Hundreds of New York City police officers massed outside two neighboring public-housing complexes in Harlem early one morning in June 2014 with a mission: Arrest dozens of feuding gang members, all at once.
Then-Commissioner William Bratton was on the scene to supervise as heavily armed officers burst into the complexes. On Twitter, the NYPD urged: “Residents in Manhattanville and Grant Houses don’t be alarmed!”
Those residents could be forgiven for feeling some alarm as they were woken by shouts and banging on doors. The operation — known as a “gang takedown” — would have hardly felt surgical to them. But this kind of intervention, now a cornerstone of NYPD strategy, casts a much smaller net than the notorious “stop, question, and frisk” approach that came before. What’s more, the strategy works: In new research with my colleagues Michael LaForest and Jacob Kaplan, I found that gang takedowns drive significant reductions in lethal violence.
Amid raging public debate about the pros and cons of policing, it’s important to reiterate that a great deal of evidence shows investing in law enforcement is a scalable and effective way to maintain public safety. When cities put more police officers on the street, crime and violence decline. One recent estimate suggests that for every 10 additional officers hired, cities abate one murder annually. Because homicides are disproportionately concentrated among young Black men, the lives saved by police are disproportionately Black, too. But putting more cops on the street also comes with major costs, which we should work to minimize. The gang takedown may be one way to get more of the benefits of policing and fewer of the costs.
New York’s two great crime declines
At the peak of the “crack epidemic” in 1990, New York experienced over 2,220 homicides. By 2011, the number had shrunk to 515. This meant that the city was safer than it had been in 1962, when the New York Mets played their first game at the Polo Grounds and when the oldest of the Baby Boomers were still in their teenage years. NYC’s now famous homicide decline of the 1990s had tapered off since 2000, but in 2011, NYC was among the safest large cities in the United States, with a homicide rate that was just one-third that of Chicago’s and compared favorably to that of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
It was widely assumed that pushing the homicide rate any lower than this would be difficult to achieve. After all, while murders were down, the city had not come close to resolving any of the root causes of violence. In 2011, NYC remained highly segregated, with deep pockets of social isolation and poverty. And, unlike cities in other wealthy countries, NYC remained awash in illegal handguns, often trafficked up the I-95 corridor from Virginia and North Carolina. Still, the NYPD continued to make a concerted effort to combat violent crimes, relying increasingly on sustained and sometimes intrusive surveillance of community members by police, a policy best known for brief, often pretextual detainments called “stop-question-frisk.” In 2002, NYPD officers recorded 97,000 such street stops – investigative activities that are supposed to be based on the legal standard of “reasonable suspicion.” By 2011, the number of recorded street stops had risen to 680,000 – a 600 percent increase in less than a decade.
Large increases in street stops and low-level arrests followed from a popular interpretation of the theory of broken windows policing – the idea that it is necessary for police to be proactive against smaller crimes to prevent bigger ones. While the theory as advanced by its authors, the political scientist James Q. Wilson and the criminologist George Kelling, did not actually evangelize large numbers of street stops and arrests, police leadership, amid a new wave of violence in the 1980s and early 1990s, incentivized officers to engage in ever more intensive surveillance of high-crime communities. In NYC, that strategy culminated in the development of Operation Impact, which sent large numbers of rookie police officers to several dozen “impact zones” with orders to demonstrate proactivity by making a large number of stops and arrests, often for public order violations rather than acts of violence. While Operation Impact appears to have modestly reduced street crimes, the approach was implemented well after the peak of violence and is unlikely to explain most of the city’s decline in serious crimes during the period in which it was in effect.
In August 2011, the city’s mass enforcement regime came to an end when Judge Shira A. Scheindlin sent a powerful signal to the city’s political leadership that the approach was racially discriminatory and likely illegal. Judge Scheindlin declined to dismiss a lawsuit filed by David Floyd and several other plaintiffs that alleged that the NYPD’s enforcement activity constituted a pattern of racially discriminatory policing. While the case would not conclude for another two years, the city got the message. Recorded street stops declined almost immediately, and within five years, they fell by more than 90 percent.
The Floyd ruling was roundly criticized by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called it “dangerous.” Police brass worried that without the persistent threat of a street stop, the deterrent power of officers would be deflated. Offenders would begin carrying guns again and police would lose a critical tool in winning control of the city’s streets. These fears were bolstered by then-current academic research, which suggested that public order-maintenance policing (of which stop-question-frisk stops are one tool) had been effective in curtailing violent crime and might have played an important role in the city’s 1990s crime decline.
What happened after 2011 was therefore surprising to many. From that year until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, while national homicide rates remained roughly flat, New York City experienced a second great homicide decline, with shootings and killings falling by more than 50 percent. By 2019, NYC’s homicide rate – 3.8 per 100,000 residents – was closer to that of Western European capitals like London and Paris than even other relatively safe U.S. cities like Los Angeles (6.4 per 100K residents) and Boston (6.0 per 100K residents), let alone the nation’s most challenged cities, like St. Louis (65 per 100K residents) and Baltimore (51 per 100K residents). National Review, one of the leading conservative periodicals of the last half-century, published an op-ed entitled, “We Were Wrong About Stop-and-Frisk.”
