The news that William Bratton is coming back as Police Commissioner, replacing the outgoing Ray Kelly for the second time, is bound to put any New Yorker of a certain age in mind of the Yankees of the mid-seventies, when George Steinbrenner regularly rotated Billy Martin and Bob Lemon in and out of the clubhouse (with side steps, between sporadic Martin reigns, to Dick Howser and Yogi Berra). It was at the height of Steinbrenner’s hauteur and mad emperorship, but Bill James, no less, somewhere along the line made the case that, if not exactly what you would call a rational program, it wasn’t entirely crazy. Different managers are good at different things: Billy Martin was a fantastic judge of talent who kicked young players off to a running start. But he created an atmosphere of such high stress and tension—not to mention alcoholic haze—that whatever good he did soon came to an end, and left the team in need of relief by a more low-key type. Then, once everyone had relaxed, bring back Billy and get them stressed out again. This didn’t seem like the kind of workplace anyone would really want, but it made a certain sense at the time. (Anyway, we all said, the ballplayers are making so much—why, some made nearly a million dollars a year!—that they could put up with it.)
There is something similar to be said about the Bratton-Kelly shuffle. To recap: Mayor David Dinkins hired Kelly, whom Mayor Rudolph Giuliani replaced with Bratton, leaving Bloomberg to once again re-hire Kelly, who is now being replaced by Bratton, after stints in L.A. (and a strange flirtation with Scotland Yard). In some ways, they’ve also traded the Martin-Lemon roles. Bratton’s policies are of essentially the same kind as Kelly’s. He was a fan of the hyper-aggressiveness associated with the Giuliani era, and now seems to have gone a bit, well, Lemony in his time away, ready to do some of Kelly’s work in a different, milder key.
Bratton’s return should also serve as a reminder that the city’s decline in crime has been a bi-partisan accomplishment. For all the bad press Dinkins still sometimes gets, it was in 1993—during the supposedly crime-friendly Dinkins years—that the great crime drop began. As I wrote at length last year, the falling crime rates are an ideal example of another Yankee-centric social phenomenon: how easily we all get satiated by success. Just as Yankee fans, after the dead dry years from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, came to take winning for granted, and to treat its absence with churlish impatience—“Any year we don’t get into the Series is a losing year” and all that—so New Yorkers have come to take the monumental drop in crime as the given background, and the means by which it might be continued as the ideological figure in the foreground. Stop to consider the triumph of policing in New York in the past thirty years: in the nineteen-nineties alone, “homicide dropped 73 percent, burglary 66 percent, assault 40 percent, robbery 67 percent, and vehicle hoists 73 percent,” as one expert points out. The murder rate continued to drop throughout the next decade. In 2012, murders fell to an all time low, at four hundred and fourteen for the year. 2013 is on track to have even fewer, with two hundred and fifty-five murders reported so far. For a big city, that’s amazing.
Much of this is widespread—civilization-wide, taking in the suburbs of Ottawa and Brussels as much as the Bronx. Still, if the American crime drop has been real, the New York cure has been miraculous. It is hard for anyone who was not present for its opposite—for the great crime hike of the mid-sixties through the seventies and into the lush eighties—to grasp the social difference that this has made. It has enabled the city to survive and flourish despite such seeming threats to its long-term well-being as 9/11 and the terrorism panic it engendered. To move to New York in 1979 was regarded by non-New Yorkers as being as foolhardy as, well, becoming a Yankees manager. The force of Woody Allen’s New York-loving movies of the period lay exactly in how quixotic they were. The dying city was being abandoned; Woody stubbornly stayed. (Annie Hall in L.A.: “It’s so clean out here.” Alvy: “That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.”) Anyone who predicted in 1980 that, in thirty years, crime would be one of the least of the city’s problems—replaced instead by problems like an over-abundance of wealthy people driving local residents out of Harlem and the South Bronx—wouldn’t have seemed optimistic. He would have seemed crazy. (Sort of like someone mordantly predicting that the Red Sox would finally win the World Series after coming back from being down 3–0 in a series to the Yankees.)
Nor does the crime drop, in plain English, benefit only white people. Crime and the fear of crime prey, above all, on the poor—not merely further impoverishing them but stripping away the classic city possibilities of hope, education, and advancement. Everyone benefitted, and continues to benefit. (And, it should be added, the end of crime has happened as the city has become ever more multi-racial, not less.) We have, in this sense, lived through a “Batman” movie—a reign of fear ending with a reinstitution of at least partial civic peace—without quite knowing we were.
And it didn’t take a Batman to do it. The endlessly fascinating thing about the end of crime, the truth that dares not speak its name, is that no one knows—really knows, deep down, with certainty rather than ideological passion—what happened. Reasonable cases can be made for causes as varied as “broken windows” policing and the end of lead in gas fumes. (The fault lay not in ourselves, but in our cars.) The best general study of what happened remains that of Franklin Zimring, the Berkeley criminologist, who showed, essentially, that while more policing helped, smart policing helped more, and what helped most was not turning to one thing alone to help. Building a variety of barriers to crime helped stop it. “Crime is a routine behavior, “ he says. “It’s a thing people do when they get used to doing it.” Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages,” Zimring says, meaning that the best solution is an “all of the above” solution, many small smart moves made in different ways over time. And the good thing about “all of the above” is that you can change some of the above without losing the solution. Stop-and-frisk—the proactive search of those deemed possible offenders—is a tool, to be sharpened or smoothed as needed, not a principle to be enforced in the face of all reason.
Zimring also thinks that what was needed to figure out what works, and distinguish it from what was said to work, is “a rigorous test,” looking at, for example, what happens to crime statistics in certain “hot spots” with and without stop-and-frisk. With the Bratton and de Blasio era, that kind of test, whether rigorous or not, may be upon us. New Yorkers will be understandably uneasy about being the lab rats for piecemeal social engineering. But, then, we have been already, and benefitted from it. The new Mayor and the returning Commissioner have a chance to show the world that the end of crime in New York—from the beginning a bi-partisan achievement—can remain a bi-partisan, indeed a distinctly progressive, accomplishment. Now might be exactly the moment for the low-stress manager—or one who is learning to be so—to take the place of the high-stress one. But they need to keep winning the game.