Crime Rates Are Plummeting -- And No One Knows Why

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 "given 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.

Do crimewatch TV shows such as America's Most Wanted spur viewers into action? Do reality shows such as Cops and The First 48 humanize police, making viewers help rather than hate them? In books such as More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 1998), conservative economist John Lott attributes shrinking crime rates to increased legal gun ownership.

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

Award-winning University of Hawaii anatomist Milton Diamond believes that one powerful tool in reducing at least one type of violent crime is porn — including kiddie porn.

Published last fall in the scholarly journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, Diamond's latest academic study tracked crime in the Czech Republic after pornography was legalized there. 

"As found in all other countries in which the phenomenon has been studied, rape and other sex crimes did not increase," Diamond's report reads. In particular, Denmark and Japan "had a prolonged interval during which possession of child pornography was not illegal." When kiddie porn was legal in Denmark and Japan, both countries "showed a significant decrease in the incidence of child sex abuse."

Diamond — who directs UH's Pacific Center for Sex and Society and won this year's Kinsey Award for the Scientific Study of Sexuality — does not approve of actual children being used in porn, but rather images of children produced via artwork or computer graphics.

"It's the lesser of two evils," he says. 

"Why would someone commit a crime if he didn't have to? Does he say, 'I'm gonna go out and rape somebody'? Or might he say, 'Look, there's a danger in doing that, and I'm horny, so now I'll masturbate'? If I was a potential rapist, I'd be thinking, 'Why the hell would I want to go out in the cold when I can stay inside and masturbate?' Think of all the problems we could solve this way.

"We can't say that every potential rapist is crazy or stupid. They're reacting to the same things everybody reacts to." Pre-Internet and pre-DVD, "they went out and 'did something' about those reactions," Diamond asserts, but now they can stay safely at home, ensconced with electronic fantasies.

"If I have a choice between having real children abused or having child porn on the Net, I say have child porn and save kids. I want the same thing anti-porn protesters want: to stop child abuse. If porn will do it, I'm for it."

Whatever's curbing crime these days, it's making fools of those who predicted that an economic meltdown would turn America into a Mad Maxian hellzone terrorized by bloodthirsty out-of-work stock clerks. 

"Murder, Suicide Rates Climb When Jobs Vanish and Economy Slows," Bloomberg blared, citing a 2009 study published in The Lancet that linked every 1 percent increase in unemployment with a .79 percent increase in homicides. (But according to the same study, every 1 percent increase in unemployment is also linked with a 1.39 percent decrease in car-crash deaths. So in that sense, economic collapse saves nearly twice as many lives as it takes.)

"If you go by the old adage that crime is tied to the economy, then these should be banner years for violent crime," says the LAPD's Kuns. "But it's going in the opposite direction."

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics' annual National Crime Victimization Survey, violent and property crime rates were lower in 2008 than at any time since these surveys began in 1973. According to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime declined 6.2 percent nationwide just in the first half of 2010. Broken down by region, murder/rape/robbery/aggravated assault fell by 7.8 percent in the South, 7.2 percent in both the Midwest and West, and a comparatively — troublingly — small 0.2 percent in the Northeast.
"Economic conditions and crime: This is a very complicated relationship," says Stanford University law professor Lawrence Friedman, the award-winning author of Crime and Punishment in American History (Basic Books, 1994). "Dire economic circumstances certainly give some people incentives to commit property crimes. But on the whole, it is hard to show a correlation, especially if you look at the broad sweep of history. The period after World War II was one of tremendous economic growth, and yet the violent crime rate went up dramatically" in the US at that time. 

Was it because the war's end brought home a huge influx of young males, the demographic most likely to commit violent crimes? Clearly the perpetrators of all those postwar murders, rapes, assaults and strongarm robberies weren't famished bread thieves a la Les Misérables. This should shatter the romance that most criminals commit crimes not by choice but by necessity. 

What spurs crime? Greed. Hate. Opportunity. What stems it? 

"There's a growing groundswell of folks accepting their personal ownership of what goes on in their neighborhoods," Kuns says. "Regardless of their station in life, they're taking responsibility for the places in which they live and for a reasonable radius around them. They've realized that although the police are happy to rescue you when we can — that's the fun part of our job — the policing of your neighborhood starts with you." 

In some neighborhoods these days, "people literally run out of their houses and try to stop crimes themselves.

"Say every time a crime takes place, we get four or five calls from community members providing information. After a while, the bad guys think, 'The probability of someone seeing me committing a crime and making that call, and thus the probability of my getting caught, is so high that it's not worth committing the crime.'

"It's like game theory."


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