What Does It Take To Reduce Crime? A Report On Professor Zimring’s Presentation, Part I

Nearly everyone in Oakland has opinions about crime and how to reduce it.  Often public discussions in Oakland about these subjects devolve into an ideological conflict. Some think more police are the answer.  Others feel that police can’t be trusted and social programs are all we need. Meanwhile, our mayor supports a “balanced approach” without offering any metrics or data to show us which of the elements in that “balanced approach” actually reduce crime.

Make Oakland Better Now! believes that in public safety, as in every governmental endeavor, decisions must be made on the basis of data and metrics, not on opinion or ideology.   MOBN believes that in public safety, government decisions must be based on competent analysis of data rather than on ideology or opinion. We also are convinced that there are not sufficient data or analysis of data to show whether our non-police social programs are effective in reducing crime. We believe that Oakland cannot afford to spend any money at all on either police efforts or violence prevention programs that cannot be shown to reduce crime.

So we were very pleased that Oakland City Council Members Libby Schaaf and Pat Kernighan invited Professor Franklin Zimring to speak at a public meeting Sunday.  Professor Zimring, Berkeley Law Professor and recognized  dean of the academic study of American criminal justice, is the author of “The City that Became Safe;  New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control.”   He spoke before a group of more than 50 community members at St. Lawrence O’Toole Church, describing his study of New York’s crime rate reduction between 1990 and 2009.   Zimring shows clearly that increased police staffing combined with properly-focused police work can greatly reduce crime.

The numbers from New York City are truly stunning. Starting in  1990, New York added about 7,000 police officers.  The force also began using much more aggressive policing tactics.

From 1990 to about 1999, the entire United States, including Oakland, experienced a substantial reduction in crime.  But New York City, unlike any other major city in the country, experienced a drop in crime twice as big and lasting twice as long.  A comparison of the drop in  “index” crimes of homicide, robbery, rape, assault, burglary, auto theft and larceny shows that in 2009, New York City experienced:

  • 18% the number of homicides as in 1990;
  • 16% the number of robberies;
  • 23% the number of rapes;
  • 33% the number of assaults;
  • 14% the number of burglaries;
  • 6% the number of automobile thefts;
  • 37% the number of larcenies.

After controlling for the national decrease in crime and some other factors affecting Manhattan but not the other boroughs (significant per capita income increase and gentrification), Zimring noted that the overall decrease in crime was consistently 21% greater than the national average for 19 years.  He concluded that once other factors were teased out, police efforts could be shown to have caused the following reductions in crime:
Homicide:      12%
Rape:          15%
Robbery:       32%
Assault:        4%
Burglary:      32%
Auto theft:    21%
Larceny:        2%

In our next post on Thursday, we will review Professor Zimring’s research on what works and what doesn’t work.

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Bruce Stoffmacher

    Thanks for posting this. Great information.

  2. Chris Vernon

    Does Professor Zimring have an opinion about David Kennedy’s Ceasefire approach to reducing violent crime and open air drug markets?

    What New York did is impressive, but it will be very difficult for Oakland to adequately increase the number of police anytime soon – as I understand it, this is part of NYC’s formula for success.

    A second concern is the use of multiple random stops that the NYC police engage in – 87% of which have been on people of color. This is problematic on a civil rights level and seems quasi-legal at best. That’s one of the complaints being registered in New York right now. It also seems like a tough sell in a liberal town like Oakland.

    If the Cease Fire approach could be successful here, it wouldn’t rely on far greater staffing and would seem to be more effective at engendering good will in East and West Oakland where distrust of OPD is long engrained, and not without some reason.

  3. brucenye

    I filled out a card asking just this question, and it was the last question of the session. Professor Zimring responded with something that David Kennedy also points out in his book “Don’t Shoot.” Cease Fire seems to mean a lot of different things to different people. Zimring believes the Chicago version is more proven than the Boston version. And we have the Oakland version (the “call-in” process) which, unlike Kennedy’s versions in Boston, Cincinnati, Stockton and Los Angeles involves carrots (provision of social services) but not much in the way of a stick. And from the data I’ve seen, it looks as though Oakland’s metrics are mostly participation and the connection of person with services, rather than crime reduction. Bear in mind that the Kennedy version requires significant police resources and some pretty aggressive policing for the “stick” part of the equation as well. And we’ll be talking about the issue of aggressive policing (which is problematic from civil liberties, political and Negotiated Settlement Agreement points of view) in part two of this discussion on Thursday. And finally, the post after that one will be on the subject of cease fire programs.

    1. Chris Vernon

      Thanks for your response, Bruce.

      I was particularly interested in NOT using the call-in method used in Oakland – it seems a pale imitation of what Kennedy describes in his book, which I just read.

      Done well, as it seems to have been done in some other cities, it seems like it could work even in splintered Oakland.

      Looking forward to the post on cease fire programs.

  4. I think that Zimring’s ideas (which are based on his background as part of the “Chicago school”) do hold some weight. What I am seeing is that there is no magic silver bullet – and that any approach must be holistic.

    Of interest – the other thing is that there are actually TOO MANY social services groups addressing this same issue. I think there are literally about 150 of them, most of them 501(c)3’s, as I recall. . .

    What that does is create an entire industry which relies on violence to exist. Kind of a strange dynamic, and I just learned the name for many of these groups – “poverty pimps.”


    Moving forward, I would like to see many of these groups marginalized by asking them to actually show results. When they can’t – their donations will dry up.

    This will be done through the use of social media. Details to come.

    1. Chris Vernon

      But why would we try to follow a model of crime reduction that requires significantly more officers? We’re not likely to get them anytime soon.


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