Over the course of the last decade, I’ve periodically met with official visitors from the United Kingdom who have come to New York City to learn about its revival—specifically, about the city’s successful war against crime, which I’ve watched closely for the past 20 years. Most of these visitors had already heard quite a bit about the NYPD’s campaign against crime. As complaints of public disorder rose in the U.K., the press there featured more stories about what had happened in New York, where crime is now down an astounding 80 percent since the early 1990s. In a 2008 article in the BBC News’s Magazine titled “Where Is It Safe To Walk The Streets?,” the British home secretary, Jacqui Smith, admitted that she felt unsafe on London’s streets late at night, while her Conservative counterpart, David Davis, called it “shameful” that one could safely walk at night in New York but not in London.
The British press increasingly attributed this difference to what it called the NYPD’s “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting even nonviolent quality-of-life crimes, such as aggressive panhandling, which sent the message that the authorities would not stand by and watch as disorder spread. But despite British officials’ interest in New York, every discussion I had with them came around to the subject of locking people up. “You put so many people in jail here,” was the way they put it. That could never happen in the U.K., they added. And then they went on their way, and not much changed in their country.
I thought of these meetings recently when I heard the news that William Bratton, who formerly headed the NYPD and then the LAPD, was serving as an unpaid consultant to British prime minister David Cameron on policing strategy in the wake of the recent riots. Bratton’s views were derided by police officials in the U.K. and by other critics because he advocated policing “by force.” Lock people up? “We haven’t got the heart for that over here,” one Scotland Yard official said.
These comments underscore how little British officials have learned from their New York visits. As the architects of New York’s crime-reduction campaign have explained over the years, one of their fundamental early insights was that a majority of the serious, violent crimes in the city were being committed by a small group of criminals, who were also far more likely than the average citizen to commit quality-of-life crimes ranging from public urination to panhandling. So enforcing the city’s quality-of-life laws ultimately led to the arrests of the most violent criminals, which had a profound impact on crime citywide—but especially in communities where these violent criminals lived and whose residents they preyed on most commonly.
Bratton himself discovered this when he led the city’s Transit Authority police in the early 1990s. In stings designed to catch fare-beaters, a persistent problem in the subways back then, the police arrested people who turned out to be wanted for more serious crimes. Bratton applied that strategy to city streets when he became police commissioner in 1994. In a highly publicized move, the NYPD took on the “squeegee men”—panhandlers who intimidated Manhattan drivers by washing their car windows without being solicited and then demanding payment—after a study by criminologist George Kelling found that half of them had felony records. It took only a few weeks of arrests (for blocking traffic) before the squeegee men disappeared. With them went the myth that New York’s descent into disorder was inevitable and irreversible.
Over time, something else happened: as crime, especially violent crime, slumped in the city, eventually the state’s prison population began declining. It’s true that New York State’s jail population, two-thirds of which consisted of those arrested in New York City, went up through the first years of the policing revolution, but then it dipped in 1997 before increasing the next two years. Then in 2000, the population began another decline that has continued through the next decade. After peaking at 71,538 in 1999, the inmate population has fallen by about one-fifth, to roughly 58,000. That’s commensurate with levels in the early 1990s, before the city began its crime crackdown. The plunging numbers have even sparked a political furor, as upstate communities—where prisons are big employers—have lobbied against efforts to close institutions.
Back in 1994, it might have seemed counterintuitive to think that enforcing the law more aggressively and putting more violators away would ultimately lead to fewer people in jail. But it has. And it’s a lesson that the British have never absorbed. As City Journal contributing editor Theodore Dalrymple, a former prison psychiatrist in the U.K., has argued many times, Britain’s judicial system simply puts too many hard-core criminals back on the streets, where they are likely to strike again. That problem—like the reaction against Bratton among British cops—is a reminder that old biases die hard, even in the face of facts.