The Magazine

Crime's Up

An old issue is about to resurface.

Jun 18, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 38 • By ELI LEHRER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

During the late 1990s, police superintendent Edward F. Davis III presided over epic crime reductions in Lowell, Massachusetts. Under his leadership, the city's crime rate fell almost 60 percent from 1995 to 1999. An economic revival followed, and the city, once among the most dangerous in New England, came to rank among its safest. New stores opened downtown, the city's biggest office tower skyrocketed in value, and jobs flooded in. Although its decrease in crime was remarkable, Lowell wasn't alone: Between 1992 and 2000, crime fell in roughly 85 percent of sizable American cities and 48 out of 50 states.

Late last year, Boston mayor Thomas Menino tapped Davis to take over that city's 2,075-officer police department. And he walked into trouble: Boston's violent crime rate has risen for three years running, and its police force has declined by more than 100 officers since 2000. From assault to robbery, violence has risen throughout the city. Murder alone is up about 50 percent from its modern lows of the late 1990s. "The government's attention at all levels is focused away from the crime problem," Davis says. "You take your eye off the ball and bad things start to happen."

Boston has begun hiring more police officers, and Davis says he feels the mayor is committed to getting crime down, but the trends in Boston are not that different from the rest of the country. For the first time in nearly a decade and a half, the news on crime is bad. Preliminary 2006 statistics released by the FBI last week show that the 2004-2006 period will represent the first time violent crime increased for two consecutive year-over-year periods since 1990-1992. Although the three largest cities--New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago--continue to see falling crime rates, they're almost alone. Last year, violent crime rose in over 70 percent of American cities with more than 100,000 residents.

To be sure, these figures are relative. After taking population growth into account, the 2004-2006 period will likely see a violent crime increase only a tad over 1 percent. Property crime has continued to fall. Although the nation still has one of the highest murder rates in the developed world, overall crime rates in the United States remain lower than those in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

Nonetheless, between 2005 and 2006, violent crime increased in all but one commonly reported category. (That category, rape, has long been considered the least accurately measured.) "We are seeing a new volatility in violent crime numbers that we haven't seen in some time," says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an academically oriented group of police leaders.

So why is it happening? Two commonly cited factors, demographics and the economy, can't explain anything. The economy is healthy, and in any case crime fell during the Great Depression and the severe recession of the early 1980s but rose during economic booms in the 1950s and 1980s. Demographic trends also reveal little. While men between 15 and 29 commit over 60 percent of all crime, the growth in their numbers--2.5 million since 2000--probably did not cause the increase in crime either. The 1995-2000 period saw a similar growth in the population of younger men and a decrease in crime.

Two other factors frequently cited in mainstream media reports--fewer police boots on the ground and shrinking police-specific federal grants--are less persuasive than they might appear at a glance.

Between 1995 and 2000, America's police agencies put over 60,000 additional warm bodies on the street; from 2000 to 2005 (the most recent data available), they added only the 10,000 officers they needed to keep up with population growth. Given how hard the post-9/11 deployments of military reserves hit police agencies--statistics compiled by the Democratic Leadership Council show that in cities like Los Angeles, Virginia Beach, and Milwaukee about 1 cop in 15 is in the reserves--the actual number of police on the streets has likely declined more than official headcounts show. The need to devote more police to homeland security duties has also reduced crime-fighting resources.

But it still remains difficult to tease out a relationship between police headcounts and crime rates. When comparing cities with similar demographics, population density, and transportation systems, those with more cops have lower crime rates. But newer, less-dense, auto-oriented cities--the places that are growing the fastest--need fewer cops to maintain order.