Many people ask me if New York City is dangerous or scary. Having lived here for many years, I'm constantly surprised at the number of people who have a perception of New York City as dangerous and crime ridden. A lot of this has to do with the depiction of New York City from the 1970s in movies like Taxi Driver and in television shows, like NYPD Blue and Law & Order.
Despite having a population of more than 8 million people, New York City consistently ranks in the top ten safest large cities (cities with more than 500,000 people) in the United States. Violent crimes in New York City have dropped by over 50% in the last decade and the FBI reports that murder rates in 2009 were the lowest since 1963, when records were first kept. However, visitors should be aware that many swindlers and thieves are skilled at identifying "out of towners" and folks that may seem disoriented or confused to prey upon. While this shouldn't scare you away from New York City, using common sense should keep you fairly safe.
Panhandlers are best ignored, and the easiest way to divert panhandlers is to avoid eye contact. Generally, even the most persistent request can be deterred with a firm "No". One common scam is strangers approaching you with a sob story about living outside the city and having difficulty getting home because they left their wallet locked in their office or claiming to have just been attacked and needing money for train or bus fare. If these folks had a legitimate problem, the police could assist them, so don't fall prey to their tactics.
Pickpockets and swindlers often work in teams, where one person will cause a commotion, either by falling or dropping something, while the other person pickpockets unsuspecting folks who try to help or stop to look. Crowded street performances can provide pickpockets a similar opportunity -- so while it is fine to watch the musicians or artists, be aware of your surroundings and where your wallet and valuables are. Sidewalk card and shell games are most often scams as well -- participation almost guarantees you'll be giving your money away.
Most of the popular tourist destinations are well populated and safe. During the daytime, almost all areas of Manhattan are safe for walking -- even Harlem and Alphabet City, though the uninitiated may prefer to avoid these neighborhoods after dark. Times Square is a great place to visit at night and it stays populated until after midnight, when theater-goers head home.
Safety Tips for Travelers
- Avoid drawing attention to yourself as a tourist: don't stand on street corners looking at maps and do your best to walk confidently, as this will deter many criminals.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- In crowded subways, keep your wallet in your front pocket, rather than the rear, and keep your purse closed and held in front of you or on the side.
- Don't flaunt jewelery, cameras, your smart phone or cash in public. If you need to organize your wallet, duck into a store.
- Use caution when using ATMs and don't carry too much cash around with you -- most places accept credit cards and there are ATMs everywhere.
- After dark, stick to main streets if you don't know where you are going.
- If you feel uncomfortable or lost, approach a police officer or a friendly store owner to get your bearings or directions.
- When in doubt of your destination or the safety of a neighborhood, take a cab, especially late at night.
- Many business districts are desolate at night -- keep this in mind when deciding whether to walk or take a cab.
- If taking the subway late at night, stand near the "During off hours trains stop here" sign or in view of the Metro-Card booth. Ride in cars with more people and preferably in the conductor's car (you will see him look out the window of the train when it stops).
That all said, should you find yourself the victim of a crime, contact a police officer. In case of an immediate emergency, call 911. Otherwise, contact 311 (free from any pay phone) and you will be directed to an officer who will be able to take a report. 311 calls are answered 24 hours a day by a live operator.