Lessons from a city that became safe What Detroit can learn from NYC


By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

Franklin E. Zimring believes that Detroit can learn from New York City's amazing recent success at fighting crime and implement some of the same solutions here.

"Why the heck should a Detroit audience be interested in New York? There are some surprises that come from New York," Zimring said. "One is that street police can prevent crime. As recently as 1995, the best people in my business were writing books that it was a myth that police could prevent violent crime."

Wayne State University Law School hosted a lecture Wednesday, April 4, by the University of California, Berkeley School of Law professor. Zimring talked about "Lessons from a City That Became Safe: What, if anything, can Detroit learn about crime from New York City," based on his recently published book "The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control" from Oxford University Press.

Zimring attended Wayne State and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1963. He was a member of the University of Chicago law faculty as Llewellyn Professor of Law and director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice before joining the Berkeley School of Law faculty in 1985. At that institution he served as director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute and was appointed the first Wolfen Distinguished Scholar in 2006. He is best known for his studies on the determinants of the death rate from violent attacks, the impact of pretrial diversion and criminal sanctions.

New York saw a dramatic decrease in crime during the 1990-2006 period that Zimring focused on, when first William Bratton and then Raymond Kelly were the police chiefs. Homicide, assaults, rape, robbery and auto theft all saw remarkable drops and, he contends, because of population growth and other factors, the drop was even more amazing than it seemed.

Although some attributed the drops to either an overall national decline or New York's tough policing of the era, Zimring dismissed the first contention and said the jury is out on the second. New York's drop far exceeded the national trend and Zimring said there's no solid evidence that a "tough" approach made any difference.

He does believe there are strategies and policies Detroit could implement based on New York's success.

"There are two proven things that came out of New York that Detroit could start doing," Zimring said.

"One is so-called 'hot spots' enforcement. You send the cops where the crime is and you keep them there," he said. "You concentrate on specific pieces of geography -- a particular corner or liquor store -- and you 'put out the fire.' You've got to send the cop cars where the homicides are. That's not rocket science. That's been proven to work in other cities and New York did it well."

The second measure is a variant of that tight enforcement focus.

"Two is the destruction of public drug markets," Zimring added. "The reason we know that worked is because there's one measure of violence that only happens in drug markets and that's drug-related killings. By destroying the public drug markets, the armed and dangerous drug sellers aren't fighting with each other over who gets the best corner. Drug killings were down by 90 percent using this strategy."

He pointed out that, by simply forcing the drug dealers indoors, the murder rate declined.

"The story is very simple: Drug use hasn't dropped in New York City. Drug killings have," Zimring said. "What we have is a situation where the streets are safer, the killings have stopped, but the number of people taking drugs and the amounts are pretty much the same."

"The people who used to sell drugs outdoors and get into fights about whose corner it was are now selling indoors. If you're selling drugs in your apartment and I'm selling drugs in my apartment, the only way we'll have a violent fight is if we're roommates."

Zimring addressed Detroit's severe financial problems, but believes they shouldn't prevent reform or innovative solutions.

"Am I aware that Detroit, at the moment, is a walking fiscal problem? You bet I am," he says. "But even here, there are already demonstration projects of 'hot spot' police enforcement and the control of public drug markets. Also new policing methods that can pay dividends now."

He also stresses that the city and the state need to cooperate and be imaginative on financing those solutions and take into account the high cost of incarceration.

"If you can figure out the political economy of it -- the state of Michigan pays for the prisons and the city pays for the police force -- you can get the governor to write a check to the mayor for the money that increased police effectiveness can save him in the prison system, you can have a safer city and a better city at the same time," Zimring said

Above all, Zimring says American cities must believe that they can succeed at reducing crime.

"What we found out in New York City, and what I'm telling you today, is that the enormous fear that came over our cities in the 1960s and the belief that the problems were irreversible and that high crime was part of urban destiny has been proven false," Zimring said.

He also emphasized that New York City has traditionally been one of the major cities most resistant to reform, with a strong political machine and a police department with entrenched traditions.

"If New York can do it, it should be a piece of cake for Detroit," Zimring said.

Published: Mon, Apr 9, 2012