There's a different set of investments that can be made in residents and local community organizations and there's really good evidence that will have a strong impact on violence.
In his 2018 book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, sociologist Patrick Sharkey traces the many effects of the remarkable reduction in crime that has taken place in the United States since the 1990s. Sharkey documents what he calls the “social costs of violence,” the ways in which its effects radiate beyond victim and perpetrator, corroding neighborhoods and communal control over public spaces, and even showing up in the test results of children living near where violence has occurred.
From this perspective, Sharkey argues those who have benefited most from violence's retreat are people living in what have traditionally been the most marginalized communities. Indeed, he regards the reduction in violence as one of the signal public health victories in recent decades.
Sharkey lays out an ambitious agenda for consolidating what he sees as the incomplete and fragile gains in the struggle against violence. He concedes mass incarceration and a more aggressive “broken windows” style of policing played a role, but he contends the inequities and moral cost of the punitive model render it unsustainable.
Instead, Sharkey’s book is in part a hymn to cities: what makes them thrive and who keeps them safe, and he gathers some extraordinary evidence of the importance of grassroots community organizing and community-based nonprofits.
As Sharkey maintains in this conversation with New Thinking host Matt Watkins, “we should really be thinking of violence as a fundamental challenge of American cities, meaning nothing else works in a city if public spaces are unsafe.” Ensuring our cities do work means investing in the people and local institutions dedicated to holding them together.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
MATTHEW WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation, where we feature the most innovative work and thinking on the problems of the criminal justice system. I'm Matt Watkins, and today my guest is Patrick Sharkey.
Sharkey is an urbanist and professor of sociology at New York University and the author of this year's Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. In the book, Sharkey traces the effects of the remarkable reduction in crime that has taken place across the US since the 1990s. He looks at who has benefited most from the shift and lays out an agenda for protecting what he sees as incomplete and fragile gains.
The book is in part a hymn to cities, what makes them thrive and keeps them safe, and Sharkey gathers some pretty extraordinary evidence of the importance of community organizing and community-based nonprofits such as ourselves. But I promise that's only part of the reason we wanted to talk to him today. Patrick, thanks so much for joining me.
PATRICK SHARKEY: Thanks for having me. And you're exactly right that CCI is doing a lot of stuff that I talk about, so it's good to be here.
WATKINS: Before we get into the possible and disputed reasons for this great crime decline and the question of who has benefited the most from it, could we just talk first about what this great crime decline actually is, how remarkable it has been?
SHARKEY: From the '70s to the '90s, that was the period where, I wouldn't say most American cities, but about half of our major cities were intensely violent places. So the national homicide rate was up around somewhere between eight and 10 murders for every 100,000 people. In a lot of cities, the murder rate was up over 20, 30, 40, 50 murders per every 100,000 people, and that's really a level of violence that is only found in the most violent places in the world, war-torn nations. And that was a common experience in American cities over that period.
Since then—and the focus of the book is really on the years post-1990—violence has fallen by about half. And then a lot of cities, New York being the best example but not the only example, the level of violence has just plummeted. The murder rate has fallen by 75 percent or more. Cities have just completely transformed, and it's not just New York. It's D.C., San Francisco, L.A., even places like Minneapolis, Fort Worth, Dallas, San Diego.
These are all cities that have just completely transformed over the past couple of decades. And so the book is really focused on understanding the consequences of that. How has that changed city life? How has that changed the nature of urban inequality? That's my focus here.
WATKINS: Yeah, I think there's a frustration around here actually that the media and, therefore, the public don't actually pay enough attention to the remarkable nature of this decline. I mean, specifically New York City, where we are today, but more generally. Have you thought about why that might be and what the effect of that is?
SHARKEY: Well, I think Steven Pinker wrote this book about the long-term decline of violence in human history, and he makes a really compelling case that it's hard to recruit activists or advocates to a cause by telling them that it's getting better and better every year, and I think that's certainly true here. It's a much more compelling story to say that violence is spiking or there's a mass bloodshed on the streets, and it's a much less compelling story to say that things are actually getting much better, the level of violence is falling.
