As we reflect on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s legacy, there is one area in which even his most ardent critics agree he has been startlingly successful -- protecting public safety. With the help of police commissioner Ray Kelly over the last decade Bloomberg oversaw a historic and unprecedented drop in crime. “Breathtaking!” is how Richard Aborn, Executive Director of the Citizens Crime Commission described it. It is, Aborn said, “more than dramatic. Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg have achieved drops in crime that frankly none of us thought were possible at this point.”
This is not just a matter of opinion -- it is a matter of record. Between 2001 and 2012 the murder rate in New York City dropped by 35 percent. While in 1990 there were over 2,000 murders in the city, by 2012 that number had dropped to just over 400 and this year we are on track to be somewhere in the mid-300’s. According to the city’s Health Department more people die today as a result of suicide than homicide.
But it isn’t just the murder rate that has declined. During the Bloomberg/Kelly era we also witnessed dramatic declines in almost every type of crime. Since 2001 rapes decreased by 27 percent, assaults, 17 percent, burglaries, 41 percent, and auto thefts by 73 percent. These results are even more impressive when you take into account that they occurred at a time when the population was growing and, due to budget challenges, the police force was shrinking. It is clear that both Bloomberg and Kelly deserve enormous praise for their achievements in this area.
But just as the person in charge gets credit when things go right, they also get the lion’s share of blame when things go wrong. This is why Bloomberg’s success is a double-edged sword for incoming mayor Bill De Blasio. De Blasio has the benefit of inheriting a city with historically low crime, something Bloomberg and most of his predecessors did not enjoy. Yet at the same time, there is no question that De Blasio will be held responsible if there is even the smallest uptick in crime during his administration.
And since experts have been asking when these numbers will bottom out for some time, it is not far-fetched to imagine this might occur during the next four years.
But it isn’t only an actual increase in crime that may negatively impact De Blasio, it is also public perception. Case in point, over the last few months we have heard an awful lot about the so-called “knock-out” game in which teens dare one another to punch, sometimes fatally, an unsuspecting victim. Similarly, just before the primary campaign we heard a good deal about the family in the SUV who had a violent confrontation with motorcyclists on the West Side Highway. These stories present a cautionary tale of sorts for De Blasio. They received international attention because this type of random violence is something that New Yorkers are less accustomed to now than they used to be.
At a graduation ceremony last year Bloomberg said “the essence of civilization is that you can walk down the street without having to look over your shoulder.” Under Bloomberg/Kelly people have gotten used to walking down the street without having to constantly look over their shoulder. If there is a growing sense over the next four years that they can no longer do this, De Blasio will be held responsible – whether he is at fault or not and whether the perception conforms to reality.
There is no question that Bloomberg/Kelly deserve a lot of credit for the work they have done to insure public safety over the last decade. The irony is that their unprecedented success in this area may prove to be a double-edge sword for the new mayor.
Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D., is professor political science at Iona College and campaign management at New York University-SCPS