The Low Crime Legacy

New Yorkers have grown accustomed to living and working in the nation’s safest big city. And it keeps getting safer: Last week the Police Department reported the city will likely have fewer than 500 homicides in 2007, the lowest annual figure since the N.Y.P.D. started keeping records, in 1963. And the great majority of those killings were committed by assailants who knew their victims; the random killings of complete strangers and bystanders, which haunted the city and grabbed tabloid headlines back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, have largely been eliminated.

Most remarkably, with crime falling steadily over the past 15 years, we are witnessing an entire generation of New Yorkers who have come to expect a high degree of public safety. A low crime rate has become the norm, not the exception. This will have a profound impact on those who run for mayor in 2009, particularly in how they choose to address the Giuliani-Bloomberg legacy.

When crime in the city started to fall in the 1990’s, many refused to give credit to a modernized, focused police force or to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Instead, it was naïvely argued, New York was simply benefiting from a nationwide drop in crime, largely due to social factors. Yes, social factors played a part; but it was Mr. Giuliani’s insistence that the city was governable, combined with terrific police commissioners such as Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton, that made the real difference.

Many New Yorkers assumed crime would rise when the combative Mr. Giuliani left office. But the opposite has happened, thanks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has lowered crime even further while also improving racial harmony. He brought Mr. Kelly back as police commissioner and shares Mr. Giuliani’s attitude that locking people up for so-called “petty” crimes stops them from committing serious crimes. (Indeed, of those arrested for murder this year, 77 percent had a previous arrest record, as did 70 percent of their victims.) And so while crime in several other large U.S. cities has been rising lately, New York’s rate continues to decrease.

Even New Yorkers who have never been personally brushed by crime are profoundly affected by the crime rate. Safe streets have a direct impact on the city’s economic base. Solid real estate values, surging tourism levels, fewer families moving to the suburbs, and major corporations deepening their commitment to the city—none of these would be possible without a low crime rate.

All of this also means that the crop of mayoral candidates in 2009 will have no choice but to pledge their support for the Giuliani-Bloomberg legacy. There’s no way to avoid it: Two mayors with very different personalities and styles of leadership have shown that it is possible to reduce street crime with the proper tools and the right attitude. The results have been spectacular. Those who wish to claim City Hall in 2009 have their work cut out for them: New Yorkers will not tolerate a return to the bad old days of out-of-control crime, bloody headlines and poisonous race relations. The Low Crime Legacy