Move Over, Police?

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Do private security forces hired by business owners and technologies such as anti-car theft Lojack systems have as much to do with America's falling crime rates as “hot spot” policing?

According to Dr. Philip Cook, Professor of Economics and Sociology at Duke University, scholars and policymakers trying to account for the remarkable (and sustained) nationwide crime decline should take a closer look at some of the non-law enforcement factors. The FBI uniform crime report shows violent crimes decreased 47 percent and property crimes have fallen 42 percent over the last 20 years.

Cook has over the past decade singled out the growing number of Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) this week at the 7th annual Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“Private action,” like the formation of BIDs, is a way “of controlling opportunity to potential criminals,” Cook told conference participants.

BIDs are made up of business and property owners who pay extra taxes to generate economic revitalization and support maintenance to the area. A study conducted by the Institute of Business District Management, the Rutgers University's School of Public Affairs and Administration and funded by several member organizations of the International Downtown Association, a Washington D.C. based resource organization, show that there are over 1,000 BIDs or BID-like organizations in the U.S.

The study also shows BID budgets ranged from $11,000 to $17, 957,868. Three-fourths of those reporting had budgets of under $1,000,000; the overall median was $342,000. In addition to assessment income, many BIDs also received revenue from sponsorships, member dues, contracts, and city general revenue funding.

BIDs also aim to improve security by providing private security officers to patrol designated business districts. An evaluation by the RAND Corporation showed that BIDs often focus their budgets on providing private security to their business locales and surrounding neighbourhoods, as a basic level of enhancement to publicly funded police services.

According to the RAND Corporation, which researched 30 Los Angeles BIDs over a 12-year period from 1994 to 2005, BID areas experienced greater yearly reductions in the number of violent crimes than non-BID areas do.

The violent crimes reported focused on robbery, homicide, and aggravated assaults because these crimes are more likely to be reported by victims. The report shows robberies dropped 7 percent in BID areas, compared to a decrease of 5.7 per cent in non-BID areas. Total violent crime also decreased from 5.9 percent in BID areas versus 4.3 percent in non BID areas.

Cook noted that BIDs provide a vehicle for private citizens who want to become actively involved in protecting their property.

Private sector technology also has served as an increasing deterrent against property crime, said Cook.

Editor's Note: For more on an economic analysis of U.S. crime rates, see Dr. Cook's essay, “Controlling Crime: How To Do More With Less” in TCR Nov 11, 2011

The semiannual FBI crime statistics for 2011, showed that in the six-month period from January to June of 2011 burglary offenses declined 2.2 percent, larceny-theft dropped 4 percent, and vehicle theft fell 5 percent compared to the to the same period in 2010.

Cook argued that aggressive anti-crime strategies by law enforcement only explain part of the drop. He claimed that the increased availability of affordable technologies such as 24-hour home surveillance systems has also played a large part.

The drop in larceny-theft also coincides with improving technology. This is part of the “environment of opportunities” Cook talks about. Technologies limit options to potential criminals.

Car Theft Costs $4.5 Billion

Vehicle theft is the costliest property crime in the U.S., costing consumers more than $4.5 billion annually according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Technologies such as LoJack, a vehicle- tracking system that uses a hidden transmitter to help police track and recover vehicles, and vehicle immobilizers, which prevent thieves from bypassing the ignition, are now widely used by car owners as a prevention method. LoJack claims to have a 90 percent recovery success rate in 2010, the year they released their second annual vehicle theft recovery report.

“Crime is a choice not a destiny,” Cook argued, and he predicted that crime rates will continue to decline with improving technology and wider involvement by the private sector.

Nevertheless, other speakers on the panel suggested additional factors that have changed the national crime picture.

Mike Males, a senior researcher at the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, claimed that fewer crimes are being committed by juveniles. He discussed research suggesting that Americans aged 40 to 50 years old are committing crimes at greater rates than young people, while “middle-aged crime is largely invisible.”

And the national picture of declining crime changes when you factor in fraud and other types of white-collar crime. William Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said such crimes rarely figure into national crime statistics, which is further complicated by the fact that prosecutions for fraud are relatively few.

“There are no cops on the beat with regard to white collar crime,” he said.

Black said if someone in Houston were to call 911 and say they were robbed by Enron, the authorities would probably think you're a “nut.” Black wants people to take a deeper look into white collar crime because it, “maims and kills” just like blue collar crime.

Al Blumstein, one of the nation’s leading criminologists and a professor of urban Systems and operations research at Carnegie Mellon University, spoke about the surprising decrease of murder and robberies since 2006, which is surprising because of the current recession.

Right now, Blumstein noted, criminologists can only take “a stab” at why this has happened.

John Sodaro, a former NYPD officer and a student at John Jay College, is The Crime Report's Spring news intern. He welcomes comments from readers.

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