I was there and saw it. In a telephone conversation with old schoolmates who were at a reunion I missed in 1988, I described New York City as being like a “Nazi bomb shelter at the end of World War II,” brimming with paranoia and claustrophobia. Danger began after breakfast. In some housing projects people slept on the floor so that they wouldn’t be struck by stray bullets flying through windows. It was impossible to walk on the streets at night without running into the mentally disturbed or thugs or drug dealers on every other corner.
Rudy Giuliani and his first police commissioner Bill Bratton changed that.
In 1990, murders in New York City reached an all-time annual high of 2,262. Six years later, they had dropped over 56 percent, to 984. By 2008, homicides were down nearly 77 percent, to 523, and all felony crime was down over 77 percent.
The turnaround in the cityâ€™s public image was equally dramatic. As the 1990s began, the national media were proclaiming New York a disaster zone. News reports recounted the brutality of its rampaging youth packs, the chaos of its streets, and the devastating decline in public services, caused by plunging tax revenues. Yet by 1996, the mediaâ€™s story line had changed radically. the big apple comes roaring back, declared U.S. News and World Report. New York showed that â€œwinning the war against crimeâ€ was possible, Time proclaimed. In 1998, a new cable TV show portrayed New York as a glittering mecca for beautiful, libidinous women, who managed to squeeze time for exciting careers into their complicated bedroom itineraries.
One of the least discussed but most important aspects of this turnaround was a turnaround inside the NYPD, from a cop culture that encouraged corruption to one that discouraged it. Giuliani managed that without demoralizing the force. People were moved around, or retired, or forced out, and corruption became more dangerous for cops. There was a big scandal in the early 90s that helped motivate the change, but that the usual reforms in response to such a corruption scandal were more than a public show were, again, the result of Giuliani’s resolve.
Mac Donald gets off on a more current policy discussion, but central to the whole deal was political will. Purpose that was more than paper. Not until the cops saw that Giuliani was both serious and ultimately on their side did the increased personnel matter, and methods followed that proved that the mayor had game, not just mouth. The anti-crime measures were featured, but the anti-corruption methods, while pursued more quietly, were key to getting the job done.
New York City has many weak points, but the long-lasting mitigation of crime has been a strong point that made many other things, like living a sane life there, possible.