A guest post by Daniel Soyer, professor of history at Fordham University, and an acute observer of the history of New York City. As one living in Rochester, NY, where the murder rate has been surging for the past year and a half, the questions raised by Dan's post and Monkkonen's book remain too all germaine in many American cities.
The New York Times (November 23) reports that the number of homicides in New York City is likely to fall once again in 2007. As the city’s population grows, this means that the murder rate is falling even faster. The tsunami of violent crime that crashed over the city from the 1960s to the early 1990s played a particularly damaging role in the city’s social, economic, and political crises of those decades. So it might be a good idea to think about whether a new wave might be approaching, as appears to be the case in some other American cities, and about how such a wave might be stopped before it reaches shore.
The late historian Eric Monkkonen traced the history of murder in New York City from the early nineteenth through the twentieth centuries and his findings may help us understand the rise and fall of violent crime in the city and to think of ways to forestall the next escalation of violence before it starts. The Times’s historical memory reaches as far back as the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and even the early 1960s, the last time there were fewer than 500 murders yearly in the city. But in his book, Murder in New York (University of California Press, 2000), Monkkonen describes three spikes in the local murder rate that peaked in the 1860s, in 1931, and in 1991. His data shows that the late-twentieth-century murder spree was far and away the worst of the three. One important factor that contributed to all three murder spikes was the presence in the city of large numbers of unattached single young men only marginally integrated into the fabric of society. Handguns, which only became the weapon of choice for murderous New Yorkers after 1968, do not cause spikes in the homicide rate, but may have contributed to the severity of the most recent upsurge.
Monkkonen warns that urban violence inevitably ebbs and flows and warns that complacency during peaceful times might contribute to the high crime periods that follow. When crime is rampant, citizens call for tough policing to bring crime rates down, but when police measures succeed, they start to seem too draconian. Society’s vigilance wanes, and violence begins to mount once more. But Monkkonen refuses to take sides in the polarized debate between those who argue for more and better policing and “root causers” who see the need to attack the underlying social problems that lead to crime. He argues instead that since the causes of violent crime are complex, any and all promising approaches to fighting it should be taken. Following his logic, Compstat, broken-windows policing, and midnight basketball all have a role to play.
Monkkonen’s position seems sensible: Better policing can help drive down violent crime, at least until we reach the point, as we apparently have, when most murderers attack their acquaintances, friends, relatives, and lovers, often in private. But ultimately, who can dispute that the best way to avoid violent crime is to have a citizenry that does not feel the urge to kill? When he ran for mayor, even Rudy Giuliani blamed high rates of violent crime on the crisis of authority caused by the decline of the traditional family and the church. Although he may targeted a different set of factors than his liberal critics, this would make Giuliani a root causer as well.