Why Is New York So Much Safer Than Chicago?

While the U.S. continues to struggle with questions about gun violence and the use of police force, the New York City Police Department has delivered some hopeful news. Thus far in 2016, the Department reported last week, New York has seen 435 shooting incidents, a record low in the past 20 years, and 161 homicides. Chicago, on the other hand, has seen over 2,000 people shot and 315 people killed in the first half the year, up 50 percent from the same period last year. On Memorial Day weekend alone, 64 people were shot. Six died.

These headlines obscure the fact that today, America’s national crime rate is roughly half of what it was at the peak in 1991. New York City has gone from “being one of the most dangerous cities in America to becoming one of the most crime-free metropolises in the developed world.” Within that, as University of California, Berkeley, criminal justice scholar Franklin Zimring details in his book The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, New York is an outlier case: From 1985 to 2009, homicide dropped by 82 percent, assault by 67 percent, and burglary by 86 percent. While Chicago has a lower crime rate today than it did in the ’80s or early ’90s, it’s still more dangerous than its peer cities: As of 2014, Chicago had a violent crime rate 32 percent higher than New York and 44 percent higher than Los Angeles (though still about half (!) of cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Oakland). By comparing crime in New York and Chicago, you can start to get at core American questions of how cities develop or don’t, how communities are integrated and isolated, how violence is transferred between people, and how, ultimately, environments shape behavior. While academics, commentators, and other have proposed explanations for why crime does or doesn’t decline in a city — ranging from abortion to It’s the Cops, Stupid! — there are few empirically rigorous answers. Let’s get to why.

Neighborhoods shape behavior.

Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale is skeptical of the power of policing when it comes to the drop in crime. He says it has to be understood in terms of the nationwide downward trend. “A generous reading would be that perhaps police in New York did something to reduce shootings in New York compared to other cities,” Vitale says. “It’s not like they used stop-and-frisk to get the guns and that’s why shooting went down, [and] it doesn’t explain the 95 percent shift in auto thefts or burglaries.”

A better explanation comes in the form of environment. This is one area where New York and Chicago are hugely different. Due to economic flight, systemic housing discrimination, zoning laws that isolate the poor, and a long list of other factors, Chicago has tremendous amounts of concentrated poverty, especially for African-Americans — it’s one of the major ways that black poverty is different from white poverty. A 2015 study by Rutgers University public policy researcher Paul A. Jargowsky found that more than a third of all poor African-Americans in Chicago live in census tracts with poverty rates above 40 percent, compared with 26 percent of poor African-Americans in New York.

That concentrated poverty leads to what sociologists call “neighborhood-level effect,” where, basically, the neighborhood environment you live in is highly predictive of behavior — for example, when single moms in Philadelphia were placed in low-poverty neighborhoods, their academic performance surpassed the control group in high-poverty neighborhoods. As Vitale explains, when poverty is concentrated, it creates a culture on the street where violence becomes endemic. If you’re a teen or a 20-something in those environments, Vitale says, you have to show the capability of violence so that you’re not “constantly victimized” — not because you want to be a predator, but as a form of self-defense. “In New York, the neighborhood-level effect is isolated to a few places,” Vitale says, with pockets of concentrated poverty like public housing serving as a huge source of gun violence. “But in Chicago, a third of the city is caught up in this dynamic.” That’s why, Vitale says, targeting individuals doesn’t work in the long term, since it doesn’t change the culture of a place. If one cohort ages out of violence, ges incarcerated, or gets killed, then the next group of 13- or 14-year-olds is ready to come up and take their place. Structural poverty leads to social structures.

Shooting is contagious.

According to Yale University sociologist Andrew Papachristos, in Chicago, most gun violence happens not between strangers, but within networks of people. As Science of Us has reported before, from 2006 to 2012, 70 percent of all nonfatal gunshot injuries in Chicago happened to a network that accounted for under 6 percent of the city’s total population. And 89 percent of those victims were part of a single social network of 107,740 people. This shows how gun violence — like smoking or obesity — travels between people by “social contagion.” Symbolic motives like revenge, status-seeking, and collective memory drive gang shootings. While no one has yet done a social-network analysis of New York shootings, you could infer that the city’s less concentrated poverty, dispersed among the five boroughs, may mean that the city’s social networks are less primed for social contagion than Chicago — though that will remain my speculation until the data comes in. A city can’t arrest its way out of gun violence, Papachristos says, due to its networked nature. To change a network means to change a community.In the short term, Papachristos suggests that you could set up venue-based interventions similar to those that have proven so successful in fighting HIV, and that in addition to sending police to families that have suffered from gun violence, the city could send trauma specialists, since immediate response can lower the chances of entire families getting PTSD. Other cities have demonstrated, at a small scale, networked interventions. In Richmond, California, a program that targets the 50 young men most likely to shoot or get shot by a gun, and offers them mentorship and a monthly stipend in return for staying out of violence and sticking to a “life plan” of their ambitions, has led to an over 70 percent decrease in murder rates from 2007 to 2014. DeVone Boggan, the founder of the Richmond program, told me that his program specifically targets the people at the center of gun violence, and seeks to “mainstream” them so that they can engage with social services. This would also defuse the cyclical, networked contagion of violence. A similar specificity is also informing the NYPD’s strategy: D

In the short term, Papachristos suggests that you could set up venue-based interventions similar to those that have proven so successful in fighting HIV, and that in addition to sending police to families that have suffered from gun violence, the city could send trauma specialists, since immediate response can lower the chances of entire families getting PTSD. Other cities have demonstrated, at a small scale, networked interventions. In Richmond, California, a program that targets the 50 young men most likely to shoot or get shot by a gun, and offers them mentorship and a monthly stipend in return for staying out of violence and sticking to a “life plan” of their ambitions, has led to an over 70 percent decrease in murder rates from 2007 to 2014. DeVone Boggan, the founder of the Richmond program, told me that his program specifically targets the people at the center of gun violence, and seeks to “mainstream” them so that they can engage with social services. This would also defuse the cyclical, networked contagion of violence. A similar specificity is also informing the NYPD’s strategy: Deputy commissioner for operations Dermot Shea says that the recent lows in shootings are partially a result of the department’s shift from focusing on making arrests to building the strongest cases against the people who are “driving crime in New York.” That way, the most troubling people can be stopped at one or two incidents rather than at nine or ten.

There are so many explanations for why crime has declined, especially in New York, it can feel like a case study in the narrative fallacy, that deeply human tendency to pull out clean, causal explanations for exactly why things happen, after the fact. Among all these correlations and statistics, it’s clear that criminology is a high-stakes branch of social science where more empirical research is needed. But it does look like people caught up in gun violence, like other humans, are responding to their environment — to the people they’re around, the places that they live. If that toxic, destructive behavior is going to change over the long term, the context that produces it will need to change, too.

Why Is New York So Much Safer Than Chicago?