How did NYC, which had already benefited from a large homicide decline in the 1990s, experience a second plunge in murders on the heels of such a dramatic disruption to its law enforcement strategy? As large cities like New York are exceptionally complex ecosystems, offering a complete explanation for NYC’s decline in gun violence during the last decade is an impossible task. However, there are some tantalizing clues.
First, NYC’s great homicide decline was really mostly that — a decline in homicides and shootings. Other crimes, like less serious assaults, robberies, and thefts, followed national trends or declined only a little faster.
Second, the decline in homicides appears to have been highly concentrated among gang homicides, rather than homicides with other circumstances, like domestic violence.
Finally, while much attention has been paid to the rapid gentrification of certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn by artists, hipsters, and shopkeepers selling rainbow bagels, the homicide decline was, in fact, fairly uniform throughout the city, with some of the largest improvements in public safety accruing in communities that had yet to experience gentrification. Whatever caused the decrease in violence appears to have been specific to gun violence and concentrated among gang members in some of the highest-crime communities.
It is therefore noteworthy that just as the NYPD began to wind down its policy of mass street stops, it began to invest in a very different approach. Recognizing that violence, and in particular gun violence, is concentrated, to an incredible degree, among a small number of people and places, the NYPD sought to focus intensively on the small number of people who are engaged in retaliatory violence – so-called “ping pong murders.” The signature policy of the new regime was the “gang takedown,” the practice of targeting entire criminal gangs for arrest and prosecution by charging key players with major crimes and building conspiracy cases against others alleged to have acted in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy. By late 2013, the popular media had taken notice of the NYPD’s shift in strategy. The New York Times ran a headline entitled, “Frisking Tactic Yields to a Focus on Youth Gangs.”
Rise of the gang takedown
“Gang takedowns” is not a technical or legal term — instead this is a colloquial expression used in media reports and among members of the law enforcement community to describe highly-coordinated and targeted raids on alleged gang members, often centered around the city’s public housing communities. While there is no publicly available description of how gangs are selected for a takedown, former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly — on whose watch the strategy emerged — made it clear that this new operation was intended to target not only established criminal enterprises (e.g., national and international gangs) but also crews — “loosely affiliated groups of teens” who often identify themselves by the blocks where they live and are responsible for much of the violence in public housing. And public commentary by senior NYPD officials indicates that gangs are targeted on the basis of their perceived participation in violence.
The two largest gang takedowns to date (the June 2014 raid in Manhattan and one in the Bronx in April 2016) led to arrests of 103 and 120 individuals, respectively. However, hundreds of smaller takedowns have also occurred over the last decade. The nature of the takedowns varies and the strategies employed depend on the activities of the gang. For gangs that are involved in the drug trade, takedowns are often centered around narcotics prosecutions. In September 2021, for instance, 48 individuals were indicted as part of a gang takedown in Manhattan’s West Harlem neighborhood. The group, known as “Main Event,” had been known to run the drug trade along several major thoroughfares through the neighborhood. Some individuals implicated in the takedown were indicted on drug charges while others were charged with committing or conspiring to commit specific acts of violence, including shootings. While the takedown occurred in 2021, the investigation began nearly three years before, in 2018. Police collected evidence methodically through wiretaps, monitoring of social media activity, and covert cameras, which were supplemented by a series of undercover drug buys.
For other gangs, investigations focus more intensively on specific acts of violence. In July 2021, police arrested 14 alleged associates of the Babiiez street gang, which operates in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Police charged individuals with planning and carrying out a series of homicides targeting rival gang members. Because each raid is tailored to the activities of a specific group, the “gang takedown” is best thought of as an overall approach to building major cases rather than a specific intervention like hot spots policing, in which police surge manpower to blocks they identify as surging crime locations, or civil gang injunctions, a once-popular method of dealing with gangs in Los Angeles.
After takedowns, public housing gets safer
Were gang takedowns responsible for new lows in gun violence? In a recent academic journal article, Jacob Kaplan, Michael LaForest and I examine the public safety impact of gang takedowns connected to the city’s public housing complexes. These are among the NYC communities that have continued to experience an outsize share of crime and violence; many have a strong nexus to gangs and crews, which are often strongly tethered geographically to the boundaries of a particular housing development.