But in truth, if we want to understand cities, and this is the trend, that it has to be out in the forefront, we have to think about what happens when a place becomes safe. And the positive story from the book is that as a city becomes safe, as public spaces become places that are not dominated by the threat of violence, that there really is a transformation of public life. And the greatest benefits are not just to people touring through Central Park. The greatest benefits are really felt by the most disadvantaged segments of the population.
WATKINS: Could we get a little more into that, actually, what you call the social costs of violence? Which are much higher than simply the physical costs of violence.
SHARKEY: The costs of violence are dramatic, and that's really what got me started on this research. Most of my work in the first few years of my career focused on the consequences of growing up in very disadvantaged neighborhoods: what that means for kids, why it seems to have such a substantial impact on kids in so many different domains. But I really hadn't answered the question of, why? What was actually going on in very poor, very disadvantaged neighborhoods that seemed to have such a big impact on kids? And I just kept getting more and more hints that violence might be the crucial mechanism, or at least one of the crucial mechanisms.
And so I started to pursue that research on my own and look for tangible evidence, look for very concrete causal evidence about the impact of violence. And some of the first studies I did suggested that just being exposed to specific events, a homicide down the street, has a more damaging impact than I would've ever imagined going into this line of research. So I started doing several years of research just looking at the consequences of violence, not just for kids but also for cities, for community life.
And the conclusion from that, from those years of research was that we should really be thinking of violence as a fundamental challenge of American cities, meaning nothing else works in a city if public spaces are unsafe, if there's a constant threat of being victimized or assaulted.
Homeowners are less likely to invest in a neighborhood and raise their kids in a neighborhood. People are less likely to venture out into public spaces and to use public amenities like libraries or even playgrounds. Teachers are less likely to invest in a school or a school district if it's violent. Business owners, same deal, less likely to open up shop.
We've known for a long time that violence is harmful, obviously, but the impact is so much more severe and so much more widespread than even I realized going in, and that's really why I started studying this. I started to think of this as the fundamental challenge of cities. City life just doesn't work when public spaces are violent.
WATKINS: I was really struck by the findings on kids and schools and the results of tests that are taking place after a violent incident has occurred and this notion of violence as something that just occupies the mind.
SHARKEY: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. The first study I did I'll just talk about very quickly because this is what brought me down this road, but I was trying to generate very concrete evidence about: what happens if there is a major incident of violence very close to a child? How does that affect the child on a day-to-day level?
The way I did it was to make comparisons of children who lived in the exact same neighborhood and were given these assessments of cognitive skills or academic achievement tests, and the only difference between the children was when they were given these assessments. So some kids were given the assessments just before incidents of violence had taken place. In particular, homicide, I focused on homicide. Other kids in the same exact neighborhood, who otherwise looked identical, by pure chance were given the same assessment, just after major incidents of violence had taken place down the street on the block.
And what I found in the first study is that if you compare those kids, the child who took the assessment just after there's a homicide down the street scores dramatically lower. It looks like that child has missed two years of schooling. That is how large in impact that single incident has on the child. As you said, incidents of violence don't make children less intelligent, but they occupy their minds.
Violence affects kids' sleep. It affects their cortisol levels. It gets into the minds of kids. It gets under the skin of kids. And these are kids who are not directly affected. These are kids across a community, so violence really has a much longer reach than I think we realized, and the evidence on that has gotten dramatically stronger over the past decade or so.
WATKINS: And then digging deeper a little bit into this question of who has benefited the most from the decline, and it's not always who we expect. Because we might think, "Oh, the decline in violence is leading to more Starbucks on the corner," et cetera, but in fact, you talk about the decline as a real public health victory on a par with an anti-smoking or anti-obesity campaign, focusing specifically, I think, on the homicide rate and life expectancy and the racial discrepancy gap that has reduced between, say, blacks and whites as a result of this crime decline.
SHARKEY: I think the most tangible way to talk about the consequences or the impact of the crime drop is to look at lives lost.
And for most groups, the drop in homicide mortality hasn't had a huge impact on life expectancy because homicide is not a major cause of death certainly for the white population, but for most segments of the population.
But for black men, the impact of the homicide drop on life expectancy was enormous, so the decline in homicides has led to an improvement in life expectancy of almost a year, about 0.8 years is what we estimate. And that sometimes seems like an underwhelming statistic, until you look at other factors and how they affect life expectancy. So it is incredibly difficult for any public health advancement or advancement in medical technology to generate that type of improvement in life expectancy.
This should really be thought of as one of the most public health advancements over the past few decades for African American men. And then obesity gets $700 million in funding for research from NIH. Violence prevention gets a tiny fraction of that funding, so we really don't think of violence as a major public health issue, but our evidence suggests that we should.
WATKINS: If we start talking a little bit about how we account for the decline, the causal factors that we can identify for the decline in violence, you present cities as having this almost remarkable, natural self-defense capacity to repair and improve themselves, and that there's a sort of counter-movement to the movement of violence that emerges in the form of grassroots community organizing and community-based nonprofits, such as ourselves. Your book is in many ways a data-driven work. What evidence is there for this role of nonprofits and grassroots community organizing in the great crime decline?
SHARKEY: I think, hopefully, one of the major contributions is to provide that evidence. I think the story of residents and local community groups who fought back to retake city streets, sidewalks, to march against violence, to provide services to people coming out of prison, treatment for addiction, safe spaces for kids—those stories have always been out there, but they've been told in the form of case studies. They've been told in the form of stories about individual people and their heroism, which is entirely appropriate—those stories should be told—but there has been very little national evidence generated on how local community organizations have affected violence. It's been mostly anecdotal, I would say.
And so what we did, the Urban Institute makes available a national database of nonprofits using IRS data, and so we took advantage of natural experiments that produce shocks in the number of nonprofits, and then looked at how this affected crime, how these kind of short-term shifts affected crime. And the results are very strong. I think the take-home result is that in a small city, so think about a city with about 100,000 people, every new nonprofit that is focused on building a stronger neighborhood or confronting violence, reduces the rate of murder and violent crime by about 1 percent.
Part of the reason we did this was to provide a better explanation for why violence fell, and I think the results suggest that we should think about the proliferation of the nonprofit sector in the 1990s and the mobilization that took place in the neighborhoods hit hardest by violence, we should think of that as one of the major trends that is responsible for the crime drop alongside the continuing rise of imprisonment, alongside the continuing expansion of the police, which have gotten so much attention.
But there's another dimension because it doesn't just help us explain what happened. It also gives us a new model going forward when we think about, who are the actors and the institutions that can play the most prominent role in confronting violence as we move forward. This evidence suggests that local community organizations and residents should be in that conversation, should be given the resources to play a much stronger role in confronting violence.
And so when we typically think of how to deal with violent crime, I think most people naturally immediately think of the police and the criminal justice system. We're arguing that there's a different set of actors, a different set of investments that can be made to residents and local community organizations, and there's really good evidence that that will have a strong impact on violence.
WATKINS: You did some fieldwork, I think, for the book with community organizers and anti-violence advocates, and I'm just wondering ... I mean when, say, our Red Hook Community Justice Center launches an anti-graffiti cleanup day and gets neighbors out and makes this a kind of communal project, what concretely is going on there that's contributing to a decline in crime?
SHARKEY: I think the main mechanism is that it's retaking public space. Neighborhoods are vulnerable to violence. Neighborhoods are vulnerable to falling apart more generally when they are abandoned, when no one is in charge. That is when public streets can become violent. And that happened for a few decades. That was a process. The abandonment of urban neighborhoods took place in a very systematic way from the late 1960s all the way through the early 1990s.
So when community groups come together, to retake whatever it might be, that's an assertion that, "We're in charge of this space." "We are overseeing this space," is a better way to put it. So someone is looking out for these streets, these sidewalks, these alleyways, these playgrounds, these parks. We're looking out for these public spaces, and we're looking out for all of the people within them. And when there are strong institutions that have that mindset of looking out over public space and making sure that everyone who moves through those public spaces is safe and is welcomed, then those neighborhoods are much more resilient. Those neighborhoods are much less likely to fall apart.
WATKINS: And then to talk about mass incarceration for a moment: putting aside the immense cost of that model that we're continuing to live with, obviously, on almost every level, what role did the spike in admissions to jails and prisons play in contributing to the crime decline?
