive policing?” the Times asks. “One factor was the growing public outcry against these tactics as they became more widely known. Another was the series of lawsuits filed by individuals against the city, which culminated in the 2013 ruling that found the department’s stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional.”
Writes the Times, “The report’s data firmly contradicts the view that crime would inevitably go up as stop-and-frisk and other enforcement actions went down. In 2014, rates of both violent and nonviolent crime in New York City continued to fall, and were almost 90 percent lower than they were in 1980.”
They add, “A recent uptick in murders in New York and other big cities has received a lot of news media attention, but that small increase masks the broader drop in overall crime.”
They conclude, “In March, Mr. Bratton predicted that police encounters with civilians would go down again this year, for a total of one million fewer encounters than at their peak just a few years ago. This is a positive and important change. But to keep crime down while also ensuring that all citizens are treated with respect, police officers must do more than end abusive practices. They need to focus on improving relations with those communities that often need the police most urgently, but whose trust has been damaged by those who failed to protect and serve them.”
These reports out of New York are encouraging but preliminary. They show that changes in police tactics do not have to result in increased crime. However, the key will be sustaining those with long term policy changes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting