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Crime Rates Are Plummeting -- And No One Knows Why

Could it be that America is actually turning less violent? Or are we as violent as ever — but have simply found different ways of assuaging our urges?

Los Angeles' violent-crime rates are four times lower now than they were 1992. The interesting thing is, nobody can really explain why.

As of December 25, last year, only 293 homicides were reported in LA, along with 781 rapes, 10,734 robberies, and 9,129 aggravated assaults. In 1992, that blood-soaked year of the Rodney King Riots, Los Angeles saw 1,092 murders, 1,861 rapes, 39,222 robberies, and 47,736 aggravated assaults. 

These figures echo a nationwide trend. "Crime Rate at 20-Year Low Level," reads a February 24 headline in the Frederick, Maryland News Post . "Major Crime at 39-Year Low in Elgin," the Chicago Tribune crowed on February 22. "Fresno's Murder Rate Is Drastically Down in 2011," announced that California's town's ABC-TV affiliate on February 23. Such headlines are typical these days. Crime's down. What's up?

Theories abound. Various agencies, such as the office of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, credit themselves with the shift. But in the din of the applause, some of these theories and claims cancel each other out. 

Noting that LA in 1992 "was like a war zone," LAPD Sgt. Joe Kuns remembers how, that year, no one in their right mind strolled the downtown intersection of First and Main streets for fun after dark. Drug dealers and their customers ruled that corner, he says. It's a different story now. Brightly lit businesses welcome local residents, who wave happily while walking their dogs. 

Why? Some would say it's because those drug dealers and their customers are now locked up. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of drug-related arrests has nearly doubled nationwide since 1992. Drug-related offenders comprised 6 percent of Minnesota's incarcerated in 1989; last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, they comprised 18 percent.

As for exact correlations between drug violations and violent crime, the jury's still out. A 2009 report by the King's College London International Centre for Prison Studies found that "g iven the significant costs of incarceration ... in budget terms, but also in terms of the negative impact on community relations, social cohesion and public health — it is hard to justify a drug policy approach that prioritises widespread arrest and harsh penalties for drug users on grounds of effectiveness."

Gang violence is being quelled as well. One program alone, ICE's Operation Community Shield, has resulted in over 20,000 gang-related arrests since 2005. Is this helping? 

Kuns is quick to assert that assigning any definitive cause to LA's plunging crime rate "would be intellectually dishonest." It's anyone's guess.

"In meetings with professors from USC and UCLA, we've tried to apply methodical approaches to isolate causal relationships between what our department is doing now with what it was doing twenty years ago. I wish there had been a moment when we all looked at each other across the table and said, 'That's it, we've figured it out.' But there hasn't been."

Kuns does credit community involvement. He says the no-snitch code is dissolving as more people than ever call 911 and anonymous tip lines. Los Angeles Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore agrees. 

Even in LA gang strongholds such as Compton, Lynwood, and Lennox, "people have decided that enough is enough." Admittedly "hesitant to talk about how crime is dropping, because a lot of times the bad guys will hear that and say, 'We'll show them,'" Whitmore also credits "the visual saturation of law enforcement, as the sheriff has flooded certain areas of our county with law enforcement and targeted teams. And technology helps."

Cell phones, texting, and email make crime reporting exquisitely quick, easy, and secret.

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