The Magazine

Crime's Up

An old issue is about to resurface.

Jun 18, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 38 • By ELI LEHRER
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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.

Although federal funding for cops has also declined a great deal since President Bush took office, police haven't faced a total cutoff. On one hand, police groups frequently observe that the budgets of the two major Department of Justice programs that help local police--the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Office of Justice Programs (OJP)--have seen funding declines of 75 percent and 70 percent respectively under Bush. On the other hand, a bevy of new homeland security grants more than make up the difference theoretically in total funds available to state and local governments for law-enforcement tasks.

For at least three reasons, however, these new grant programs have proved less useful for police. First, while the 1990s saw police grants distributed largely on a competitive basis--expert panels reviewed proposals and funded those judged best--the homeland security money flows largely as population and density-based block grants, with states taking 5 percent off the top for "administrative costs." As a result, particularly needy agencies find it hard to get more than the federal formulas specify. Second, fire departments, disaster management agencies, and others compete for the same pot of money. Third, the nature of the homeland security grants makes it easier for police agencies to use the money for personnel than for equipment.

While nobody in policing seems to like this system, the best police chiefs have figured out how to work it. William Bratton, who created the mechanisms that led to New York City's historic decline in crime, says he's managed to find adequate federal money to fund several innovative "dual use" efforts to deploy new intelligence-gathering technology and work with DNA evidence at his current job as Los Angeles's chief of police.

What, then, can explain the rise in crime? Three factors stand out: flagging federal leadership, prison neglect, and the growth of inner-city "street" culture.

More than the federal money, the best police leaders miss the sense that the federal government cares about crime and thinks about policing. The changes in the grant programs have hurt the most. Over the past two decades, New York pioneered a widely used set of police management techniques, Minneapolis pioneered a system for monitoring pawn shops, and small cities like Garden Grove, California, and Arlington, Texas, made nationally notable innovations in neighborhood renewal and training respectively. These departments all would have innovated without federal grants, but the competitive nature of federal grant programs proved vital in spreading their ideas. Since cities now get money whether or not they come up with good proposals, an important incentive to innovate no longer exists. The intellectual disengagement seems broader: While Justice Department leaders still show up at law enforcement conferences, a mass exodus of skilled civil servants (many of them former police executives) from COPS and OJP has dismantled a tremendous resource that once informally disseminated practical knowledge about policing innovations across the country.

In addition, we're paying a price for our inability to reintegrate convicts into society. Today, over 2.2 million people--including about 1 percent of all adult males--are behind bars. Each year, more than 650,000 get out. While imprisonment is well worth the money--Vanderbilt University law professor Mark Cohen has shown that a single thug left out can easily do a million dollars' worth of damage in a year--current prisons do almost nothing to break convicts of the bad habits that got them in trouble.

Programs that force prisoners to stop taking drugs, work at real jobs, and learn to read all help keep them on the straight and narrow after release. But out of "get tough" zealotry, most states have cut funding for such efforts. For the most part, modern state prisons rely on a mix of television, psychotropic drugs (more than half of prisoners have clinically diagnosable psychological problems), and racial nationalist gangs to keep order.

Efforts to deal with criminals outside of prison, particularly through probation and parole, don't get adequate support either. Through a mix of intense monitoring (random, unannounced searches) and efforts to help people in trouble with the law acquire basic job skills, places like Boston and Orange County, California, managed to make a dent in the career criminal population during the 1990s. But these programs--which blurred the lines between police and probation/parole officers and thus proved unpopular with rank-and-file police--have seen enormous declines. "They just didn't become part of standard operating practice," says Jeremy Travis, the president of New York's law-enforcement-focused John Jay College and a scholar of prisoner reentry. "They need to become part of the organizational culture."

Some cultural factors, many of them peculiar to inner-city African-American neighborhoods, may also explain the increase in crime. During the 1990s, clergy-police partnerships like Boston's TenPoint Coalition, coupled with neighborhood organizations sick of violence, created room for what University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson refers to as the "decent" culture of working, churchgoing, upwardly mobile inner-city residents. But the decent culture seems to be receding.

Policies that lock up enormous numbers of black men have produced resentment in many communities when convicts return home even worse than when they went in. A gang-backed "stop snitching" grass-roots "advertising" campaign replete with websites, DVDs, and T-shirts has intimidated witnesses around the country.

"What you're seeing here is intense alienation," Anderson told me. "And it's gotten worse." He contends that increased immigration--both legal and illegal--has also helped to displace young African-American males "who look like criminals" and thus "don't get hired" when they make efforts to join the legitimate economy.

Bratton has an even more dismal assessment. "In the 1980s, we were seeing a lot of violence around the drug trade, but the younger generation seems to engage in a lot more wanton violence. . . . To some extent, it's the super-predator complex," he says, referring to a theory proffered by William Bennett and John DiIulio that a rising tide of youngsters growing up in "moral poverty" would swamp the nation in violence.

Weighing these factors and responding to them will take time and research but, at the moment, nothing appears likely to reverse the trends leading to increased crime. And, of course, after years of decline, crime was bound to go up eventually. Nonetheless, social concern over rising crime played a major role in every presidential election from 1960 until 1992. Since 1996, however, dropping crime rates have taken criminal violence off the political agenda. Any politician who wants to look like a prophet would do well to start talking about crime. We aren't in a crisis yet, but, without action, crime will come back as a political issue.

Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.