It is well known that there has been a major drop in crime in New York. What is more that drop in crime was twice the rate of fall in crime across the United States and has been sustained over a twenty year period.
So what was the secret of success? And could it be translated to the UK and to London in particular?
Professor Franklin Zimring of the School of Law at Berkeley has applied scientific analysis to the figures and has come up with a number of interesting conclusions. The improvement was not so-called “zero tolerance” policing, focussing on stopping the spread of crime into new areas. Instead, the results were delivered by “hot spot” policing – robust, sustained policing of those areas with the highest rate of crime (especially violent crime).
The aim should be harm-minimisation as far as things like drug use are concerned (disrupting public drug markets where associated violent crime tends to happen, for example, rather than trying to eliminate drug use itself).
Crucially, he also finds that police numbers matter – provided those numbers are directed to the areas with the highest crime and, when there, officers police “robustly”.
He is also not convinced that simply locking criminals up cuts crime. As he puts it:
“We used to think that all we could do with high-rate offenders is lock ‘em up or they’re going to offend on the street. But NYC has 28 % fewer people locked up in 2011 than in 1990. And it has 80 % less crime. The [individual] criminals didn’t go anywhere. They’re just doing less crime. So the bedrock of prediction on which incapacitate imprisonment was built, has turned out to be demonstrably false. And the proof of that is in New York City.
The data shows that the criminal activity of people coming back to NYC from the prisons dropped as the crime decline proceeded. In 1990 the odds that a prison released from prison coming to NYC would get reconvicted of a felony over the next three years was 28 %. But over the next 17 years, the odds of being reconvicted of a felony dropped to 10 percent.
The street situation changed and so had the things that their friends were doing. People were now smoking marijuana and drinking wine. Cocaine use was down. Street robbery has gone down 84 %. Burglaries 86 %. And that meant that the people that the released offender used to hang out with as a persistent offender from a high-risk neighborhood, are no longer doing those things. So he’s not doing crimes with them.”
This obviously has implications for the current debates on prison numbers and suggests that Kenneth Clarke’s approach is potentially right, if – and it is a big if – the rest of Zimring’s conclusions are taken on board.
So what else does his work mean for policy here?
It certainly implies that police numbers are important and that the last Labour Government (and the last Mayor in London) were right to boost the number of police. The cuts envisaged by the present Government and those that are being carried out quietly in London by the present Mayor are therefore almost certainly unhelpful. (The lack of certainty derives from the fact that it does, of course, depend on what the police officers remaining are actually doing and whether their activity is in fact robustly tackling crime hot spots.)
It also suggests that policies favouring policing the suburbs at the expense of the areas with higher crime that tend to be in the inner cities are misconceived.
I suspect that the robust and sustained “disruptive” policing of crime hot spots is consistent with the approach that Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe would wish to follow. It will be interesting to see whether this is encouraged by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPC – pronounced “Mopsy”) or whether the MOPC will be nervous about the political implications in the run up to the Mayoral elections in May.