In 1990, murders in New York City reached an all-time annual high of 2,262. Six years later, they had dropped over 56 percent, to 984. By 2008, homicides were down nearly 77 percent, to 523, and all felony crime was down over 77 percent.

The turnaround in the city’s public image was equally dramatic. As the 1990s began, the national media were proclaiming New York a disaster zone. News reports recounted the brutality of its rampaging youth packs, the chaos of its streets, and the devastating decline in public services, caused by plunging tax revenues. Yet by 1996, the media’s story line had changed radically. the big apple comes roaring back, declared U.S. News and World Report. New York showed that “winning the war against crime” was possible, Time proclaimed. In 1998, a new cable TV show portrayed New York as a glittering mecca for beautiful, libidinous women, who managed to squeeze time for exciting careers into their complicated bedroom itineraries.

This wave of positive publicity paid off royally. From 1991 to 1997, the number of tourists visiting New York rose 39 percent, to nearly 32 million. The city’s universities were deluged with applications from students who wanted to be part of this suddenly attractive urban oasis. Cutting-edge restaurants opened in what used to be forlorn drug outposts in Manhattan and Brooklyn, bringing more development in their wake. After dropping sharply from 1988 through 1993, real-estate values stabilized, then blasted off in 1998. By 2005, building-construction permits had reached their highest level in over three decades. Job growth revved up in 1997, stalled after the dot-com bust of 2000 and the 9/11 terror attacks, but then resumed its upward trajectory from 2003 to 2008.

Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesThe one city agency whose headcount shouldn’t fall

The cause of this bust-to-boom revival is largely uncontested: the city’s victory over crime. If New York’s lawlessness had remained at its early 1990s levels, the city by now would be close to a ghost town. But the cause of the crime rout itself remains hotly contested. Though New York policing underwent a revolution in 1994, vast swaths of the criminology profession continue to deny that that revolution was responsible for the crime drop. They are wrong—and dangerously so. The transformation of New York policing is the overwhelming reason why the city’s crime rate went into free fall in 1994. And that transformation, in turn, was aided by an increase in the size of the police department.

This truth means that government budget woes must not be allowed to jeopardize the department’s ability to keep crime rates low. The FBI’s designation of New York as the safest big city in the country is an economic marketing tool of immeasurable worth. Lose that designation, and Gotham’s ability to climb out of the recession and retain and attract businesses and residents will be dealt a severe blow.

The most important thing that businesses look for in a recession is stability,” says Greg O’Connell, landlord to about 150 small businesses in Brooklyn’s Red Hook area and an impresario of that area’s transformation into an artist colony. “When law and order is there, an owner can concentrate on business decisions, not on whether when he comes to work the next morning, his property will still be there.”

New York’s small-business community lacked such security at the end of the 1980s. Crime was driving manufacturers and wholesalers out of the city. Outer-borough businesses, in particular, felt abandoned by the police. Constant thefts forced owners to spend far more on security and insurance than their counterparts elsewhere, a toll that helped explain New York’s anemic rates of small-business job creation. One furniture plant in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bricked up its windows, installed steel bars, posted guard dogs on the roof, and bought a new alarm system, only to wind up broken into three times over four months in early 1989, reported Crain’s New York Business. A manufacturer of men’s suits in the same area suffered robberies, muggings, vandalism, car thefts, stolen batteries, and nighttime burglaries, according to Crain’s; a thief broke an employee’s face and jaw; two other employees left the company after getting held up at gunpoint.

Such outer-borough business woes rarely garnered press attention, but a rising tide of violence in residential areas and in Manhattan’s commercial core certainly did. After four children were gunned down in nine days in 1990, Time reported that New Yorkers were sinking to a “new depth of despair.” The fatal subway stabbing that year of a young tourist from Utah who had tried to defend his parents against a group of teen thugs shocked the city and the country. Forced to reorient his priorities from social-services programs to public safety, Mayor David Dinkins began a hiring program for the NYPD in 1990 that would raise the number of officers from a little over 33,000 in 1991 to well over 36,000 in 1994, when Rudolph Giuliani began his first term as mayor. (These numbers include the roughly 6,000 officers in the then-distinct transit and housing police agencies, which officially merged with the NYPD in 1995.)

