Simple Solutions to a Complex Crime Problem

My dinner companion asked me how I felt about crime in New York City, a topic that comes up more often these days not only among New Yorkers but also from others when they learn I live in Brooklyn. The question usually implies that New York crime is rampant, and the city is dangerously unsafe.

I want to reply, “Of course, crime is prevalent in New York; we have all these people working in the financial industries.” But, of course, that’s not the kind of crime they are talking about. They are speaking of the kinds of crimes that are committed on the streets that aren’t Wall Street.

When a non-New Yorker makes comments about the city’s crime, I assume I am talking with a person who watches a lot of Fox News, but I know that that is not true for my crime-commenting NYC friends, who certainly are not conservative. I ask my fellow residents whether they or family members or even acquaintances have been recent crime victims, and uniformly the answer has been no. I remember a time some years ago when that same question would have produced recitals of victimhood.

Even though untouched personally by crime, many of my friends know people or are among those people who won’t ride the subways because of perceived rampant crime. And this highlights some of the special relationship between crime and New Yorkers. I have friends who choose other means of transportation over the subway, but I also know people who will not enter the trains under any circumstances. Period. It’s true: if you ride the subways enough, you will see untoward things. True now. True always. Have the bad incidents increased dramatically? I don’t know but not in my personal experience. A friend who recently gave up the subways did it at a time that transit officials maintained that crime had not increased on the trains. But it was also at a time when local news outlets increasingly reported subway crimes. It certainly seemed that danger had increased on the trains, whether it had or not. Think, though. If you are or have been a commuter or an otherwise regular user of a car, how often during the last several months, did the news media report about a serious accident on your network of roads? How often did you witness or were told about a dangerous incident—a car suddenly cutting in front of another one to make an exit or weaving about or tailgating or driving too fast? My guess is that scary road incidents in Atlanta and Dallas and many other places far exceed the dangerous incidents on the New York subway. Someone can check this out for me, but I believe that more people are killed and hurt in car accidents in this country than they are in crimes. Few people, however, decide not to drive because of highway violence even though they are much more likely to die or be injured that way than a New Yorker is by a subway or street crime. I am not immune to these patterns. Like most of us, I am not good at assessing risk. Even though I intellectually know that if I die or am hurt violently, it is more likely to be on my drive to Pennsylvania than on the subway, the report of a subway crime makes me feel more vulnerable and concerned for my safety than seeing the remains of a car crash on Route 280.   

There is, of course, crime in New York City that causes concerns and perhaps it has increased recently, but statistics show that the New York crime rate is lower than in other major cities and much lower than it was a generation ago. However New Yorkers, regular Americans, and news media don’t talk about other cities as much as they do about New York. A lot of weird and bad things can, and perhaps generally do, happen each week in New York, but I wonder if we collected all the similar news from places with a comparable population, whether we would find nearly as many weird and frightening things. For example, if each week you heard all that kind of news from all parts of Wisconsin, would you feel that Wisconsin is a dangerous place to live? The local paper from my birthplace reported that there was a shooting this last week in Sheboygan, which contains a tiny fraction of the state’s population. How many similar violent episodes were there in the entire state, and how would that compare to New York? I saw a report recently that there had been two mass shootings this year in New York City (population 8.4 million). Bad, yes. However, Wisconsin (population 5.9 million) had six; Colorado (6.0 million) had five; and Louisiana (4.6 million) had nine. But because one of the mass shootings in New York occurred on a subway in Brooklyn, it got national coverage. Most mass shootings don’t even make more than the local news these days.

Even with these statistics, we don’t tend to ask whether Wisconsin is dangerous and crime ridden. We might ask that about specific places in the state, but the state covers too much territory to think about it in those terms. The Janesville resident is unlikely to be concerned about a shooting in Wausau or Rhinelander. It may be surprising to you that the homicide rate in Florida is higher than it is in New York. But Florida encompasses many more square miles than New York City, and so you are only concerned about the small area of the state in which you live or where you visit. Similarly, a robbery or even a killing in the East Tremont section of the Bronx does not affect me. I don’t believe I have ever been there, and I can’t see how the event can make my life more dangerous. However, it will make it into the New York crime statistics, and when I see that crime is increasing in the city, it can make me feel more apprehensive even when few, if any, of the crimes truly affect me.

(continued September 23)