Mayor David Dinkins, not Mayor Rudy Giuliani, deserves the credit for sparking New York’s epochal crime drop, a dinner companion asserted recently. After all, did not Dinkins cajole Albany to raise taxes in 1991 to provide $1.8 billion over five years to put some 6,000 additional cops on Gotham’s streets? And aren’t those additional cops the reason that murders began to drop from their Hobbesian high of 2,245 in 1990—more than one every four hours, every day—to 1,946 in 1993, Dinkins’s last year in Gracie Mansion? Given the chance, would not Dinkins, or some Democratic avatar, have continued the crime drop by the same methods, with the same success for which Giuliani wrongly gets praise?
The answer is no—emphatically no. To be sure, my dinner partner’s numbers are correct. But his conclusion is wholly wrong, for important and instructive reasons.
If sheer numbers of policemen on patrol were the magic elixir of crime-fighting, Chicago, with some 44 cops per 10,000 citizens in 2016, compared with New York’s 42, should be correspondingly safer. But its 28 murders per 100,000 residents that year was seven times Gotham’s rate. What counts is not numbers but technique. Chicago cops, in that city’s version of “community policing,” placidly patrol their territory but studiously ignore such low-level offenses as small-time marijuana dealing or disorderly conduct. The message to would-be criminals: not even the cops care about lawbreaking but just look the other way, especially in the anti-cop Black Lives Matter era.
The praise for New York’s crime drop during the Dinkins administration belongs to Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Robert Kiley’s inspired choice of Boston cop William Bratton to head New York’s transit police in 1990. Bratton immediately set about restoring order underground, cracking down on fare-beaters and other low-level crimes of disorder, including those of the mentally ill homeless, that made the subways such an especially frightening place in the frightening city of those days. The very visible spectacle that the authorities were taking charge began to scare some potential malefactors straight, and by that accomplishment Bratton proved that restoring order in public places can cut crime. Bratton went home to run the Boston police department in 1992, but two years later, newly elected mayor Rudy Giuliani called him back as Gotham’s police commissioner, where he instituted such order-keeping policing city-wide, along with a host of other reforms—from crime-mapping to command accountability—with instant and inexorable success that has continued ever since. Murders totaled 290 last year—13 percent of 1990’s butcher’s bill.
As George Kelling pointed out in these pages, the MTA and its parent body, the Transit Authority, pioneered Gotham’s official order restoration, even before Bratton’s arrival. As early as 1984, TA chief David Gunn began removing the omnipresent graffiti from the subway cars, cleaning and doggedly recleaning every time the vandals defaced the trains, until they gave up. Not just the hooligans but also ordinary New Yorkers started getting the message that anarchy was stoppable, and they began to dream that perhaps their city didn’t have to die. Even earlier, private citizens kindled the first sparks of that hope, starting in 1980, with the start of the Central Park Conservancy’s magical, 15-year restoration of what had become a thug- and bum-infested dustbowl back into an urban Elysium. That same year, Daniel Biederman and Andrew Heiskell, with Rockefeller money, began plans to restore the drug supermarket that Bryant Park had become, and Biederman, as head of the Bryant Park and Grand Central Business Improvement Districts, went on to keep his midtown bailiwick clean and orderly.
My dinner companion knew that crime and disorder nearly killed this city, though he was wrong about who brought it back to life and how. It’s a mistake that Hillary Clinton also made in one of her first presidential campaign speeches, risibly praising Dinkins as a policing visionary. Younger New Yorkers, though, don’t even know how close a brush with death the city once had, much less what saved it. As de Blasio-era homeless bums and madmen proliferate, and Black Lives Matter hostility from City Hall on down increasingly demoralizes and discourages the NYPD, these are important lessons to remember, or relearn, accurately. Yes, there is a great deal of ruin in a great city (as Adam Smith said of Britain), but it’s not infinite. In this disorderly era, at the very moment when Amazon is emptying out our storefronts, Spotify our concert halls, Netflix our movie theaters, and Vanguard our financial district, it’s not unthinkable that Gotham will someday once again need citizens who know their urban CPR.
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