The Magazine

Crime Without Punishment

As American streets get safer, crime in Europe soars.

May 27, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 36 • By ELI LEHRER
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AFTER HE BEAT an 80-year-old grandmother, took a mother with a stroller hostage, and robbed 11 London banks in broad daylight, Michael Wheatley was finally nabbed by British police late last month. Dubbed the Skull Cracker for his habit of pistol-whipping victims, Wheatley had transfixed the London tabloid press with a series of dramatic, violent crimes. Scared Londoners, however, had more to worry about than just the Skull Cracker: In April alone, one gang used a battering ram to steal $14,500 of merchandise from a jewelry store near the city's commercial center, another took to ramming cars into storefronts, and teenage thugs robbed pedestrians of their mobile phones all over the city. Last year, London saw more serious assaults, armed robberies, and car thefts than New York; 2002 could see London's murder rate exceed the Big Apple's.

The same pattern can be seen throughout Europe--indeed, in much of the developed world. Crime has recently hit record highs in Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Toronto, and a host of other major cities. In a 2001 study, the British Home Office (the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Justice) found violent and property crime increased in the late 1990s in every wealthy country except the United States. American property crime rates have been lower than those in Britain, Canada, and France since the early 1990s, and violent crime rates throughout the E.U., Australia, and Canada have recently begun to equal and even surpass those in the United States. Even Sweden, once the epitome of cosmopolitan socialist prosperity, now has a crime victimization rate 20 percent higher than the United States.

Americans, on the other hand, have become much safer. Preliminary 2001 crime statistics from the FBI show America's tenth consecutive year of declines in crime. While our homicide rate is still substantially higher than most in Europe, it has sunk to levels unseen here since the early 1960s. And overall crime rates in this country are now 40 percent below the all-time highs of the early 1970s. In 1973, nearly 60 percent of American households fell victim to property crimes. In 2000 (the most recent data available), only about 20 percent did. Among the economically powerful democracies in the Group of Seven, only the Japanese now have a lower victimization rate than the United States.

So why have America's streets become safer even as crime has exploded in Europe? Many commonly cited explanations don't hold water: America's falling population of males in their teens and early 20s helped reduce crime in the early 1990s, but crime continued to fall even as youth populations began to swell later in the decade. While the American Enterprise Institute's John Lott has shown that greater gun ownership reduces crime, this deterrent effect can't explain more than a small part of America's recent success. It's now easier to carry concealed weapons in some parts of the country, but Lott acknowledges that gun ownership levels are about the same as they were when crime hit its all-time highs in America 30 years ago. Third-world immigration, the bugbear of the European right, may drive crime rates up, but violence and theft have also spiked in countries that let in few immigrants.

There is, in fact, a simple explanation for America's success against crime: The American justice system now does a better job of catching criminals and locking them up. But why are America's police agencies performing better than their counterparts elsewhere in the developed world?

Local control may be a critical difference. America has local police departments--think Sheriff Andy Griffith and Deputy Barney Fife--while massive regional or national agencies provide almost all of the law enforcement in nearly all of the other industrialized countries. With about 16,500 police agencies--over 2,000 of which employ only one officer--America's policing system might seem disorganized and amateurish at first glance. All of England has only 39 local police departments, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police run most of Canada's police agencies. France and a bevy of other nations have unified national police agencies. But when it comes to learning from mistakes and adapting to new circumstances, small organizations have their advantages.

While smart police chiefs have always tried to adapt styles of policing to the particularities of their communities, well-intentioned reform efforts during the American crime explosion led police agencies to discourage officers from making too much contact with citizens and community groups. This eventually sparked a backlash in the form of the "community policing" movement of the late 1980s, which began to encourage police officers and citizens to form crime-fighting partnerships. While some of those efforts were better at producing press releases than arrests, the movement overall has to be counted a success.