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Zimring: Giuliani’s Crimefighting is Overrated


This month Harper’s takes a very serious look at Rudy Giuliani, who could very possibly become the next President of the United States. One of the things that has always distinguished Giuliani was his tough stance on crime—he may have been a dictatorial mayor, but rape, homicide, burglary and automobile theft all fell between 50 and 80 percent in the 1990s.

Under his leadership from 1994-2001, as the former mayor has noted, New York was the only major U.S. city where crime declined “every single year.” To underscore that point, Giuliani is running radio ads praising himself for this very accomplishment. And a number of commentators are with the mayor—for example, William Tucker, writing in the March American Spectator, recounted a conversation he had defending the former mayor an Upper West side restaurant: “Didn’t [Giuliani] stop crime? Wouldn’t [this] group be worried about walking home tonight if it hadn’t been for Giuliani?”

Except it turns out that Giuliani’s claims to be the savior of New York might be overstated. “When you’re passing around the credit,” noted criminologist Franklin Zimring told me, “there’s an awful lot of deserving candidates.” Zimring, the author of _ The Great American Crime Decline_, has spent a great deal of time studying how crime rates fell in the 1990s and finds Giuliani’s claims to be self-serving. First, he said, during Giuliani’s time as mayor criminal activity was declining nationwide. Homicide, rape, burglary and automobile theft all dropped between 37 and 41 percent in the 1990s, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports—all the result of social and policy changes that were taking place in New York and in the nation at large. Thus, according to Zimring, at least half—and as much as three-quarters—of that drop in New York crime “would have happened if Rudy Giuliani had never been born.”

Whatever portion is due to Rudy, he obviously intended to take credit for the whole shebang. As Zimring pointed out, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton and his deputy for crime control strategies, Jack Maple, instituted the use of COMPSTAT–an approach that maps criminal activity and targets problem areas—in 1994. By many accounts, COMPSTAT was a resounding success. So why, two years later, would Giuliani allegedly force Bratton out of office? Perhaps because Bratton made the cover of Time, taking the spotlight away from the mayor. (It took the two ten years to bury the hatchet.).

Giuliani also takes credit for the “aggressive street policing” policy he and Bratton implemented at the beginning of his tenure that allowed for more aggressive policing by New York’s officers, with crackdowns on offenses like subway-turnstile jumping. But the 35 percent increase in police staffing that added 13,000 new employees to the NYPD, which Zimring considers another driving force in the crime decline, began under Giuliani’s predecessor, David Dinkins, and then was continued by Giuliani. Crime declined each month during the last three years of the Dinkins’ administration, too.

Zimring says Giuliani is “what Hollywood calls a supporting player” in the New York crime decline, but doubts that Giuliani will portray himself as such in his next campaign ad. “That,” he said, “doesn’t fit into a sound bite.”

Bernie Becker is editorial assistant to Ken Silverstein.


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