David Dinkins Was a Political Victim of New York City Crime

The death of former New York City mayor David Dinkins prompts me to show you a couple of charts. First off, here is violent crime in New York City:

In hindsight, this chart makes it obvious that crime was dropping during Dinkins’ entire term as mayor, well before Giuliani won the 1993 mayoral election. Violent crime was already down by more than 20 percent from its peak by the time Giuliani took office, and the subsequent decline merely continued that trend.

But that’s hindsight. At the time, it was the murder rate that everyone was focused on, and the most recent data available during the 1993 election was from 1991. Here’s what that looks like:

There was a slight drop in 1991, but it was just one year and there was no reason to think it was the beginning of a trend. Giuliani won the election by slamming Dinkins for his record on crime, and he won.

The truth, of course, is that neither Dinkins nor Giuliani was responsible for either the rise or fall in New York City crime. New York was part of a national and global trend toward lower crime rates as a result of reducing the use of leaded gasoline. But no one knew that at the time, and the crime data available in 1993 looked pretty horrific. Giuliani was the right man at the right time, and David Dinkins was the victim because the election happened when it did. If he had managed to eke out a victory and then take credit for the next four years of crime declines, the recent history of New York City might be very, very different.

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