SHARKEY: Yeah, that's a great question. I like how you put it. You have to kind of address this as an empirical question and then as a moral question and consider both dimensions. I think the empirical question is not entirely settled, but there's a somewhat of a consensus that the increase in incarceration that started in the 1970s and only recently has subsided did have an impact on crime.
So I think if we're having an honest conversation, we have to acknowledge that there was an impact. The real debate is about how much of an impact it had and the timing of it. There's some more recent research that suggests that the continued increase in incarceration since the 1990s, when just more and more people were being thrown into jails and prisons, had no impact on crime, but that the earlier rise in incarceration did have an impact on crime, from the '70s and the 1980s. So that's the empirical story.
Then there's the moral dimension, which is: what kind of society are we when we lock up a quarter of the world's population of prisoners and when there is such a disproportionate toll on one specific segment of the population, African-American males in particular?
And that's where I think the empirical question is not entirely settled. I think the moral question is settled, and there's more and more of a consensus that the cost of this approach to dealing with violent crime far outweigh any benefits.
WATKINS: And then to turn to the question of law enforcement and more intensive policing and the issue of so-called "broken windows policing." I saw a recent magazine article that described broken windows as something that both saved lives, and fueled stop-and-frisk. So in a similar way to mass incarceration, perhaps, there's this complicated balance sheet to draw up. So what do you see as the role of broken windows policing and the often incredibly aggressive stop-and-frisk activities by police in the crime decline?
SHARKEY: Yeah. Well, the idea of broken windows theory, which is really about ... It's a theory about dealing with minor cues of disorder or subtle cues of disorder in public spaces as a mechanism to ward off spirals of decay and continuing increases in crime of all sorts. So that's the theory. The issue is how it's been implemented over time. So the theory is only loosely related to the implementation in the case of broken windows policing.
And I think, as you say, that theory led to an approach that focused on not dealing with signs of disorder in public space but really locking up everyone and making sure that any potential troublemakers are enmeshed in the criminal justice system for a long time. This was very explicit.
So the idea of broken windows theory turned into this policy sometimes called "order maintenance policing," but I think is closer to zero tolerance policing, where more and more of the population is enmeshed in the criminal justice system and the lower level courts. Issa Kohler-Hausmann has a great new book on this called Misdemeanorland, where she talks about how lower level courts became an institution that was essentially managing a large segment of the population, so it became a way to manage the consequences of urban poverty and urban inequality. And that is then translated into a policy of stop, question, and frisk.
So there's no doubt that there's a connection between the original focus on turnstile hopping and the squeegee guys and graffiti on subway cars to the policy of mass arrests for misdemeanors to a policy of stop, question, and frisk, which culminated in 800,000 people being stopped in around 2011. So that progression is very clear, and I think the movement away from that style of policing is also very clear and has happened in a concrete and clear way over, not just in New York, but it's happening in a lot of cities.
WATKINS: But to push back a little, the activists will say, "Well, that era doesn't seem to be completely over. People are still getting picked up on a ton of minor charges, and those people getting picked up are disproportionately people of color at quite staggering rates.” So can we really say definitively that this era of broken window policing is over?
SHARKEY: Yeah, I think you're right that it would be hard to say it's over. I do think we can say that it is, just as there was a long-term progression to that culmination of 800,000 people being stopped on the street by the police, I think there is now a downward trajectory and a growing recognition that a shift in policing is urgent. And so we've seen it in a few concrete ways. The number of stops has obviously plummeted, almost gone away entirely as a tactic of the NYPD, and the number of arrests has also declined dramatically. So overall enforcement has declined.
That said, there are still enormous disparities in who is targeted in New York, and I think that conversation ... It's easier to say, "Okay, we're going to slow the use of a given tactic or end the use of a given tactic." It's much harder to say, "We want a system of policing that does not have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color, on non-white people in the city." To their credit, I think both the NYPD and the Mayor's Office are having that conversation and are thinking hard about how to do that, but you're entirely right that the gaps in who is targeted, in particular, by the NYPD remain severe, and it is an increasingly visible issue. As the shifts in policing have taken place, that issue has not gone away.
One part of this conversation is about how police departments can change and reform, but the other part of the conversation is, what other actors have the capacity to play a bigger role to oversee public spaces and take the place of law enforcement?
