Sunday, October 03, 2004

Crime, crime, and ever more less crime in New York City.

Murder isn't random. Not in the Big Apple, anyway. If you don't want to be murdered -- at least here in NYC -- just don't be a felon who hangs out with felons. In murders committed in NYC during the last two years, almost 80% of victims had criminal records, almost 80% knew who killed them, and about 60% of the killers had criminal records. So if you're not a felon and don't know any felons, you really sharply reduce the likelihood of being a victim.

"It is highly unlikely that a tourist or a law-abiding citizen would be the victim of murder," says the Police Commish. And getting less likely all the time. The murder rate is down 72% in NYC over the last 11 years, including by 5% this year from last.

Of course, this is only part of the plunge in all kinds of major crime that has occurred in NYC since new policing methods were introduced 15 years ago. This has been much greater than the decline in the national crime rate -- about 66% versus about 15% -- and, as NYC is so large, it is responsible for a significant part of the decline in the national numbers.

The story behind all this is interesting and quite important for anyone who is concerned about making government work. If this web site somehow continues to exist, there'll be more on it later.

But one portion of it can be mentioned quickly -- data and accountability for results. The NYPD in 1994 initiated its Compstat crime data reporting system to quantify crime reports block-by-block over the entire city in near real time. (Anyone can go to the NYPD web site and get the current summary data for local neighborhoods by precinct.)

With Compstat, the whole philosophy of policing changed. Before it, when a crime was reported a police car was dispatched in response -- after the fact. Today, the top officers running each precinct are held accountable for taking steps to prevent crime in their precincts before it occurs. Each week they are called in to meet with the Department's top brass to explain the causes of the existent crime in their precincts, and exactly what they are doing to stop it. It is reputed to be an extremely unpleasant experience to lack the answers -- and a career-shortening one as well. But those who show they can do job go up the promotion ladder fast.

It's a simple lesson: incentives and accountability tied to measurable performance work, in government just like in the private sector. And in the process of working in this case, they have disproved a host of defeatist beliefs of a generation ago: that crime can't be prevented but only displaced, that prisons would have to be filled to overflowing (the NYC jail population is down 23% since 1994, while the national jail population is up 36%) and so on.

It's quite a contrast to other branches of government, such as, say, the public school system. More on that later as well....