“Our city’s on the pathway to being safer,” Mayor Eric Adams said during his State of the City address in January—a speech that followed the worst year of crime New York City has seen in 15 years. But the city is enduring more of the same. Year-to-date major crime, which includes the top felonies like murder, assault, burglary, and larceny, is higher than during the same period last year. Though murders in the city have declined, the felony assault rate is higher than any other year this century. Bronx district attorney Darcel Clark described the climate last year as “people thinking that they can get away with whatever they want.”
Despite the record crime surge, New York’s annual arrest numbers have remained remarkably low. From 2010 to the end of last year, arrests in the city dropped by 55 percent. Major crime, by comparison, rose 20 percent in the same timeframe. The city should investigate this arrest disparity and evaluate whether less policing is jeopardizing New York’s communities, as seems evident. The NYPD can start by boosting enforcement in offense categories that have seen the biggest drops in arrests.
Even before the 22 percent surge in major crime last year, public safety in New York was already deteriorating. In the 2000s, major crime dropped by 42 percent and total felony crime fell 36 percent, but those improvements slowed to only 2 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from 2010 to 2021. Though crime was only marginally falling after 2010, arrest numbers started to plummet. Felony-level arrests from 2010 to 2021 fell 27 percent; total arrests, 63 percent.
This arrest drop off happened alongside wholesale reforms that aimed to address what reformers saw as over-policing. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration cited the fewer arrests as evidence of these reforms’ efficacy, touting a “reduced enforcement footprint.” No doubt, ensuring fair enforcement is a vital part of community welfare and public trust in the police. But recent policies have overcorrected and become too lenient on crime, leaving New York’s neighborhoods and businesses more vulnerable.
Reduced proactivity contradicts the lessons learned in the 1990s, when policymakers made strides to reverse a decades-long crime problem in New York. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that increasing arrests was the most effective measure to fight crime in the 1990s. Arrest rates were the primary factor that reduced murder, assault, robbery, burglary, and vehicle theft. According to the study, other variables, including economic factors, did not play a large role in crime reduction.
Some of the successful, proactive strategies in the 1990s and 2000s proved controversial. Making the city safer will require both more and better enforcement, implementing precise practices that target offenses according to their severity. At a basic level, these include higher police presence in crime-prone areas and improved readiness to respond when offenses occur. This means making sure officers on patrol have clear directives to enforce, are qualified to intervene, and have adequate back-up support. Subway crime dropped significantly after the city flooded the transit system with more officers last year, suggesting that greater officer presence made a difference. On a larger scale, the NYPD can increase the use of intelligence and investigative methods to crack down on felony crimes that have seen an evident lag in enforcement.
Consider the above graph, which sorts the NYPD’s arrest data into specific offense categories and uses 2010 as a baseline to show how arrest statistics have changed since their peak. The NYPD classifies three of these categories—dangerous drugs, dangerous weapons, and possession of stolen property—as crimes where a large portion of complaint counts result from proactive policing. These types of crimes are especially suitable for proactive policing. This comparison helps indicate which categories have experienced the greatest arrest and crime disparities over time.
Changes in arrests are lagging crime trends in almost every category. The only numerical outliers are dangerous drugs and burglary. Criminal mischief (vandalism and property destruction), fraud, and felony drugs and dangerous weapons are the first categories where the city should bolster proactive enforcement. The NYPD should evaluate other areas, including misdemeanor offenses, where more proactivity could also have a major impact on crime.
The city needs to implement targeted increases in enforcement that endure throughout the year and prove more than a short-term political gesture. Otherwise, New York will struggle to slow the surge in violence.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images