City's lower homicide rates surprise experts

Oct. 29, 2012

Oct. 29, 2012 (Credit: NYPD in Times Square. (Getty))

The declining homicide rate in New York City continues a trend this month that has surprised and puzzled legal experts and criminologists, who once believed killings couldn't slide any lower than they did in 2009 when the number fell below 500.

As of Tuesday, there were 369 homicides this year, compared with 474 by the same point in 2011, a drop of just over 22 percent. In 2011, homicides hit 515 from 536 in 2010 and 476 in 2009, a recent low point. There were 2,245 in 1990 at the height of the crack-cocaine scourge.

If the current trend continues, crime experts and police said the city could record 400 or fewer killings by the end of the year, a level not seen since 1960 when there were 390.

"If you called me 20 years ago and asked if any polyglot American city could do that, I would say it was highly unlikely, so it is good news," Franklin E. Zimring, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, said of the New York trend.

But Zimring, author of the book "The City That Became Safe," said he couldn't say why there's been a decline in homicides, which has been part of a national trend beginning in the early 1990s. After the homicides dropped to its modern low level in 2009, some criminologists thought the numbers had bottomed out.

But "2012 indicates we can go a little bit lower," said Zimring. He said NYPD "hot spot" policing and aggressive stop and frisk practices have played a role.
"Proactive policing works," NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly said Wednesday.

"It saves lives. A combination of strategies like Operation Impact, along with the tenacity of individual police officers working hard each day has kept the city safe."

With the national economy in trouble and incarceration rates actually falling, some experts expected homicides to increase, said Zimring. But that theory has not borne out.

"Crime, instead of turning up, turned down," said Zimring. "It may be what is going on in New York City is a bit of a tail wind of the national trend."

Jeffrey A. Fagan, a professor of law at Columbia University, also expected crime rates, particularly homicides, to rise here because of factors like unemployment and the growth in the population of young men.

"It's a bit of a puzzle," said Fagan, who also credited the NYPD for helping the situation.

Fagan said the level of shootings was another indicator of violence and those numbers have dropped slightly in the city. Better hospital trauma care for shooting victims also is a factor, he said.

Also telling is the homicide rate per 100,000 population, now at 4.47, compared with 30.66 in 1990, said Zimring.

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