Recent data in New York City suggest that violent crime is on the rise. However, over the last three decades, there has been a more than 70 percent decline in index crimes as reported by the FBI. This has led to a growing perception, especially among critics of policing, that crime in New York City has become a marginal problem, or at least that it has declined to levels such that there is no need to place too much emphasis on crime control. This, combined with concerns about police abuses and claims of disparities in policing in minority and disadvantaged communities, has fueled calls for defunding the police.
But looking at overall crime rates in New York masks a more sobering reality for those who live on streets in the city with extremely high crime levels. Focusing on the crime hot spots where 25 percent and 50 percent of NYC crimes are committed, we find, in a report for the Manhattan Institute being released next month, that despite the encouraging overall crime decline during the past few decades, many city streets continue to have very high levels of crime that need to be addressed by police and other agents of the city government.

Looking at NYPD crime reports for 2010, 2015 and 2020, we find that about 1% of streets in NYC produce about 25 percent of crime, and about 5 percent of streets produce about 50 percent of crime. This is consistent across the three years we studied, showing that a very small proportion of streets in the city is responsible for a significant proportion of the crime problem. These statistics follow a law of crime concentration that appears to be common across larger American cities.

In the three years examined, about 1,150 street segments intersection to intersection (out of 83,547) were responsible for 25 percent of NYC crime each year. Importantly, the average crime levels (the numerical average across streets) on these street segments were very high: 82 reported crimes in 2010, 87 reported crimes in 2015, and 73 reported crimes in 2020. The median number of reported crimes for street segments in this group was 60 in 2010, 63 in 2015, and 55 crimes in 2020. In 2010, 934 streets produced 25% of NYC’s violent crime, and on average these streets included 18 violent crimes. In 2020, the number of streets that produced 25% of NYC’s violent crime was smaller, 858, and the average number of crimes was somewhat lower, with a mean of 16.5 crimes.

It is noteworthy that in hot-spot streets that contain 25 percent of crime, the level of crime has declined by about 11 percent in the decade between 2010 and 2020, though this decline is less than the 19% decline in crime reports overall in the city. In this sense, the city has been successful in continuing not only to reduce overall crime levels, but also to reduce the levels of crime at the hottest crime streets.

But these reductions, while meaningful, do not change the reality of extremely high numbers of crimes on single street segments in New York. Indeed, they suggest that despite the dramatic crime drop in New York over the last few decades, many streets continue to have very high levels of crime. High-crime streets are spread throughout the city, though concentrated in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

In turn, we observe a good deal of street-by-street variability, with the highest-crime streets often adjacent to streets with little or no crime. This means that it is misleading to classify whole neighborhoods as crime hot spots, since the majority of streets — even in higher crime areas — are not. This is an important lesson for police and ordinary citizens who mistakenly see very large areas as crime-ridden. We also find a good deal of stability in the locations of crime hot spots. Nearly all the streets that were hot spots as we have defined them in 2010 were also hot spots in 2020.

Our analyses overall suggest that it is simply rhetoric to imagine that crime is so low on New York City streets that we can withdraw proactive policing from crime hot spots. Despite a large crime decline over the last few decades, hot spot streets continue to be “hot.” Looking at overall crime rates in New York masks the very serious crime problems that face many New Yorkers who live or work on hot spot streets. While police reform, and efforts to identify social and community-based solutions to crime problems should be a central part of the crime prevention agenda in NYC, policing continues to be a critical service needed by large numbers of streets in the city.

Weisburd is a professor at George Mason University and executive director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. Zastrow is a doctoral student in the department of criminology, law and society at George Mason University and a graduate research assistant at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

  • Top Feature Photo: Jeff Bachner for New York Daily News