The Great American Crime Drop, Part 1

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Homicides and other violent crimes plunged in 2009, accelerating a decline that began in 1993. In this two-part series, we ask: what’s going on?

Late last year I was thinking about Bernie Goetz. In 1984 the pale, sparrow-like Goetz became a folk hero for doing what many fearful New Yorkers had only fantasized about: pulling out a 38 caliber Smith & Wesson Special and pumping a bullet each into four wolf-pack muggers who had crowded around him in a subway car demanding $5 in return for that special dose of humiliation that was so gleefully and routinely dispensed to victims back then.

Two decades later, Bernie Goetz and those days of despair and mayhem–when entire neighborhoods were abandoned by the police–seem like ancient history. (Although the crime anxieties are, sadly, justified in many of our still-neglected urban ghettos.)

What triggered my thoughts about Goetz and those years of fear, were the headlines that flashed across America as 2009 closed, all heralding the news that America's homicide and violent rates had dramatically plunged — more than doubling the decrease recorded in 2008. The drop in the murders was particularly striking. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, the homicide rate fell nationwide by 10 percent below the already low levels of 2008.

Why? In this story, and a second part tomorrow, we provide a snapshot of views from some of the country's leading criminologists and law enforcement analysts on the factors commonly held up as reasons for the Great American Crime decline of 2009.

Our Special Report coincides with the 5th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, which begins today (Feb 1), and where some of the experts cited here will address the issue in greater depth. We will be featuring regular reports from the Symposium this week, and next. So please “watch this space.” We welcome your own comments.

Three factors made the declines particularly startling. The first was the steep plunge in the 2009 figures. There had already been a sharp nationwide decline in murder and robbery rates of over 40 percent between 1993 and 2000. But 2001-2008 saw only slight decreases.

Second, simultaneously with the down slide in homicides in 2009, the nationwide violent crime rate (combined reported murders, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes and robberies) decreased 4.4 percent during the first 6 months of last year from the same period in 2008.

“It really is quite a phenomenon,” says Carnegie Mellon University criminology professor Alfred Blumstein, one of America's leading experts on crime trends. “There are seven larger cities [where homicides] have dropped by more than 20 percent, and seven cities where robberies [a reliable bellwether of violent crime] are down more than 15 percent.”

The Unemployment Factor

The third startling factor was the back story: the crime decrease occurred in the midst of an unemployment rate that had doubled between December 2007 and December 2009, to 10 percent–a number that, when coupled with underemployed and discouraged workers, was closer to 16 percent. Joblessness, moreover, was hitting particularly hard the young minority men traditionally associated with violent urban crime.

Unemployment among African American males aged 16-24 was over 34 percent; and for those 16-19 who were actively seeking work, the figure was over 50 percent. For decades high unemployment had been cited as a causal factor in crime rate increases, and low unemployment as a reason for crime declines.

The 2009 figures, however, seemed to turn that notion on its head.

The other eyebrow-raiser: The crime decline was widespread, encompassing cities in every region of the country. To be sure, troubled cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland bucked the trend and recorded increased murder rates. Nevertheless, even if 2009 eventually proves an anomaly, it's clear that something remarkable had had transpired. But what?

According to leading experts polled by The Crime Report, no one knows yet. “There's been very little systemic research that underlies the arguments we've been hearing about the current downward trends,” criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis told me. “[Previous] research had shown that murders, other violent crimes] and larcenies had increased during economic downturns. The question that cries out for a good answer is why we might be seeing a break in that pattern. The task for social scientists is to find commonality [of causes across the board.]”

Given the lack of data, neither Rosenfeld or the other experts I contacted were willing to venture an all encompassing, big-picture explanation for 2009's crime decline. It's still too early, the trends too deep and the spectrum of cities experiencing the downturn too broad and disparate. As John Jay Professor David Kennedy points out, “the continuing evolution of police deployment tactics [to take one example] is a plausible explanation for those cities that are practicing it,

And he adds: “There are cities with significant drops in crime [that aren't using these deployment tactics]. So it's hard to make the argument that that [or one any other factor] caused the 2009 crime drop as a whole.”

Even if no single factor accounts for this phenomenon, the contrast between then and now is startling. In New York City, for example, where 2,245 murders occurred in 1990, homicides plunged a striking 19 percent from 2008, to just over 460 in 2009–the lowest number since the city began keeping reliable homicide statistics in 1963.