Using data on gang takedowns in and around the 73 public housing communities that experienced at least one takedown during the study period, we looked at what happens to crime in these communities in the weeks and months after a major gang takedown. Prior to police action, communities that are about to experience a takedown look a lot like other large public housing communities with respect to their recent crime trends. But in the aftermath of a takedown, we found that lethal and near-lethal violence – shootings and homicides – in these communities declined by approximately one-third. Our findings suggest that impacts are felt for at least 18 months after the takedown occurred before petering out. Interestingly, while the gang takedowns lead to a large reduction in gun violence, we do not observe reductions in other types of crimes, such as robberies and thefts. This finding is not unexpected, given that gangs contribute considerably more to gun violence than to other types of crimes, which are more common and are committed by a larger number of people.
Critically, the takedowns were not followed by an increase in police enforcement. If anything, there is evidence that arrests for low-level crimes like drug possession decline in the aftermath of a takedown. This is a point worth dwelling on: The NYPD was able to meaningfully reduce gun violence in some of the city’s most disadvantaged areas without exposing an ever-increasing number of people to the criminal justice system through more arrests. The importance of these dual findings – a large decline in gun violence and a modest decline in enforcement activity — cannot be understated. Persistent exposure to violence leaves a great deal of trauma in its wake, and its effects cascade into all areas of community life. Research has found that recent exposure to a homicide substantially reduces children’s academic performance in school and leads to problems with attention and impulse control. There is also evidence that dialing up a community’s exposure to persistent street stops by police can have negative impacts on high school graduation and college enrollment, particularly for Black students.
How many shootings and homicides are abated by the takedowns? Our estimates suggest that the gang takedowns explain approximately one-quarter of the cumulative decline in shootings in and around public housing in NYC during the 2011-2018 period and more than 10 percent of the decline in shootings citywide. Since these takedowns are only one part of a broader policy shift and because positive spillovers to other communities are difficult to fully capture, this is likely to be a conservative estimate of the overall impact of the NYPD’s change in tactics.
These findings suggest that more focused policing tactics are a promising avenue through which law enforcement can abate the most socially costly crimes while limiting the mass enforcement that widens the net of the criminal justice system for communities of color. If other cities can replicate this success, we may have discovered a pathway to address the dual plagues of over-policing and under-protection that stalk minority communities.
Gang enforcement is, of course, no panacea, and critics of the new approach have raised a number of challenges.
First, while the beneficial impacts persist for up to 18 months after an initial gang takedown, the violence reductions we observe do not continue in perpetuity. The data thus suggest that gang takedowns offer a means of temporarily relieving the symptoms of the disease of gun violence rather than offering a cure. As Pat Sharkey has noted in his most recent book, while focusing police resources on high-violence communities can improve public safety, until we address the root causes of endemic violence, the resulting peace will inevitably be uneasy.
Second, the long-term impacts of a gang takedown for the arrestees themselves remain a mystery. While the takedowns in NYC provided communities with some temporary relief from the traumatic effects of persistent violence, research suggests that prisons can further entrench individuals in gang life, creating challenges for reintegrating these individuals into the community upon their return from incarceration.
Third, advocates and legal scholars have raised a number of due process and fairness concerns about gang takedowns and have suggested that the takedowns create unacceptably high collateral damage for affected communities. As the raids are intended to net entire criminal gangs, the particular concern has been that sometimes people whose gang ties are only very tenuous — or who have no gang ties at all — are roped in too. In other words, while gang enforcement is a more precise policing strategy than the prior regime, gang sweeps, by their very nature, do not lend themselves easily to precision prosecution.
Ultimately gang takedowns are one element in a menu of often complementary strategies that can be employed to reduce violence in disadvantaged communities. Research shows that investments in social programs like expanding summer jobs for at-risk youth, cognitive behavioral therapy, and social services more generally can also be highly effective in reducing serious violence, particularly among youth. The best crime reduction portfolio is one that pulls all available levers and is therefore balanced between enforcement and community investment.
Despite the costs – and there are always costs – there are reasons to be optimistic that more targeted gang enforcement can make the policing portion of the portfolio better. When resources are focused on building major cases against the perpetrators of violence, the payoffs can be large. Critically, meaningful reductions in violence can be achieved without addressing root causes (which is a generational challenge) or churning large numbers of people through the criminal justice system on low-level charges (a strategy which exacerbates inequality and may backfire with respect to public safety).
Next year, we will mark the 20th anniversary of The Wire, David Simon’s widely-acclaimed television show about the role that crime and policing plays in the lives of a wide array of fictional characters in Baltimore. One of the persistent themes of The Wire is that policing matters, especially for the urban poor. Good policing that is sensitive to the needs of the community and focuses on developing the patience and skill to build major cases against the purveyors of violence can save scores of innocent lives. Bad policing – exemplified by an excessive focus on “quick rip” drug raids, low-quality arrests, and “juking the stats” – can do more harm than good. As it turns out, this social commentary set in fiction is backed up by growing empirical evidence that good policing does matter. By investing more resources in good policing – more effective gang enforcement, building major cases, and conducting better gun violence investigations – policymakers can double down on the benefits of policing while reducing its costs.
Aaron Chalfin is an Assistant Professor of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.
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