by Daniel Krieger
Marjorie Cohen had no background in community organizing, but in the mid-1980s she suddenly found herself compelled to act. It was the height of the crack epidemic and within the span of six months there were four drug-related murders on her block — West 92nd Street between Amsterdam and Broadway. She had never paid much attention to crime in the neighborhood, but with two small children at home she felt she needed to do something.
After organizing neighbors in her building, she joined the Westside Crime Prevention Program, a community group founded in 1981, and in 1988 Cohen became its executive director. Though she was a writer and editor when she moved to the Upper West Side in the mid-1960s, she ended up devoting herself fulltime to the crime-fighting group for 22 years, working with police on innovations like the Neighborhood Watch Program and Safe Haven program, in which businesses put up signs to let lost or frightened children know they could go there for help.
In 2010, when police statistics made clear that crime had plummeted, the group disbanded. But recently, Cohen says, some who were there on the front lines with her in the bad old days are suggesting that crime is back, and the Westside Crime Prevention Program should return for a second act.
Cohen doesn’t agree. She believes these calls for a revival are based more on feelings than facts. “It’s irrelevant how people feel,” she said in a recent phone interview. “We can’t base our view on feelings. We have to base it on what’s actually happening.”
So, in the spirit of empirical facts taking priority over feelings when it comes to crime on the Upper West Side, the Rag took a look at what is actually happening today, according to police data, and how today’s crime rates compare with the past.
In 1990, the first year tracked in the New York Police Department’s CompStat system, crime was a serious, citywide issue. Singling out the 20th and 24th precincts, which cover the Upper West Side, it’s clear that in the 32 years spanning the statistics, crime has – for the most part – fallen dramatically in the seven felony categories: murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft. Felonies, as opposed to misdemeanors, are the most serious crimes and typically lead to prison time of at least a year.
One of the biggest drops came in the number of robberies — thefts involving actual or the threat of force. In 1990, 2,171 were recorded in the UWS precincts; last year that number was 261.
Burglaries, theft of property, saw a similar decline, from 2,665 in 1990 to 217 in 2021.A third category, grand larceny – stealing something worth more than $1,000 – declined from 3,502 in 1990 to 1,219.
And incidents of auto theft declined dramatically, from 3,745 to 176 last year. While it’s generally difficult to show definitively why specific crime rates fluctuate, there’s strong agreement that improved technology has dramatically reduced car theft.
As the above graphs show, those four felonies plummeted since 1990, falling most steeply until around 2006 before leveling off and then fluctuating relatively small amounts over the years.
The other three felony categories tell slightly different stories. The drop in felony assaults, for example, looks less dramatic because the number of assaults recorded in 1990 was significantly lower than other crimes: 388 compared with 270 felony assaults last year.
Similarly, there were 21 murders reported in 1990, which fell to a single murder case in 2021, while rape cases fell from 47 to 19 in the same period. (However, a 2019 study concluded that the New York Police Department has undercounted rape for years, and the NYPD’s own report a year earlier said that rape cases in the city are underreported. This is a case in which police data falls short and another means of measurement, such as victimization surveys, could offer a more accurate picture.)
As for why crime rates in the Upper West Side precincts fell so dramatically – mirroring citywide and national trends – theories range from the supposed success of ‘broken window’ policing in the 90s, to the long-term impact of legalizing abortion, to more police on the streets, to stiffer prison sentences to the ‘lead-crime hypothesis’ that the reduction of lead pollution in the 1970s contributed to the fall in crime two decades later.
“[T]he forces that drove the Great American Crime Decline remain a mystery,” The Atlantic wrote in a 2016 report that looked at a variety of hypotheses for the nationwide drop in crime rates since the 1990s. While some theories look stronger than others, “there’s no real consensus among scholars about what caused one of the largest social shifts in modern American history,” the Atlantic report concluded.
Although police crime data for the 1960s, 70s and 80s are not publicly available, we know anecdotally that crime during those decades was a big issue. For instance, in the late 1960s the crime rate on the Upper West Side was stratospherically higher than in 1990, according to a New York magazine story, which reported that in 1968 the Upper West Side had 8,478 burglaries, 1,097 felony assaults, 3,233 robberies, 6,762 larcenies, 36 homicides and 86 rapes.
Zooming in closer and examining the past 12 years might show whether crime rates have gone up more recently. From 2010 to 2021, the UWS numbers fell in three categories: robberies (261 in 2021, down from 282 in 2010), burglaries (down to 217 from 225 in the same period) and murders (5 were recorded in 2010, one last year). But felony assaults rose from 158 (in 2010) to 270 (in 2021) and auto thefts rose in the same period from 117 to 176. Grand larceny inched up, from 206 to 219, and the misdemeanor crime of petit larceny, which includes shoplifting, went from 2,104 to 2,653.
Trends look a bit different if 2021 rates are compared with just six years ago in 2015; the graphs show upward trends in the rates of robbery, assault, burglary, auto theft and petit larceny. And if we zoom in even further and compare the first nine months of 2022 to the same period in 2021, the data also show upticks in robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and petit larceny.
So what sense can we make of this? Are recent upticks a sign that there’s a crime surge on the Upper West Side?
“Crime is constantly fluctuating,” said Dr. Jeffrey Butts, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a recent phone interview. “The numbers go up and they go down,” he said, and looking at short-term changes doesn’t reflect meaningful trends. “You never understand the history of something until you can look at it with a little bit of distance.”
A sudden uptick in numbers – such as the NYPD’s week-to-week, month-to-month, and even year-to-year reports – can cause anxiety. So can highly-publicized crimes like the subway killing of UWSer Michelle Go or the recent shooting of a Danish tourist at West End Avenue and 103rd Street. In the search for causes, some have focused blame on bail reform and progressive prosecutors, a theory that Butts notes has been challenged by research such as a March report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which concluded that “There is no clear connection between recent crime increases and the [New York State] bail reform law enacted in 2019.”
But this is not to say that fluctuations don’t matter. It’s just that you have to watch them over time before you can draw conclusions about which way crime may be trending. According to Butts, there isn’t enough perspective yet to understand the upticks of recent years, especially because they “include a major public health social disruption of everything we know about living life. You have to look at it in the long-term. We really won’t know what the 2015 to 2022 period is for a while.”
So what role did the Covid disruption play in all of this? One of the effects was that when everything shut down, the result was a temporary drop in crime rates (police data for 2020 show that, compared to 2019, robbery, assault, grand larceny and petit larceny fell, while burglary and auto theft went up). But when Covid restrictions eased, the numbers picked back up, leaving an impression of rising crime; in 2021, rates ticked up for robbery, assault, grand larceny, and auto theft. And this year, as the city opened up even more from the days of stringent Covid rules, crime rates climbed even higher for robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and petit larceny.
“Probably the 20th and the 24th precincts were more affected by lockdowns,” said Butts, referring to the many Upper West Siders who could work from home. “So the fact that it’s now up over the last partial year is not a shock at all, because it was so low during the depth of the lockdown.”
And at present, looking at the police data, it’s not possible to say if this recent, somewhat modest, uptick in crime is a fluctuation that might trend downward over the next few years, or possibly level off – or in fact turn out to be the beginning of a steady rise in crime. What does appear clear is that these rising numbers should not be interpreted as proof of a new crime wave washing over the Upper West Side. It’s simply too soon to say – just as no one could say in 1990 that crime rates were about to start a long, dramatic plunge.