Elizabeth Glazer ’86: Rethinking How to Keep Cities Safe
The criminal justice policy expert says strengthening civic organizations and municipal services is a better way to reduce crime than sending in the cops.
In the early 1990s, as a young federal prosecutor leading the organized crime and violent gangs units in the Southern District of New York, Elizabeth Glazer ’86 went after New York City’s murderous neighborhood gangs by using racketeering laws to link together a wide array of players conspiring to the same end. The goal of her pioneering strategy was to achieve sustainable change in crime levels, not merely deal with one crisis at a time.
Today, Glazer is still working toward fundamental changes in the city's approach to reducing crime as the founder of Vital City, a magazine, think tank, and advocacy group that translates evidence-based strategies for improving public safety into ideas that city officials can use—for instance, highlighting data-based studies that show how better street lighting, more summer jobs for teenagers, and mowing and fencing vacant lots all reduce crime.
“Safety is rooted in civic vitality and civic resources. Police are important; there is no question. But my view is, they’re one strand of a civic fabric,” Glazer says. “An important strand, but they should not be the dominant strand.”
Currently housed at Columbia Law School, Vital City has also focused on gun violence, the use and misuse of the “broken windows” policing theory, and the New York City jails crisis.
“Ideas come from lots of different places but often get stuck in an academic journal or in a report on a shelf,” Glazer says. Vital City’s work is to “bring those things to life and make them understandable and accessible to people who are making decisions and who are spending billions of dollars every year.”
Combating crime is “about managing risk and controlling behavior. And [historically], we’ve chosen to do that first with the police,” she says. “But actually, there are a million ways to do that.” City agencies, including transportation, sanitation, and schools, with their vast budgets, can be “the arterial structure of reform.”
Focusing on Neighborhoods
The idea that thriving neighborhoods are safe neighborhoods dates back a half-century to urban theorists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, but the current polarized political climate makes Fiorello La Guardia’s old adage—“There is no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets”—freshly appealing, Glazer says.
“What we’re saying is, everybody’s exhausted with the screaming at one another, and people would like to see their lives be better and their children’s lives be better. How do you find those solutions? Look at the evidence. Is there evidence that we can actually agree upon that permits us to walk through those raindrops of left and right?”
Glazer’s perspective that it takes more than police to reduce crime dates back to her experiences in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. There, at the same time the office went after gangs, she says, it tried to mobilize community, civic, and residents’ organizations in violence-heavy neighborhoods to work to improve the quality of life there.
She returned to that idea in 2014 when, serving as director of the office of criminal justice for Mayor Bill de Blasio, she helped implement NeighborhoodStat (NStat), a gathering of neighborhood-based organizations and residents in targeted areas of the city. Named after the police CompStat system, which used granular data to track and anticipate crime, the NStat program brings together city agencies, including parks and sanitation, homeless services, and the public housing authority, “and, crucially, residents,” to look at issues that make residents feel unsafe, she says, “even though they might not be the cops and robbers piece” of public safety.
“A crime is caused by many, many, many, many things. So, the notion that the solution only lies in one thing is misplaced,” Glazer says.
NStat is “an incredibly promising way to knit together all the things that make a neighborhood strong,” she says. She calls it her proudest achievement, even though “it’s something that probably no one has ever heard of.”
Struggling to Close Rikers Island
Working in the city with the biggest police department in the nation, Glazer continues to focus on the criminal justice system itself. She serves as an expert adviser for the Square One Project, a justice reform think tank, and she is a frequent media commentator on criminal justice policy. She is often called to speak about New York’s ongoing crisis over conditions at the violence-ridden Rikers Island jail, which has been operating under a federal consent decree since 2015 and has seen a sharp rise in prisoner deaths. In October 2022, she spoke at a Vital City virtual forum, co-hosted by Columbia Law School, about the Rikers crisis.
As head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Glazer and her team wrote the plan to replace Rikers with smaller jails in the boroughs, a plan shaped partly by learning about the Scandinavian approach to incarceration. She has come to believe, “very, very reluctantly,” that a federally appointed receiver should take over the jail to reduce violence there. For one thing, she says, a receiver would not be concerned about the political clout of the powerful corrections officers union.
“You need somebody [in charge] whose single-minded focus is the well-being of both the incarcerated people and the corrections officers, and whatever they do is focused on that. It’s not focused on their political future; it’s not focused on the perceptions in the press. It’s simply, ‘Is what I am about to do going to improve conditions or not?’”
City officials are claiming they can solve the problem, she says, but “the honest answer is they have neither the power nor the will to do it.”
The city is required by law to close Rikers by 2027, and an independent commission has been formed to implement a plan to do so. But Glazer says the culture of brutality at Rikers that has caused eight deaths of detainees there this year alone must be changed—by “professionalizing the workforce, investing in training, making sure there's programming for incarcerated people.”
Otherwise, she says, “What's the point of moving into decent facilities that are closer to families and courts if you're simply importing the same brutal system into those buildings?”
Discovering the “Gears” of Society
The law wasn’t in Glazer’s initial life plan. Raised in an academic family in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, she studied medieval intellectual history at Harvard, then spent a year in Germany as a Fulbright scholar. Inspired by her family’s history—her grandparents fled pogroms and her stepfather from the Nazis—she went to Southeast Asia to work in refugee camps. In the wake of the Vietnam War, her job was to help Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees apply for asylum in the United States. She could be more effective in asylum work, she realized, as a lawyer. By that time, Glazer had been out of college for several years, but a letter from Jane C. Ginsburg, her “oldest and dearest” friend since age 6 and now Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law at Columbia Law School, helped her decide to make the leap to apply to law school.
“She said to me, ‘It is not necessary to hear the clarion call of the law at age 22,’” Glazer says, laughing. “‘It is not too late for you.’”
It was good advice: Glazer loved Columbia Law. “Loved it. Loved it. I thought it showed me the reveal codes on how the world works. First year, I thought, was particularly terrific because it kind of drew back the curtain on the gears of what holds society together.”
She was editor of the Columbia Law Review and, after graduating, clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, who was then serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, an experience she calls “fantastic and terrifying and wonderful. Illuminating.” Law school debt meant that her dream job offer, working on immigrant rights at the ACLU, lost out to a higher-paying post with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
At the time, Glazer knew so little about criminal law, she says, “I read the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure on the train to my interview, just so that I would have some idea of what a grand jury was.” But again, she loved the experience. As a longtime investigator put it to her, “‘You have a front row seat at the show,’” she recalls.
“You had a glimpse into lives and suffering and hope. And you had the opportunity to do justice because that was really your only job—to do the right thing. That was very satisfying. And I was very fortunate to have the best of bosses,” Mary Jo White ’74, the U.S. Attorney from 1993 to 2002.
The job also turned out to be good preparation for overseeing other public agencies, including working for de Blasio and serving as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Deputy Secretary for Public Safety. Understanding the scope of a criminal operation, figuring out a case theory, and prepping witnesses translated well into orchestrating structural changes at government agencies, lobbying legislators, and persuading budget directors to fund programs.
“There’s no better job than government. It is very operational, and very concrete, and, of course, often frustrating. But it’s satisfying that you can improve things,” she says. The goal of her newest venture, Vital City, is to do just that: benefit her native New York by helping those in government make better decisions. “Government has taken some hard knocks,” she says. “But there’s no place where you can move the ball in favor of improving people’s lives in a more direct and effective way.”