Though strategy matters more than size when it comes to policing, size can bolster the right strategy enormously. At the start of the 1990s, the city still hadn’t made up for the attrition in the police ranks triggered by the 1975 fiscal crisis—9,000 officers cut from the department from 1974 to 1980, just as the city’s lawlessness, epitomized by the devastating looting during the 1977 blackout, was escalating. By 1990, the department was still down 5,000 officers from its 1974 high. Dinkins’s hiring program, called Safe Streets, Safe Cities, restored the NYPD roughly to its early 1970s levels. Giuliani continued enlarging the force, with assistance from federal funding, to reach a peak of over 40,000 officers in 2000.

The most important change in the New York Police Department in the early 1990s, however, was conceptual and managerial, not volumetric. The reigning philosophy among criminologists and even many police chiefs was that cops could do little to lower crime. Since crime was a reaction to poverty and racism, the received wisdom held, only government-driven economic and social change could bring the crime rate down.

Commissioner William Bratton, Mayor Giuliani’s first police chief, rejected that excuse for failure. He announced that the NYPD would lower violent crime by 10 percent in his first year. No police leader in living memory had announced such a numerical benchmark. Visionary police strategists Jack Maple and Louis Anemone turned the department into a data-driven crime-fighting machine. Using increasingly sophisticated crime-mapping technologies, police leaders could evaluate on a daily basis which strategies were working and which were not.

Precinct commanders now had to account for everything that happened on their watch, an unprecedented shift in managerial expectations that reflected the new belief that the police could and would lower crime. The weekly meetings between top brass and precinct commanders in which this accounting took place became known as Compstat, and the entire management shift under Bratton, the Compstat revolution. Meanwhile, Maple and Anemone continued to roll out strategy after strategy to get guns off the streets, fight public disorder, and shut down outdoor drug markets.

Bratton not only met his crime-lowering targets; he exceeded them. Felony crime dropped 12 percent in 1994, compared with 1.1 percent in the rest of the country. The enforcement of low-level public-order laws nabbed high-level felony offenders. The rigorous debriefing of every arrested crime suspect yielded information for solving other crimes. The aggressive use of stop-and-frisks lowered the rate of gun-carrying and hence of shootings. “The word on the street became, ‘You’ll be frisked if you carry a gun,’ ” says Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone. “There was pressure not to carry, which stopped the killings.” At the end of 1994, Bratton upped the ante: he would lower crime by 15 percent in 1995, he said. In fact, crime fell 16 percent in 1995 while staying virtually flat in the rest of the country.

The crime drop occurred across the entire city, but its effect was most startling in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, where a virtuous cycle set in. With property and violent crime plummeting, investors started building housing on vacant lots that had once served as breeding grounds for disorder and lawlessness. The new residents, with a stake in their communities, watched their neighborhoods more closely and demanded even higher levels of service from the police and better behavior from neighbors. “Crime went down when the vacant lots became developed in the latter part of the 1990s,” recalls Walter Campbell, district manager of Community Board 5 in East New York, one of Brooklyn’s poorest areas. “You’d see one [lot] being fixed up, and then everyone would jump on board. Every nook and crack had a new home. Everyone wanted a piece of the rock.”

Commercial development followed the new homeowners. The Home Depot, Staples, Target, and Bed Bath & Beyond opened stores in East New York on once-fallow property. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, people were “moving in and fighting back,” says Nadine Whitted, district manager of Community Board 4. “There were no more vacant lots to hide this and that on.”

A 2003 study by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Public Policy at New York University confirmed these ground-level observations. Property values in New York in the late 1990s rose most where crime fell the furthest, helping spark what the study’s authors called “the remarkable revival of the city’s poorest areas.” New York’s population grew 15 percent in the 1990s, a feat unmatched by any other large industrial city, after dropping 5 percent during the dark days of the 1970s.

