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More Good News: Crime and Lead

Crossposted on Tikkun Daily.

by Dave Belden

You may not have caught this news: "L.A. had fewer crimes last year than it did in 1957 - the mayor calls the numbers 'mind-boggling'."

But we all know that: "Los Angeles - like other big cities around the country - is in the midst of a crime drop so steep and profound, it has experts scratching their heads."

And you've heard the usual (speculative) reasons. The LA Times sums them up as: "...better policing and more community involvement; fewer drugs and fuller prisons; an explosion in new technology; and the fading profile of violent gangs."

And in particular you've heard about the "broken windows theory" which made Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, his police chief, famous in the 1990s, and "stop and frisk" which is much hated today :

In New York this policy, under which police stop 700,000 residents per year without probable cause, is opposed by a majority of New Yorkers, including 75 percent of African American residents.

... which is highly relevant to Oakland, CA, (near where I live), because Oakland's crime rate, unlike most cities, has been soaring and the city is now bringing in Bill Bratton to try to fix it.

But did you catch Kevin Drum's article in Mother Jones on what may be the biggest reason for the rise and fall of crime in our time? Lead. And why is that good news? Drum critiquedthe LA Times piece:

When is the connection between reduced lead levels and reduced crime levels finally going to penetrate the minds of American journalists? I know it's not sexy and I know everyone wants to ignore it because you can't tell heroic stories about lead, but it's almost certainly the single biggest contributor to crime reductions nationwide.

Plus it's good news: the fact that reduced lead levels have played a big role in this means that a lot of the decline in crime is permanent. Hooray! Get rid of even more lead, as well as other environmental neurotoxins that affect small children, and crime levels will come down even more. Double hooray!

George Monbiot, the British journalist, investigated Drum's claims and came to full, astonished agreement.

There are two reasons for the lead theory, statistical and neurological:

[Statistical:]We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.

[Neurological:]...But there's another reason to take the lead hypothesis seriously, and it might be the most compelling one of all: Neurological research is demonstrating that lead's effects are even more appalling, more permanent, and appear at far lower levels than we ever thought.

Sad to say, because this is turning out to affect upscale white kids, something may now be done. The lead theory has apparently been known about for over a decade but since the problem was thought to affect only poor, Black people, and because it looked more like a public health issue than a criminology one, it was neglected. Even by journalists. Now, with understanding that the lead lingers in gentrifying inner city areas, and that any level is toxic, we may get some action. And thank you, Kevin Drum and Mother Jones. Sad, because it's just another example of how racist and classist our society is. But once inner city residents understand this, we can get some traction.

They say the Roman Empire declined because of lead. Maybe the American Empire can now avoid that particular deathtrap, which just leaves the others...