Steve Chapman

Maybe we can give the credit to Rudy Giuliani, who came into office in 1994 promising a get-tough approach. But the decline began years before he arrived, and it continued long after he was gone.

He is often credited with adopting the "broken windows" approach: going after relatively minor offenses such as panhandling, graffiti and prostitution that create an atmosphere of disorder. When police tolerate petty crime, the theory goes, they invite serious crime.

But Zimring finds that this story is, at the very least, greatly exaggerated. Prostitution arrests never rose, and eventually they declined. Arrests for public gambling, another visible "quality of life" offense, also fell after 1997. "The reason that a devotion to across-the-board strict enforcement of public order offenses didn't contribute to the crime decline is that it never happened," he says.

So what accounts for the miracle? Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, surmises that the biggest factors were focusing cops on high-crime areas and closing down outdoor drug markets, which helped curb gang conflicts that often turned deadly (though it had little effect on drug use). But much of what happened is a mystery.

That's the bad news, since the New York experience yields no easy formula for safe streets. But it proves we can realize vast improvements in safety without first solving all the problems that supposedly cause crime -- poverty, bad schools, out-of-wedlock births, drug use, violent movies and so on.

The crucial discovery, concludes Zimring, is "that life-threatening crime is not an incurable urban disease in the United States." We may not yet be able to say how, exactly, to drastically reduce the dangers that plague our cities. But we know it can be done.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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