The retail sector benefited from the crime drop, too. “You can’t have a thriving retail sector in a high-crime area,” observes Richard Schwartz, a former Giuliani aide. “Shopping reflects a willingness to go out in public and carry merchandise; it’s a life-affirming activity.” When crime started going down, more stores removed their roll-down security gates, sending a message that their neighborhoods were safe. Picking up on that message, more people came out to shop, especially at night. Their presence deterred crime further. Retail employment rose to meet the new consumer demand, so much so that the city was able to place many former welfare recipients in service jobs with employers like Federated Stores and Duane Reade.

New York’s restaurant scene exploded, as residents and out-of-towners lost their inhibitions about wandering dark streets late at night. Restaurants are the “lifeblood of neighborhoods,” notes John McFadden, who manages the Pershing Square restaurant across from Grand Central Terminal. During the Dinkins years, McFadden oversaw a restaurant on the balcony of Grand Central. “A customer would have her pocketbook stolen once a week,” he recalls. “Now,” in the adjacent location, “we’ve had, at most, two thefts in two years.” Twenty-five years ago, the restaurant company for which McFadden works had 40 employees in New York; today, it employs 400.

In the 2000s, tourism continued to capitalize on New York’s growing reputation for safety. From 1997 to 2007, the number of tourists visiting New York each year jumped 26 percent, to 46 million; those 46 million visitors spent $28.8 billion in 2007 alone and supported over 350,000 jobs, which generated $17 billion in wages, according to the city’s tourist bureau, NYC & Company. New York is now the Number One destination in the country for foreign tourists and ranks second, after Orlando, for domestic visitors.

The philosophical core of New York’s crime rout remains intact and recession-proof. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is committed to the idea that the police have the duty and the capacity to lower crime. He continues to refine the department’s crime-analysis abilities with cutting-edge data-mining tools, and he keeps fierce watch over the orderliness of the city’s streets. Defying every prediction of the press and the criminology profession, from 2001 through early May 2009, he has brought murders down 37 percent, robberies down 35 percent, and all felony crime down 37 percent. Just as the Compstat revolution during the 1990s led to a crime drop in New York that was twice the national average, New York is the only big city that has sustained its crime decline from the 1990s through the 2000s. Kelly’s accomplishment in driving forward the city’s crime rout is all the more impressive, since the department has lost 5,000 officer positions since 2001. After reaching an all-time high of 40,311 officers in 2000, the department in mid-2009 was down to 35,758 and will drop to 34,117 by 2010.

Ironically, the mechanism that the department has developed to overcome its shrinking resources demonstrates just how important manpower is. In 2003, to compensate for a 3,000-man decrease brought on by post-9/11 budget cuts, the department started clustering new officers right out of the academy in the city’s 21 highest-crime zones, rather than sprinkling them proportionally through each of the 76 precincts. These so-called Impact Zones allow the department to intensify police presence in crime hot spots without stripping existing officers from less troubled areas. The rookies walk foot beats, which positions them to write a large number of summonses for quality-of-life offenses. The highly visible police presence deters criminal behavior, and the increased summons activity nabs serious offenders as well, since each time an officer writes a quality-of-life summons, he runs a warrant check on the offender. “You can’t swing a dead cat in some neighborhoods without hitting someone with an outstanding warrant,” observes a Coney Island transit captain.

Impact Zones are a natural experiment in whether rigorously managed police presence lowers crime. The results are indisputable. In the first five months of 2009, Impact Zone crime was down 25 percent from the same period in 2008, compared with 12 percent citywide. Yet the city’s recent budget cuts put even the Impact program at risk. Through most of the Impact period, the city has been graduating 1,500 new officers from the police academy twice a year. But in July 2009, only 250 officers will graduate, and in January 2010, there will be no new police class at all, which means no crop of new officers to flood into the highest-crime areas, unless federal stimulus money picks up the slack. The department’s current five-year plan allows for hiring to begin again in 2011 and projects a force of 36,838 in 2013, a thousand more than today. But those projections are not written in stone and could be retracted.

