If Rudy Giuliani runs for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, we're going to hear a lot of talk about how great a job he did fighting crime in New York City. The ever-compliant Chris Matthews recently touted Giuliani's record on "Hardball":
Let me ask you about Rudy Giuliani. We just had a little joust off-camera—I'm always told don’t waste it off-camera. I believe he's not only running, I think he’s going to win the whole thing come around the next election, the way things look right now.
...Here's my thought. I want to throw it out again, I'm not going to argue again. I've got a position, I think he's going to win the next presidential election, but let me tell you something. I think the No. 1 issue, check me on this, both of you, you first: Is security the No. 1 issue in the country right now?
...Who's tougher than him on security out there, Democrat or Republican?
...We've got a murder problem in Washington, D.C., in Baltimore, in Philly. There's something going on, it's not the economy. We've got a street problem and isn't Rudy the toughest cop in the country?
...You could walk around New York when he was mayor and wander around late at night and you felt safe as hell.
This is basically an urban legend. As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner write in Freakonomics (pp. 129-130), Giuliani's "broken window" approach to fighting crime "probably had little effect" -- he got credit for a drop in crime that began before he took office and happened all across the country:
First, the drop in crime in New York began in 1990. By the end of 1993, the rate of property crime and violent crime, including homicides, had already fallen nearly 20 percent. Rudolph Giuliani, however, did not become mayor -- and install [police commissioner William] Bratton -- until early 1994. Crime was well on its way down before either man arrived...
Second, the new police strategies were accompanied by a much more significant change within the police force: a hiring binge. Between 1991 and 2001, the NYPD grew by 45 percent, more than three times the national average. As argued above an increase in the number of police, regardless of new strategies, has been proven to reduce crime... Many of these new police were in fact hired by David Dinkins, the mayor whom Giuliani defeated. Dinkins had been desperate to secure the law-and-order vote, having known all along that his opponent would be Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor...
Most damaging to the claim that New York's police innovations radically lowered crime is one simple and often overlooked fact: crime went down everywhere in the 1990s, not only in New York.
In short, the Giuliani "toughest cop" theory isn't supported by the evidence. But that doesn't mean the media won't parrot it when Rudy runs.