Public safety in NYC and Rio de Janeiro: parallel or poles apart?

By Caroline Tauk

[7 min read]

New York City is the largest and safest US metropolis[1]. Per capita crime rates have been dropping since the mid-1990s. In 2017, the city recorded its lowest number of homicides since 1950: under 300 murders in a year[2]. As a carioca, it’s difficult to avoid comparing these statistics with Rio de Janeiro, a city notorious for its high criminality rate. In 2016, the city of Rio had 1,909 violent deaths resulting from homicides, robberies and bodily injury followed by death. At the end of 2017, the entire state of Rio saw a record-setting 6,731 violent deaths[3]. It seems that, in terms of public safety, the two cities are polar opposites: a crime rate at record lows on one hand and an alarmingly and increasing high crime rate in the other. The experience exchange between Brazil and the United States in this area is old[4]. However, recent public safety data available at the police departments from the two cities shows that the debate remains as relevant as ever.

It is clear that Rio’s and Brazil’s context is peculiar. Despite a positive economic growth, on average, in the last decade[5], wealth and opportunity inequality is still considerable[6]: in 2017, the richest 10% of the population concentrated 55% of the national income. Add to that political instability and low priority of criminal justice reform. Drug use by Brazilians is growing and much of Brazil’s violence and criminality are linked to organized crime. Further, a disproportionate number of young black men are arrested and prosecuted for diverse crimes: while 53% of the Brazilian population over 15 years declare themselves black, 64% of prisoners are black. Of every 100 homicides in Brazil, 71 are within the black population[7]. Although socio-political factors are somewhat different, is it possible to learn from the American experience?

Two aspects might help explain the huge difference in the two countries’ indices: strategic policing and impunity. The debate inevitably alludes to the zero tolerance crime-fighting strategy in New York City that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented in the 1990s. This involved a commitment to reduce the City’s crime rate by using a policing method that advocates arrest for nearly every crime independent on how trivial or inconsequential[8]. During the Giuliani administration, New York crime rates dropped by half, which is staggering: violent crime declined by more than 56 percent in the city, compared to about 28 percent in the nation as a whole[9]. But Giuliani’s zero tolerance program is complex and has become particularly controversial due to discriminatory enforcement and high incarceration levels.

That is why the aim of this text is not to draw attention only to this policy, but rather for the mix of measures of the last decades that have resulted in the decline of American crime. Cultural shifts, such as declines in the rates of teenage pregnancy and juvenile delinquency, have accompanied the fall in crimes, nevertheless, the focus of the text are the measures directly related to the justice system[10]. Among them, we highlight: (i) the closing of open-air drug markets, which drove down shootings in many urban areas; (ii) changes in urban policing, after which officers concentrate on crime hot spots; (iii) between 1991 and 2001, the amount of police officers in New York increased by 45 percent, three times more than the national average, and there was a 40 percent growth of police budget; and (iv) a low level of impunity  – almost 60 percent of homicides are duly assessed and punished[11].

It should be noted that, among the above measures, the rise in incarceration was not addressed. It could have played a role in diminishing crime rates in the nineties, as the incarcerated population is not free. However, today many criminologists say the impact has been limited, especially because of the social and economic costs. In fact, higher incarceration rates are not the solution for violence as it translates as the failure of crime prevention tactics[12].

Let’s go back to Rio de Janeiro. In the period of  2007-2011, there were 47,177 homicide investigations opened in the State of Rio. By November 2016, among the finalized investigations, 96 percent were impunely closed. Only 4 percent resulted in criminal forwarding to the courts, which merely initiate prosecution processes. The scenario is the same for robberies in the city. Between January and October 2017, of the 20,767 robberies registered in the North Zone police stations in Rio de Janeiro, 17,390 were dismissed. The remaining investigations are ongoing[13]. The inefficiency of crime investigation structures results in impunity, which reinforces the rise in the number of victims.

Strategy policing depends on police intelligence training to reduce crime without simply pushing it elsewhere, and also on budget availability. An increase in the number of police officers and the improvement of the police infrastructure is an acknowledged need for Brazilians: 63 percent believe that police officers do not have good working conditions[14]. However, from 2015 to 2017, the public security budget of the State of Rio de Janeiro had a reduction of R$888 million, the largest budget cutback in the country. The reduction in the intelligence department is even more striking: the figure, which was already low in 2015 (R$ 24.000,00), fell in 2017 to R$ 2.470,00 – nearly 90 percent[15].

These factors differentiate Rio from New York City. Unfortunately, the residents of Rio de Janeiro are paying the price as crime rates increase and quality of life decreases. In looking for a solution, policing and combating impunity are not the only factors which must be addressed. A holistic effort to reduce the staggering crime rate requires the implementation of social and educational programs which seek to eradicate the underlying causes of offenses (eg. poverty and lack of economic opportunity). However, it is possible to see improvements in public safety even without significant changes in social pathologies. Perhaps this is what happened in New York City.

Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law, in his book “The city that Became Safe”, teaches that the drop in crime pertinent to New York was not engendered from resolving deep pathologies such as reducing the number of young single mothers, injustice, discrimination or poverty. There was no significant change in the ethnic composition or the average wealth or educational levels of the residents of the city during this period. Zimring emphasizes that small acts of social engineering, intended simply to stop crimes from happening, originated positive results in police strategy. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places, but by placing the police presence in places where there was a high incidence of crime.

In short, criminal activity, like most other human choices, is a question of need and opportunity. “Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes”, as the writer Adam Gopnik posits[16]. Therefore, a concentration of police resources in crime hot spots and proper administration of justice have been shown to reduce crimes perpetrated by various classes of society. Even without solving its social problems, which are outside the scope of the criminal justice system, New York City has managed to achieve a significant victory in its fight against crime.

In an age of limited resources and endemic crime, a solution at times seems like wishful thinking. But the example set by New York City shows that while the problem is related to the socio-economic context, major progress could be made in the short term by the criminal justice system that would change the lives of people living in a city, even though a lot must be done on other areas.



Caroline Tauk is a Brazilian Federal Judge, former public prosecutor of the Prosecutor’s Office of Rio de Janeiro and former federal attorny. She holds a Masters in Public Law from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and is currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University,




[2] Data available at the New York City Police Department website (

[3] According to the Brazilian Institute of Public Security website (


[5] Data available at BCB website (GDP – real percentage change in the year – code: 7326)

[6] Study from World Wealth and Income Database, available at World Inequality Database website (

[7] According to Atlas of Violence of 2017 website ( and to National Survey of Penitentiary Information 2016 ( )


[9] Data available at the Bureau of Justice Statistics website ( ).

[10] See Eric Eckholm, “In a Safer Age, US Rethinks Its ‘Tough on Crime’ System” ( .

[11] Data available at The Statistics Portal (

[12] Jeffrey Fagan, Valerie West, and Jan Holland, Reciprocal Effects of Crime and Incarceration in New York City Neighborhoods, 30 Fordham. Urb. L.J. 1551 (2003). Available at:

[13] According to the “Inqueritômetro” of the National Council of the Public Prosecutor’s Office website ( and the report “Homicide investigations all over Brazil are archived” (

[14] Data available at the 10th Brazilian Public Security Yearbook of 2015 (


[16] See “The Caging of America”, published by the writer in The New Yorker in 30 January 2012.