NYC Dives Into Tough Neighborhoods, Emerges as Safest Big City

  • Violent crime in public housing plummets 22 percent since 2013
  • One key tactic: $13 million a year on youth jobs, counseling

Just a few years ago, violence was so rampant at Tompkins Houses in Brooklyn, New York, that residents referred to the walkway that cuts through the public-housing complex as Death Valley.

“If you valued your life, you just didn’t go there,” said Leora Keith, 76, president of the residents’ association who has lived there for more than 40 years.

A mural created by Tompkins Houses residents.

Source: NYC.gov

Tompkins and the city’s 325 other public-housing developments were outliers as New York City recorded 24 consecutive years of falling crime. Now they’re showing lower numbers as well, with a 22 percent drop in murders, robberies and shootings since 2013. That helped the city reduce its murder total last year to 291, the least since 1951. Chicago, with a third of New York’s population, had more than twice as many murders; Philadelphia recorded 317.

At Tompkins, in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, crime is down 45 percent since 2013, with no murders and just two shootings in each of the last two years. In an era when most major American cities are reporting less crime, New York’s 85 percent drop in violent offenses since 1990 outperforms them all.

Beat Cops

The reasons go beyond the installation of more than 300 outdoor lights and 100 security cameras throughout Tompkins’s 12-acre campus, and even the police department’s CompStat system that maps and categorizes crimes. Mayor Bill de Blasio attributes it to a combination of community policing and non-profit groups that focus attention on social needs -- jobs, counseling, entertainment -- in high-crime neighborhoods.

“New York’s success is the envy of every other city,” said Ben Lerner, deputy managing director for Philadelphia’s criminal justice office. “It’s prosperous enough to run an enormous, well-equipped police force, but its real advantage is its use of dozens of violence intervenors with no visible contact with police.”

Murders, Robberies and Shootings in NYC Public Housing

A 33% decline since 2006

Source: New York Police Department

Even though Philadelphia has its own neighborhood-based anti-violence programs, Lerner lamented that it either couldn’t afford or lacked the political will to pay for non-police crime prevention strategies on a scale that could produce the same impact as New York’s. Several other cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, have such programs, part of a national Cure Violence model that approaches crime as a public-health epidemic.

Segregated City

Chicago’s 650 murders last year represent nearly a 16 percent decline from 2016, though more than it recorded in 2015. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson attributes the downturn to better and faster technology to pinpoint crime locations, and more positive interactions between its police and citizens. 

Yet the city’s historically segregated neighborhoods, a longstanding culture of hostility between law enforcement and minority communities, and the absence of strict mandatory jail sentences for illegal gun possession make the city less likely to enjoy the same level of success as New York, said Johnson’s predecessor, Garry McCarthy, a 25-year NYPD veteran. 

In 2015, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired McCarthy after public outcry over a video showing a white police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager 16 times. McCarthy said Chicago still is dealing with bad relations between police and minority communities, and officers who feel second-guessed by rules restricting how they can approach citizens on the street.

Local Politics

There are two reasons why New York continues to drive down crime more than Chicago, said McCarthy, 58, who is considering a mayoral run against Emanuel in 2019. The first is “Chicago politics intruding into police management and policy.”

The second, he said, is that New York has stuck with a plan developed in 1993 by former Commissioner Bill Bratton and built upon by current Commissioner James O’Neill, to identify high-crime locations and the people there who are most likely to commit offenses, including gang members and recidivists; and to develop friendlier relations between police and those they serve. Chicago hasn’t been as effective when trying similar strategies, McCarthy said.

In New York, the 36,000-officer police department has been augmented by civilian non-profit groups dedicated to reducing crime with 200 “violence interrupters” -- often ex-gang members or ex-convicts -- deployed in 17 precincts that account for more than half the city’s shootings. They show up at hospitals after a shooting to quell retaliation by a victim’s friends or family. They hit the streets after an incident to calm hostilities and discourage violence from escalating. They aren’t there to share crime information with police.

“We work with police, but from a community-building perspective, not law enforcement,” said Eric Cumberbatch, director of the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, which he said runs a version of “Cure Violence on steroids.”

The program provides grants to support individual neighborhood proposals promoting public safety -- art lessons, health fairs, anti-violence lectures. In one case, it paid for a family to bury their slain son in South America, Cumberbatch said.

New York neighborhoods operating Cure Violence programs had steeper declines in gun violence than similar areas without them, according to an analysis in October by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“Our biggest accomplishment is that we are changing the culture so more young people don’t align their identity with violent behavior,” Cumberbatch said.

Stop-and-Frisk

In the 1990s, New York City saw more than 2,000 murders a year. By the time de Blasio took office in January 2014, it had already cut crime by more than 75 percent. Newspaper editorial writers and political opponents expressed doubts it could go much lower, especially with de Blasio’s opposition to police stopping and frisking people on the street.

“There was too much focus on arrests,” de Blasio said during a Jan. 25 speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. “What this did was create not only a rift between police and community, it created an institutionalized disrespect for young people of color and in particular for young men of color.”

Analysis of CompStat data after de Blasio took office showed that public-housing complexes accounted for 20 percent of the city’s violent crime.  City officials targeted the 15 most dangerous, including Tompkins.

“It was no surprise that residents in these projects fared worst in opportunities for jobs, education, good health outcomes,” said Amy Sananman, executive director of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety. “We quickly realized you’re not going to police your way out of this situation.”

Sananman’s $13 million a year program guarantees summer youth employment and connects residents with mentoring, job-training, counseling and health care. Some of its $150 million in capital funds paid for Tompkins’s lights and cameras, new electronic locks and a spruced-up community center staffed into the night.

De Blasio has touted New York’s crime downturn in appearances around the U.S. as he tries to burnish a national image in advance of an avowed goal of influencing the 2020 presidential race. He told the Conference of Mayors in Washington that neighborhood policing is the key to driving down crime, with “simple things like saying good morning” or having officers give residents their mobile-phone number and email address.

Tompkins Houses Total Crimes

Total Index Crimes Down 55% Since 2006

Source: NYPD

Note: Index crimes are murder, robbery, shootings, felonious assault, rape, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft.

Officer Jarrett Akins has been patrolling Tompkins for 12 years and Officer Marc Lebron for 10. Akins said three shootings kept him busy the week he arrived.

Last year’s highlight, they said, was producing a pre-Christmas comedy show at the local community center, drawing an audience from Tompkins and two other projects that had been centers of rival gang warfare.

“We used to have kids from each of these places getting into fights on the street,” Lebron said. “At the holiday show, they just came to be entertained.”

— With assistance by Elizabeth Campbell

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