“Are You Related to the Crime Guy?”

CityThatBecameSafeSome academics write one or two books over a lifetime. Depending on the books, that can be an excellent career. Some academics write many more; I learned how to teach world history from Peter Stearns as he was churning out one book per year, as well as editing a journal, teaching a survey course, advising graduate students and serving as dean of a college.

My father has (happily) avoided ever serving as a dean, but he has been a prolific author for as long as I can remember. A criminologist, his books on violence, imprisonment, capital punishment, juvenile crime, firearms, and a range of related subjects have focused on the use of empirical data to inform legal policy.

A major theme in his research is that the United States does not have unusually high levels of crimes such as burglary, but rather the United States has unusually high rates of violent crimes such as homicide, and this was especially evident in rates measured in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In the middle of the last decade, he observed that violent crime rates were on a decline throughout the United States, and especially in the nation’s largest city, where crime rates began dropping under Mayor David Dinkins and continued to drop over the next twenty years.

Three years ago, he spent the year at NYU’s Straus Institute researching what had happened in New York City (across all five boroughs, across wildly diverse socioeconomic areas, and across mayoral administrations Democratic, Republican, and Independent). The resulting book, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control has turned out to be the highest-profile book of his career, getting discussed in forums as diverse as Scientific American and The Atlantic as well as on a variety of radio and television programs. Shortly after I moved to Brooklyn to teach at Pratt, my new chair asked me “are you related to the crime guy?” Yes. As it happens, my arrival in New York City coincided with my father becoming something of a local celebrity. No mean feat for someone who has called northern California home since Reagan’s first term.

Roundups of the most notable books of 2012 are popping up in the year’s final days. The oddest to date was discovering The City That Became Safe on Microsoft-founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates’s top-ten list. This means that, somehow, my father has made it to GeekWire.  No rational observer of my father’s uses of technology over the years would have anticipated that development.

The City That Became Safe is available from Oxford University Press.  A good summary of the book may be found in this interview.

As to the other question I get, I am neither the science writer Carl Zimmer nor am I (to the best of my knowledge) related to him.  But I enjoy his work as well.

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