During the bloody riot year of 1992, the City and County of Los Angeles, combined, registered over 1,500 murders. By the end of 2009 that number had plummeted by two-thirds, to about 500, as the city's homicides dropped 17 percent, and the county's by 23 percent – extraordinary decreases given that county's population as a whole has increased by about one million over the past two decades.

In Chicago, where killings averaged over 900 in the 1990s, homicides fell by almost 12 percent to 453 in 2009. Atlanta experienced a 14 percent drop, Philadelphia an 11 percent decline, Boston a dip of over 10 percent, Denver fell by 19 percent, Orlando, Florida by about 35 percent, and Camden, New Jersey by 40 percent. (Boston too had a dip of 10 percent, although it was coupled with a rise in sexual assaults.)

Most astounding was San Francisco, where murders plunged by over 50 percent. Even its crime-plagued, Bay Area sister city, Oakland, saw killings fall from 123 to 109.

Although the experts I spoke with could give no singular explanations for this nationwide phenomenon, they did offer some assessments and analysis of what might be driving crime down in particular cities, as well as what they think has not been responsible for the decline.

“When you talk about the factors reducing crime it's a whole range of things,” prominent Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Connie Rice told me. “But the police have the most direct relationship with crime rates and hence the greatest power to influence them, if the police departments have their core competencies organized and focused on crime.”

Do Cops Matter?

Rice worked closely with William Bratton's LAPD, and has been a key independent advisor in reforming the department and in forging partnerships with the department and the African American community–a role she continues to play under the new chief, Charlie Beck. It's been the LAPD's mastery and implementation of these “core [police] competencies,” Rice believes, that have driven down crime rates in Los Angeles.

“When a department is focused on reducing crime,” she continued, “they have to understand the reality of crime in their city — mapping, hot spots, deployment plans and focusing on the top 10 percent most violent. Then they have to dedicate their resources to fighting crime by staffing-up the patrol force. They also have to truly engage with their communities, not just in meetings and not just in listening to them, but in the ways that truly matter to the community. 'Change the outlook on the community from a target to a partner' – that was Bratton's mindset.”

One way the LAPD earned the respect of the African American community, says Rice, was by focusing on officer involved shootings and misconduct in a serious way, which “allowed the community to trust the police, and to work with them in truly significant ways that impacted crime fighting.”

Closely related, as Rice tells it, was the LAPD's willingness to partner with her and other community activists to establish a “Gang Intervention Academy” which trains ex-gang members to engage in violence reduction by “tamping down retaliatory killings, stopping rumors, working with families, and intervening between warring gang factions.” They've been especially effective in LA's black communities–which is important, according to Rice, “because most of the drive-by shootings and headline violence in LA has been caused by African American gangs.”

John Jay College Distinguished Professor Todd Clear agrees that Bratton's deployment tactics, as they have been institutionalized by the NYPD under Commissioner Raymond Kelly, have played an important crime-deterrence role in New York. “What the NYPD has done,” says Clear, is to focus on high volume crime areas and to strategize ways of holding police accountable for what they do to deter crime. And all the research tells me that one of the reasons crime keeps going down in New York is because the NYPD keeps developing and perfecting these [crime reduction] strategies.”

“Both the New York and Los Angeles Police Departments have very sophisticated management,” says Blumstein. Bill Bratton was a contributor to that in New York, and important contributor in LA as well. Those departments also have lots of resources. If the want to mobilize a large task force they can muster the intelligence and the force to stop retaliation killings, and they can pull it together very quickly. So that could have contributed to the steady decline in homicides that those two cities have experienced since 2000.”

Bratton himself is of course the most forceful proponent of the impact of smart policing on the crime rate. “I think that I've proven conclusively in New York and Los Angeles, as well as in Boston and the New York Transit Police, that cops matter,” Bratton, now a security consultant in New York, told The Crime Report. “[They] can have a very significant causal effect by focusing on crime. It's no aberration that crime is down in New York for 19 straight years and in LA for eight straight years. I've done it by using the same tactics: broken windows, COMSTAT and hot spot policing, and working and partnering with communities.

“I don't deny that there are many factors that create an impact on crime,” continued Bratton. “But in LA there was nothing [to account for] crime going down other than the police and police-related initiatives. Aging? The population of LA is not aging. A good economy and low unemployment? LA had double-digit unemployment years before the rest of the country. But for eight years we saw no increase in any crime influenced by economic conditions such as shop-lifting, burglaries and breaking into foreclosed homes.”