Not only should the staffing cuts end; they should be reversed. The police department is not just one city agency among equals; it is the cornerstone on which the city’s economic viability depends. If crime starts going up and stays up, the entrepreneurs who still plan to open restaurants and retail stores in the near future should radically recalibrate their chances of economic success. Existing enterprises holding on to their patrons and customers—especially the theaters, hotels, concert halls, and museums that define the city’s cultural life—should prepare for an even more difficult struggle for survival than what they are now experiencing. The city could see the mass exodus of residents and businesses of the 1970s and 1980s start up again.

To be sure, the NYPD is still larger per capita than nearly every other department in the country, and it has thus far managed to keep crime down despite the loss of 5,000 officers. But New York’s density and street life present unique policing challenges, and the cuts have made it harder for the department to do everything it needs to do to maintain order. Such intensive quality-of-life operations as tracking and arresting graffiti vandals could have to be set aside if violence spiked and the force shrank further. The repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws in March 2009 means that dealers will soon be sentenced to drug treatment rather than prison or jail. Their presence on the street will raise the risks of gun violence, especially in housing projects, and will require close monitoring by the police.

In the long run, funding to bring the force back up to its late-1990s levels should be found within the police budget itself. Whoppingly large police pensions, along with those of other city employees, are bankrupting the city and burdening the department. Though the operating budget to run the NYPD on a daily basis, covering salaries and equipment, is slated to be $4.3 billion in 2010, the department’s actual cost to the city will be nearly $8 billion, thanks in large part to the massive pension obligations entailed by each current officer. Current police officers can retire after 20 years on the force—at age 42, say—take another job (including in another police department), and collect half their average NYPD salary for the rest of their lives. Recent police retirees pull in an average of $56,000 a year in pension benefits, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. As if that weren’t generous enough, police retirees also get an additional annual $12,000 “bonus” and free health insurance.

Pension costs are not included in the NYPD’s budget, but they affect decision-making about how large a force the city can afford. To fund the NYPD’s huge pension obligations, the city needs to set aside an additional 50 percent of the average cop’s salary for each working officer, inflating the costs of running the department by 50 percent. In fiscal year 2010, the city will pay $4 billion in wages and salaries for its current officers—and set aside $2 billion in pension contributions for them. As Manhattan Institute fellow E. J. McMahon has observed, New York’s police and fire departments have come to resemble retirement annuity programs with a public-service subsidiary.

Police officers deserve the public’s unbounded gratitude for defending the rule of law. But it is not clear that they also deserve to be subsidized like kings for decades when they leave the force sound of body and mind. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson have recently proposed modest pension reforms for future hires in all city agencies that would save $5.4 billion over 20 years; a key element of those reforms is extending the retirement age by five years.

A better solution for police pension costs would be to raise officers’ salaries and lower their pension expectations. Inducing officers to stay longer on the force in order to qualify for their full pensions does not necessarily help the department; young officers tend to be highly motivated and trainable. Higher salaries, however, could attract even more qualified recruits. If the government’s contribution to police pensions fell from 50 to 25 percent of current average salaries, the force could be 13 percent larger—that’s about 3,500 officers—at no extra cost. The $12,000 bonus should be smaller or eliminated entirely, and retirees should help pay for their health insurance. Benefits should be on a sliding scale that increases with a retiree’s age; officers who leave the force early to collect another full-time salary, in particular, do not need a full pension.

In New York City, Crime Drops and Tourism Soars.

In the short term, however, until a different pension system is devised for future hires, the money to reverse force shrinkage must come from current operations or from outside the department. Cuts to police funding in the city’s 2010 preliminary budget are the second-largest after education in dollar terms: $93 million. The savings result primarily from canceling scheduled officer hiring and from laying off nearly 400 civilian clerical and custodial positions, which will mean slower processing of essential paperwork and dirtier precinct houses. Often, officers are placed in the eliminated civilian posts, thus reducing the force further.

The city should start looking to sources outside the department to restore police funding. Public events that close down city streets, especially on Sundays, should be required to contribute more to the costs of mustering a huge overtime force to redirect traffic and maintain order. The ubiquitous street fairs add nothing to the city’s economic and cultural vitality, unless you consider tube socks and gyros unique New York attractions.

