The Great Crime Tsunami of the 1970s and ’80s Is Gone—And It’s Probably Not Coming Back
New York City’s mayor recently boasted that the murder rate is back to 1950s levels. He’s right. And the news is actually even better than that: It may just stay that way.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, are, predictably, crowing over the city’s low crime stats. They’re correct to say that the rates haven’t been this low since the immediate postwar years. But notice, too, that the commissioner is unable to explain why NYPD was so successful. “We can’t answer definitively,” he told reporters, when asked why crime was down. We may infer from this that no policing policy changes are responsible for the good news.
Then what is? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I can offer a revealing historical perspective. First, some numbers. The most accurate crime measure is for murder, and the rate for this year just ended is 3.4 killings for every 100,000 New Yorkers. To find a comparable rate one would have to go back to 1951, as de Blasio suggested, when the figure was 3.1 per 100,000.
That’s as far back as the mayor’s historical exercise went. But a look even further back is instructive.
For the entire first half of the 20th century, from 1900 to 1958, the city’s murder rates were lower than the national average and hovered around 4 per 100,000. The prewar peak occurred during the worst years of the Depression, 1931-33. But even that crest was a bit above 6 per 100,000, which is only moderately elevated, and rates declined for the rest of the Depression years. They dropped even further during World War II when thousands of young New York City males were in the Army. Conscriptions reduce violent crime for the same reason that baby booms increase it: such crime is mainly about young men.
Starting in the late 1960s, when the Great Crime Tsunami rolled over the nation, the city’s murder rates soared above 10 per 100,000 for a sustained period, skyrocketing to a terrifying 30.1 in 1990. Memories of those years haunt us still, even though the numbers began falling to single digits again after 1996. And starting in 2012, rates fell below 6—just as they had been for nearly the entire first six decades of the 20th century.
It turns out that the city had many more low-crime than high-crime years. If we add up all of the years with murder rates at 6 or below we get a total of 63: 55 years in the 20th century and eight in the 21st. If we tally the years with double-digit murder rates the result is 28.
So, which is the typical or normal New York: the beloved Big Apple with 63 years of modest crime or the frightful city with 28 years of mugging and murder? Though the scary city is closer in our memory, got more media attention and was the subject of numerous gripping movies of the era, the safe and exciting Gotham had the longer run by far.
One possibility, then, is that the post-’60s crime tsunami was aberrational, and the normal state of affairs is what we have now. I’m inclined to think this is the case for two reasons. First, the city’s murder rates were below 6 for nearly all of the 19th century, not just the first half of the 20th.
(There was a crime spike in the early 1860s, perhaps due to the restiveness over the Civil War draft. So maybe not all conscriptions reduce crime after all. There was another spike in the 1870s, then crime sank right up to the 1890s. (As for why violence was relatively low in late 19th century New York—a time when living conditions seemed like petri dishes for criminality—that is a mystery that continues to puzzle crime historians.)
Second, the conditions that brought on the crime tsunami of the late ’60s—the coming-of-age of the baby boomers, the mass migration of low-income African Americans among whom crime rates were high, and the caving of the criminal justice system—were unique. And while one never should say never, there’s a good chance that the perfect storm of conditions that occurred in the late ’60s will not recur. They certainly don’t seem to be in the offing any time soon. As I predicted back in 2016, when crime was rising nationwide: “We have to face occasional crime spikes or surges, such as we are now experiencing, but a long-term, sustained crime rise, on the order of those from previous eras, seems unlikely.”
The likelihood is that low crime rates will last and this is really good news for New York—even if it isn’t new news.