If you look around the country, the cities with the best records in driving crime down have entrepreneurial police leaders: they demonstrate a willingness to try new things in conjunction with cooperation with their communities, gang interventionists, academics and other professionals: George Gascon in San Francisco; Anthony Batts in Oakland; William Lansdowne in San Diego; Charles Ramsey in Philadelphia, Cathy Lanier in Washington, DC, Gary McCarthy in Newark, Jody Weis in Chicago, Ed Flynn in Milwaukee and Ed Davis in Boston.”

But like Rosenfeld, Kennedy offers a caution. “In large cities like LA and New York, there is no question that the kind of [smart] policing they're doing corresponds with what the research shows is effective policing, such as “hot spot policing”, which works in reducing crime without displaying it,” He says. But he believes policing is only one of many factors impacting crime. “There are strong environmental factors over which the police have no control.”

Culture Change

Connie Rice suggests one such factor that may help account for Los Angeles' crime drop is the change in culture among Latino street gangs. They have turned from shooting rival gang members because someone leered at a local chola, or walked down the wrong side of side of 18th street, to becoming more tightly controlled, hierarchical organizations along the lines of Russian or other eastern European criminal gangs. Rice attributes some of the drop in street violence, particularly in the Latino-gang-infested areas of LA County policed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department — where homicides plummeted 23 percent–to this greater control of street gangs by these organized crime and prison gangs.

“Latino gang control of the streets is now surging,” Rice told me. “Leadership is stable; wars for control are now relatively settled. The organized part of gang crime is getting off the streets. Their business model is changing, and the top people are doing a whole lot of cyber crime. There's been a 1,500 percent increase in that kind of crime from gangs over the past year. “

Rice adds that, although local, territorial street gangs are still the majority, “this deeper cultural entrenchment of gangs is now having an impact [on lowering street violence].”

Rice sees a far different but accompanying phenomenon in the African American areas of LA. “Twenty years ago,” the African American population of LA was intimidated by both the LAPD and the gangsters,” she says. “People would see a tragedy but not speak up because the LAPD treated them so atrociously, and because the gangsters would kill them if they did. It always struck me how powerful a cultural weapon it would be if they pushed back against the pathological culture of gangs.”

According to Rice, the new, more respectful way the LAPD has begun to work with the community has also helped change the picture. “People in the black community will now pick up the phone, and call the LAPD quietly. They still can't testify, because they still can't be protected against witness retaliation; but the LAPD and DA are getting much more information and Intel on crime in the community as a result.”

Clear notes that cultural criminologists, such as his colleague John Jay Distinguished Professor Jock Young, also link cultural change to lower crime rates. Those arguments, which claim that the attraction to violence is waning among low-income African American youth living in inner cities, are “intriguing,” says Clear, though he quickly adds, “I haven't seen any great evidence to back (them) up.”

Similarly, David Kennedy, who spends a lot of time on the street in hard-hit communities, is convinced that a cultural change is occurring, even though he can't prove it. “You talk to anyone in these neighborhoods – grandmother or gangbanger, and eventually they say, 'I'm tired, I've had it.' People just don't want to live like that any longer.”

Alfred Blumstein wonders whether cultural change could be connected to larger factors in American society. He suggested that we might be seeing an “Obama Effect” that could be causing some young African American males to see a future of possibilities, as opposed to dead ends. If that that's the case, Blumstein suggests, it could be serving as a “countervailing force to the job-frustration effects of the recession.”

Another [culture-related] factor emerging in the research, says Richard Rosenfeld, “is that cities with significant increases in immigration have had lower crime rates. It's part of the story in New York and L.A. Twenty years ago South Central Los Angeles was poor and black. Today it's predominantly immigrant Hispanic. Immigration trends [areas] towards revitalization, and decentralizes the concentration of entrenched poverty. Immigrant communities–even in disadvantaged areas–have seen increases in small business [that help] stabilize areas and change the character of communities.”

Tomorrow: Does mass incarceration matter?

Joe Domanick is the Associate Director of John Jay College's Center on Media, Crime and Justice, and The Crime Report's West Coast Bureau Chief. He can be reached at domanick@usc.edu.

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