A must read article from City Journal about public safety in America (and England) over the past several decades.
The first time I visited New York, between 40 and 50 years ago, it was a place of ill repute, at least among foreigners. Rumor and report made the city sound like a low-intensity war zone, and you would find yourself regaled with advice on how to stay safe there, un-mugged and un-shot. On no account wander about at night, you were told, and if you insist on going out after dark, get into and out of your taxi at your point of departure and your destination, without deviating. Do not think of going to, or even passing through, Harlem. The rules to follow in New York were like an updated version of those followed by Transylvanian peasants in Dracula.
I survived, but I doubt that that had much to do with my state of paranoia, induced by what other visitors, but also some residents, told me. My one brush with danger was on Madison Avenue near 57th Street, early on a Sunday morning. I was waiting at a bus stop with an elderly lady when a gunshot rang out, producing a ricochet and a puff of smoke in the street, about five or ten yards away. The old lady turned to me impassively, having taken no evasive action. “I’m telling you,” she said, “this city is a bad place.”
Since then, I have traveled to cities far more dangerous than New York ever was: Monrovia, Mogadishu, San Salvador. In the first, every institution had completely broken down; in the second, they were only halfway there; and in the last, death squads roamed the streets while guerrillas loosed rockets into the city, and one was asked (politely, I must say) to leave one’s guns at the door before entering a supermarket. But I was young and naive when I first came to New York, and I arrived from a city then famed for its safety and civility: London. Indeed, London was so safe that, by age ten, I was free to roam it on public transportation without anyone concluding that I was a neglected or an abandoned child. Nowadays, the police and social services doubtless would get a call—probably for good reason—if a ten-year-old were seen alone on the streets.
Just under a half-century later, the level of civility in the two cities has switched: New York now feels safer than London. I have in recent years enjoyed walking dozens of city blocks after midnight in Manhattan without apprehension; I would hesitate these days to walk such a distance in London after midnight. Some London boroughs have more robberies in a month than all of Great Britain did in a year a century ago.
Differences in policy almost surely produced this reversal of fortune in the two great cities, at least as far as crime is concerned. New York decided that the “root cause” of crime is the criminal’s decision to commit it, which, in turn, is strongly influenced by the likely consequences to him of doing so, a theory easy to understand. London adhered to the theory, propounded by criminologists, that the root causes of crime are multifactorial and so complex as to be almost incomprehensible—vast social forces the direction of which somehow must change if crime is to fall. In other words, New York treated criminals and would-be criminals as individuals with powers of reflection and decision; London treated them as inanimate objects, mere vectors of forces. Contrary to first impressions, New York’s approach was more respectful of people than London’s, which, quite apart from its practical failure, led to all manner of equivocation, special pleading, dishonesty, condescension toward perpetrator and victim alike, and confusion as to the proper role of the police. As violence rose, the police in London (and elsewhere in Britain) increasingly took on the appearance of military occupiers instead of the traditional unarmed civilian force that they had hitherto been; or, as one commentator put it, they became paramilitary social workers, more concerned to protect the feelings of certain designated groups than the lives and property of all. The police became bullying without efficacy, the worst possible combination; and the confusion of roles led to their demoralization. If London should learn from New York, then New York should learn from London, the power of bad example being as great as that of good.