And it’s long past time for the city to reorient its priorities toward the core functions of government—such as security, public order, and a functioning infrastructure—and away from symbolic politics and ineffective social-uplift projects. For example, the City Commission on Human Rights, which sues on behalf of alleged discrimination victims, is superfluous. Budgeted at nearly $7 million in 2010, the commission offers nothing to a would-be plaintiff that is not already provided by the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Education, the Civil Rights Division at the federal Justice Department, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s Division of Human Rights, the government-funded Legal Aid Society and Legal Services Corporation, and the huge private antidiscrimination bar. In 2008, the commission closed 477 cases, over half of which it found baseless. It won a settlement for the plaintiff in 15 percent of the complaints, with an average payout of $12,600. In other words, it spent nearly $7 million to achieve about $900,000 in total settlements. The commission also works to make sure that the city’s schoolchildren learn early on to identify themselves as bias victims, by training them in the city’s Human Rights Law. Axing this unnecessary agency could fund 70 rookie officers, who cost about $100,000 each in annual salary, pension, and fringe benefits at the start of their careers.

Shrinking the city’s vast and often counterproductive social-services infrastructure would free up billions of dollars that could go toward public safety and other achievable ends. Over decades, the city has evolved a cradle-to-grave social-worker empire that purports to provide people with everything that intact families and a vibrant civil society once did, but that mostly perpetuates dependency. In 2008, for example, taxpayers paid for free apartments for about 8,800 young single mothers with children, at an astounding cost of $433 million. These mothers claim homelessness, which usually means that they no longer want to live with their own single mothers or that their landlords are kicking them out. The possibility that the fathers of these single mothers’ children, not the taxpayers, should share responsibility for their care never occurs to the social-services mind-set. By assuming the fathers out of existence, the city’s welfare bureaucrats maintain the ideological conditions that will create more poverty and justify further expansions of the social-services empire. Interrupting that chain of dysfunction in medias res is difficult, however, in the face of immediate apparent need, amplified by a media-savvy advocacy establishment. Each time the city responds to that need with another benefit or entitlement, it further dismantles the incentives to behave responsibly in the first place.

Nevertheless, the city must start to pare back its welfare apparatus and shift responsibility for individual decisions, such as having out-of-wedlock children that you can’t afford, back onto individuals themselves. No other city in the country offers allegedly homeless families an entitlement to free housing. In May 2009, the city began requiring mothers with jobs to pay some rent toward their shelter apartments, but suspended the state-mandated program three weeks later because of clerical errors and opposition from homeless advocates and shelter operators. Once the technical problems are solved, the administration should reinstate this valid reciprocity measure and ask all residents of its “homeless” housing to contribute to its upkeep—whether in rent or in maintenance work. Many of the unwed mothers who present themselves for free apartments have other options, such as living with relatives or acquaintances. If the city could cut by half the $433 million that it spends on free apartments for less than 1 percent of the city’s population, it could fund over 2,000 police recruits, who could provide additional security to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

The most creative response to the recession would be to turn the entire city into an Impact Zone by greatly increasing the NYPD’s size. The Impact program shows that officers on the beat, deployed according to rigorous and ongoing crime analysis, can suppress outdoor crime beyond what the department has already achieved citywide. What if New York could claim bragging rights to being not just the safest big city in the country, but the safest city, period? It is a welcome development that crime has returned to early 1960s levels, but the 1960s had already experienced a sharp uptick in crime compared with earlier decades. Bringing crime down to 1940s averages, say, could have consequences for New York beyond what is currently imaginable.

The press and criminology profession, in thrall to the idea that crime is an understandable response to economic inequality and social injustice, are gleefully predicting that New York’s crime rate will rise during the recession. The NYPD is fully prepared to prove them wrong, so long as it has the resources to do so. If Gotham can keep its crime rout on course during this time of straitened circumstances, it can emerge from the recession with an unbeatable claim to prominence as the safest and most dynamic city in the world.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next