NEW YORK (Reuters) - The city that has bragged of falling crime during the past two decades is struggling to explain why murders are up 15 percent this year.
As crime plummeted in the 1990s, New York rebranded itself as the safest big city in America, luring back tourists and businesses that fled in the 1970s and 1980s, when the city was associated with graffiti-splashed subway cars, littered streets and a crack cocaine epidemic.
Now it is looking at statistics that show murder and rape up more than 15 percent so far this year over the same period of 2009, which could be a statistical regression to the mean or a slippage in crime-fighting tactics.
“We are sliding back in the wrong direction,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee.
Vallone attributes part of the increase to the faltering economy — a theory police and some academics dismiss.
“Our experience is that a worsening of the economy doesn’t turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals,” said police spokesman Paul Browne.
Police say they are fighting against their own success. They point out that murders still are down 73 percent compared to 1993 and down 17 percent from 2001, when the New York Police Department had 41,000 officers compared to 35,000 today.
Overall crime is down 2 percent from last year’s record low but critics contend crime is increasingly underreported.
“To put it in context, this is the third lowest year for murders that we’ve had in four and a half decades ... so things have generally been going in the right direction,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.
There were 450 murders from January 1 to October 31, up from 390 in the same period of 2009 and close to the total of 471 recorded in all of last year.
Much of the gun violence occurs far from tourist-populated Times Square or Wall Street — around the city’s public housing projects where the poor are crowded into high-density apartment blocks and teenagers get trapped into gangs.
Since the peak of 2,262 murders in 1990, the city has grown used to a falling murder rate. Homicides dropped nearly half from 1990 to 1995 and almost by half again three years later.
“Our strategies and efforts are continuing to work,” Kelly said.
Vallone says the causes are simple. The police force has been reduced due to budget cuts, the economy is weaker, and state lawmakers last year relaxed famously strict laws that required mandatory prison terms for low-level drug felons.
“You have a perfect storm of criminal indicators,” Vallone said. “We need to lose the attitude that we’ve won the war on crime. ... The pendulum has swung again to the liberal side where we’re all about treatment and coddling criminals.”
Andrew Karmen, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said no single factor explains a drop or increase in crime and that most explanations were “ideological or self-serving.”
Additional reporting by Basil Katz and Andrew Stern; editing by Bill Trott