Here's the popular consensus: In the mid-nineties, New York City finally got tough on crime. By using the ground-breaking CompStat computer system, cracking down on misdemeanors and criminalizing social situations (like hanging out with other people in parks or hallways), as well as instituting its controversial "Stop and Frisk" strategy, crime fell. It went down a jaw-dropping 40% in three years. Bill Bratton (pictured above), its intrepid police commissioner, was hailed as an innovator and savior. The legacy of Mayor Rudolph Giulliani was forever intertwined with the "broken windows" policy, which then spread to cities worldwide. Being tough on crime meant arresting anyone (mostly poor people) for the slightest of infractions. And that's how New York City came back.
The problem with popular consensus is that once it's cemented, it's very difficult to change. We believe in the narrative above because it makes sense: crime had to be solved, and, whether we liked it or not, we were given a solution.
What's less easy to swallow, however, is the growing acknowledgement that the NYPD had almost nothing to do with drop in crime. A new paper by New York University sociologist David Greenberg focuses on the statistical flaws in studies that support the NYPD's claim, and finds "no evidence that misdemeanor arrests reduced levels of homicide, robbery, or aggravated assaults."
Most damaging to the "broken windows" policing narrative is the chart below, which shows that crime had begun to plummet well before 1994, when Bratton took office.
Another study cited by Greenberg, this one by Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri, shows how little crime rates have decreased in precincts that aggressively use "Stop and Frisk" tactics.
So why did crime drop then? If it wasn't the militarization and constitutional overreach of police departments nationwide, then what? Did people just start acting better?
While Greenberg leaves the door open to alternative explanations, like Roe V. Wade leading to more abortions and less crime, or even less exposure to lead paint, he doesn't offer a true reason why crime dropped. For whatever the reason it dropped, cities, especially New York, are left in the uncomfortable situation of clinging to policing methods that are not only extralegal, but also impractical and wrong. Popular consensus is a tough thing to turn around, however, and the myth of being "tough on crime" helps perpetuate the stoic, unwavering vigilance of our insanely popular police leadership, who are too ashamed, scared, and stubborn to back down even an inch.