In lots of places, I think that's a more urgent conversation. How can we invest in community organizations? How can we invest in residents so that they can play a greater role in overseeing public spaces? Making sure people are not just safe but also welcomed in their communities, making sure they have advocates, not just guardians. And that, I think, is a part of the conversation in policing reform that hasn't gotten as much attention.
WATKINS: Your book came out at the beginning of this year, 2018. We're now heading into summer, when homicide rates often go up. So I'm wondering where you think we are now in some of the big cities in this country that have had problems with violence — Chicago, Baltimore, Oakland, Atlanta. So where do you think we are in this moment? And I mean, I suppose if you could write a coda to your book, an early coda, what it might look like.
SHARKEY: We had a very serious spike in violence in 2016, 2017. Very visible in a small number of cities, like Baltimore and Chicago, as you noted. But over the past 12 months, we've seen a drop in murder in the vast majority of major US cities. So there's actually really promising news that after we saw that large spike for a couple of years, that seems to be subsiding or has reversed.
So Chicago, for instance, has now had 15 months of dropping murder, and that hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as the buildup of homicide and the increases in homicide. But I think it's important for people to be aware of because it's the consequence of the entire city mobilizing to deal with the spike of violence. I went out. I was there a couple weeks ago, and I met with leaders of foundations, people in the Chicago Police Department, and the degree of response that they've had has been really impressive to see. And so there was a crisis there, and the city mobilized, and they still have a huge problem with violence, but it has gotten substantially better over the past 12 months.
Other cities, you don't see that type of improvement. So Baltimore has really had difficulty dealing with the surge of violence there. And I think there has been dysfunction in the police department and the city government, and there just has not been as effective a mobilization against violence there.
That said, after two years of very worrisome change, when I thought the main point of my book was no longer valid, and I'd have to retract it, over the past 12 months we've seen a really promising trend of falling violence in most major US cities.
WATKINS: You write at the beginning of the book that the new American city is “historically safe but shockingly unequal.” And it seems like a lot of the book is taken up with this question of the relationship between violence and inequality. I'm just wondering if you could say a little bit more about what you see that relationship being exactly and how it threatens the gains that have been made in recent decades.
SHARKEY: Yeah. I do think it's a major threat. The core problem here is that since the 1960s, we have not developed a national approach to dealing with the problems of urban poverty, inequality, and violent crime. And the dominant approach has been to abandon cities, leave them on their own, withdraw resources from state and federal government, and punish residents particularly in low-income communities of color. And that has been a very consistent approach. I think that old model has broken down over the past few years, and it's clear that a model that focuses on punishment is no longer seen as sustainable, seen as tolerable by a substantial portion of the public at least. And so the question then becomes, what's the next model?
WATKINS: If you had your druthers, you would really like to see both a reform of sentencing and a reform of housing policy, that the two need to go together. That in some ways you think, as an urbanist, we can't be too focused on just criminal justice reform. It has to go hand in hand with a real investment again in cities.
SHARKEY: I think that's exactly right. I mean, I think it's a good thing that there's so much focus on reducing the scale of incarceration. But if people are returning to neighborhoods that aren't built on a strong foundation of core institutions, where they do not have the organizations that can help them reintegrate into the community, find stable housing, find employment, reintegrate into their families, then it's going to be an overwhelming challenge, the challenge of reducing the scale of incarceration. Yeah, so I make the case that we need to invest in core community institutions.
We need to invest, I'm not saying this because I'm here, but we need to invest in organizations like CCI that are providing the types of supports for people who are enmeshed in the criminal justice system or coming out of the criminal justice system. And that should be the first order challenge, the first order goal of social policy. And of course, it has to come alongside the efforts of criminal justice reform, which are already happening. But I don't think there's been enough focus on investments in the types of institutions that will allow people to successfully integrate back into their communities.
WATKINS: Well, Patrick, I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
SHARKEY: Thanks for having me here. It was fun.
WATKINS: I've been speaking with Patrick Sharkey. Patrick is a professor of sociology at New York University and the author of this year's Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.
Technical support for today's episode provided by Bill Harkins. Our theme music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com. You can always find out more about us at our website, courtinnovation.org. And this has been New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins. Thanks for listening.