From New York to D.F.: Explaining Safer Cities

An editorial from Erick Mota, a Global Securities Specialist located in Mexico City

What has Mexico City learned from New York?

What has Mexico City learned from New York?

After some time spent searching, I finally obtained The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and its Control by Franklin E. Zimring (Oxford University Press, 2012), a popular text released last year that considers the striking decline in crime in New York City since the 1990s. Zimring’s conclusions are as disheartening as they are encouraging.

The good news? In 20 years of analysis, the seven most significant crimes in NYC (homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, auto theft, and theft) have declined 80 percent in the metropolis –  yes –  80 percent.

The bad news? The author has obtained at least some explanation for only up to half of the causes of this crime reduction. In other words, we are still ignorant about half of the reasons why offenders committed crime in New York from 1990 to 2010. For those who have followed crime research this is anything but a surprise. Despite all the statistics and information available in the modern world, the sources of crime remain far from clear, and these causes remain one of the mysteries of social sciences. Nevertheless, the author contends that half of the crimes have some scientific explanation, and his explanation is astounding.

The decline in criminality is the result of the triumph of a set of liberal crime-control policies.

Zimring begins by arguing that decline in crime was achieved without increased incarceration. In other words, it was not necessary to jail significantly more people in order to reduce crime. Second, the police demonstrated that the violence associated with drug dealing can be controlled even if the levels of drug consumption do not decrease. He argues that drug consumption does not necessarily produce violence (as we have tried to explain countless times to conservatives and crime theory purists).

The keyword in this story is policing. Through an increase in police personnel (not in prison infrastructure or personnel), a change in policing strategy (focusing on wiping out public drug markets, attacking points with high levels criminality or “hot spots”, and focusing on firearms interception), the acquisition of information and intelligence technology (such as Compstat, the statistical tool to analyze and respond to crime), and a change in policing tactics (aggressive measures to “stop and frisk” potential criminals), NYC became one of the safest cities in the U.S. and the hemisphere.

Reading the story of New York, I could not avoid the parallels with Mexico City, another major city and my home.

Unfortunately, Mexico City’s international image is currently tainted as many automatically associate it with violence.

This is imprecise.

Mexico City has one of the lowest homicide rates in the country (12 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants), and one of the lowest for major cities in the hemisphere. The whole country is a study in contrasts. While the touristic state of Yucatan had a homicide rate of 2.0 for the 2010, comparable to low-homicide rate European countries such as Finland (which had a homicide rate of 2.3 for 2009), the industrial Chihuahua had a homicide rate of 24.2 for the 2011, closer to that of Brazil (which had a rate of 22.7 for 2009) and Colombia (which had a rate of 33.4 for 2010).

Mexican homicide rated vary dramatically by state (Source: The Economist)

Mexican homicide rated vary dramatically by state (Source: The Economist)

How did Mexico City achieve those homicide rates despite being a massive, complex city? This question is difficult to answer, and there is no single explanation. My best bet: the city police department is the largest of the country. The police presence is strong throughout the city. Many of these officers  may be untrained and unqualified, yes, but that is another story. They are on the streets by the thousands, and they have created at least some deterrent effect.

In 2002, then-Mexico City’s leftist mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hired the consultancy company of Rudolph Guliani to create a crime-control program for Mexico City. Giuliani’s recommendation was to replicate New York’s anti-crime strategy. Consequently, most of this plan was adopted, new technology acquired, and personnel trained accordingly. The homicides rates in D.F. continued decreasing after Giuliani’s plan implementation.

Did it occur as a consequence of former New York’s mayor recommendations? We cannot say definitively, but somewhere along the  process D.F., like New York became a safer city.

-Erick Mota is Global Security Specialist with experience working for the Mexican Ministry of Interior and other governmental institutions. Located in Mexico City, he is pursuing a career as an independent security analyst.

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