Cities

Pssst: Crime May Be Near an All-Time Low

Why do Americans remain unconvinced by the data?

Compelling pictures don't tell the full story.

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

There's been a lot of talk over the past couple of years about rising crime. For good reason: Violent crime and murder were in fact up in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016. Early indications are that crime rates fell in 2017, though. 1 And the really big crime story of our time remains how much it has fallen in this country over the past quarter-century.

Violent Crime in the U.S.

Violent crimes per 100,000 population

Sources: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Justice Statistics

Does not include simple assaults where no weapon was used or no serious injury resulted.

The blue line in the above chart comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's annual Crime in the United States reports, the 2016 edition of which came out last September. The gray line is from the less-well-known National Crime Victimization Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from which 2016 data was released in December. 2  As you can see, the BJS data -- based in 2016 on a survey of 134,690 households -- shows an even sharper drop than the data the FBI collects from law enforcement agencies.

The great crime decline is not the result, then, of police departments fudging numbers or victims deciding it's pointless to report crimes. If anything, recent FBI crime data is probably more reflective of actual crime incidence than that of several decades ago, meaning that today's violent crime rate is probably not really more than twice that of the early 1960s. Since 1965, Gallup has been asking Americans, "Is there any area near where you live -- that is, within a mile -- where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?" In October 2017, just 30 percent of respondents said yes, tying an all-time low. Then there's the FBI data on murders, which tend not to go unreported.

Murder in the U.S.

Murders and non-negligent manslaughters per 100,000 population

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation

The murder rate in 2014 was lower than at any time since the FBI started keeping track in 1960. That is ... remarkable. In his illuminating new book "Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence," New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey takes things a few steps further:

Because of shoddy data prior to 1960, it is impossible to know with certainty the exact rate of crime and violence in the first five decades of the twentieth century or at any earlier point in the history of the country. But the most persuasive research from historical mortality records concludes that the homicide rate was likely substantially higher in the first half of the twentieth century than it was in the second half. In fact, the prevalence of murder has been falling, albeit with spikes and troughs, throughout the country's history. If the historical trends in murder derived from mortality records are roughly accurate, and all indications suggest that they are, then we are led to a startling conclusion: 2014 was not only the safest year of the past five decades, it was one of the safest years in U.S. history.

To repeat: Violent crime was possibly near or at an all-time low in the U.S. in 2014, and while it's up a bit since then, it is still quite low by historical standards. Yet except for in 2000 and 2001, most of the Americans contacted by Gallup's pollsters -- usually in the same surveys in which a majority reported feeling safe walking around their neighborhoods alone at night -- have voiced the opinion that crime is on the rise nationally:

Not Convinced It's Getting Better

"Is there more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago, or less?"

Source: Gallup

Dotted lines represent years when question wasn't asked.

The respondents to these polls aren't totally clueless: The percentage of those who thought crime was getting worse fell sharply in the 1990s as crime rates fell sharply, and bottomed out in 2000 and 2001 just as the great crime decline began to flatten out. And yes, violent crime did rise in 2015 and 2016. But there's clearly an unwarrantedly negative tilt. It takes a lot to convince Americans that crime isn't getting worse.

Why is that? Part of it is probably hometown bias. Americans think their local public school is great but public schools in general are terrible, and they appear to think similarly about crime. Then there's the way the media conveys information about crime. More Americans get their news from local television broadcasts than any other source, and the unofficial motto of local TV news is "If it bleeds, it leads." Finally, politicians have on occasion been known play up fears of crime because they think it can get them votes or help them pass legislation.

We have one of those politicians in the White House right now, of course. President Donald Trump has repeatedly invoked crime as a reason for cutting back on immigration -- with MS-13, a gang formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by refugees from El Salvador, becoming a favorite target lately. There may well be reason to devote more law enforcement resources to combating MS-13, and there is at least some debate over whether undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes (beyond the crime of being or remaining in the country illegally) than native-born Americans. But it is undisputed that immigrants in general are much less crime-prone than the native-born -- and that the sharp decline in violent crime in the 1990s coincided with a big wave of both legal and illegal immigration.

So if reducing immigration is unlikely to reduce crime, what is? In his book, Sharkey runs through the many different explanations that have been put forward for the decline in crime since the early 1990s, and comes to the surprisingly straightforward conclusion that efforts to fight crime reduced crime. Increased presence of police and private security forces -- the number of full-time police officers rose from about 2.5 per 1,000 U.S. residents in the early 1970s to a peak of 3.64 in 2007, while employment in the private security sector rose 80 percent from 1980 to 2000 -- made crime harder to get away with, while increased incarceration kept those likely to commit crimes off the streets.

Sharkey clearly isn't entirely comfortable with this law-and-order conclusion, and that unease actually makes his arguments more convincing. So does the fact that he's been mainly an observer of the academic debates over the causes of the crime decline, not an active participant. His own research has focused on poverty, inequality, and the impact of neighborhood crime on economic and educational outcomes.

He does have a new article in the American Sociological Review, co-authored with NYU Ph.D. students Gerard Torrats-Espinosa and Delaram Takyar, that finds nonprofits aimed at fighting crime or building community to be effective in reducing violent crime. Building on the "routine activity theory" developed in the 1970s by criminologists Lawrence E. Cohen and Marcus Felson, Sharkey argues in the book that the presence in a neighborhood of what Cohen and Felson called "capable guardians" is crucial in preventing crime. As crime has dropped and frustration with heavy-handed police tactics has grown among blacks and other minority groups, though, he suggests that it's high time to put more emphasis on guardians who don't carry guns and arrest people. Sharkey describes making the rounds in the Australian city of Perth with members of the Nyoongar Patrol (Nyoongar is a name for the indigenous peoples of Australia's southwestern corner), whose job is:

to maintain a presence in the public spaces where young people hang out, to search for Aboriginal people who look as if they could use some help, and to give anyone who is causing trouble the chance to cool off or go home before the police get involved.

That sounds like a brilliant approach, and one that ought to have a place in lots of American cities. But to get there, we're probably first going to have to convince a lot more people that violent crime really is near an all-time low.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. The FBI's preliminary report on the first half of 2017 showed a 0.8 percent drop in violent crime from the same period in 2016 (after gains of 5.3 percent in 2016 and 1.7 percent in 2015) and a 1.5 percent rise in murders (after gains of 5.2 percent in 2016 and 6.2 percent in 2015), while a December report from the Brennan Center for Justice projected that the violent crime rate in the country's 30 largest cities will fall 0.5 percent in 2017 and the murder rate will fall 2.5 percent.

  2. The BJS reports crime rates as victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older, but I calculated them per 100,000 total population to make them more comparable to the FBI data.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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