Safe City, USA

The end of 2012 brought yet another milestone in New York’s astonishingly successful war on crime. The number of murders last year—slightly more than 400—was the lowest in more than four decades. The final total of 418 smashed the previous record low of 471, set just a few years ago in 2009.

A generation has come of age in New York since the depths of the early 1990s, when more than 2,000 people were murdered every year in the five boroughs. Today, for hundreds of thousands of young New Yorkers from every neighborhood and every demographic group, that violent era in the city’s history must feel like ancient history. The New York they know is the safest large city in the country, and one of the safest in the world. They literally cannot imagine a time when more than 2,000 people lost their lives yearly in the city they call home.

New Yorkers should never, ever stop celebrating these statistical milestones, even though they have become miraculously routine since 1994. There was, after all, a time in this city’s history when violent crime was regarded as the inevitable result of urban pathologies, social injustice and other factors that were beyond the control and grasp of the police and public officials.

That time ended with the election of Rudy Giuliani in 1993, and has continued through Michael Bloomberg’s three terms. Both mayors and their police commissioners demonstrated that when violent crime is treated not with a shrug of the shoulders but with steely determination, then a sprawling metropolis like New York, with all its social and racial tensions and inequities, need not be a killing ground.

Skeptics have argued that Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg have been the beneficiaries of larger trends in society, including industrial-strength incarceration, which have also brought crime down in other cities. That’s only partly true. Yes, other cities have seen decreases in certain types of crimes. But New York not only has led the way, it is has not faltered, it has not yielded and it has not allowed the bad guys an opportunity to return to the bad old days.

Chicago’s appalling murder rate in 2012—the Windy City recorded 500 murders last year, with a population of 2.7 million compared with New York’s eight million—should remind every New Yorker that there is nothing inevitable and nothing preordained about New York’s historically low homicide rate. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, his precinct commanders and the cops in the streets clearly are doing something right. There are fewer cops on the streets today than there were a decade ago, and yet the numbers keep going down. Chicago, on the other hand, saw a 17 percent increase in murders in 2012.

There will be a new mayor in City Hall a year from now. He or she may need to be reminded that what has gone down could easily go up, unless the commitment, the competence and the determination of the last two mayors remain a priority.