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Panic City

In Chicago and across the U.S., crime is down.  Why don’t people want to admit it?

According to all available statistics, violent crime has significantly dropped in Chicago and across the country over the last 20 years.

FBI statistics say there were 931 homicides in the city of Chicago in 1993. By 2000, there were just 628 murders – and by 2010 that number was down to 435. In fact, the murder rate in Chicago last year was the lowest it has been since 1965.

This is a national trend. In New York, there were 2,245 murders in 1990 – down to 500 in 2010. Los Angeles had 297 murders in 2010 – after having more than 600 annual murders throughout the 1990’s. As in Chicago, the murder rate in Los Angeles is the lowest it has been in 45 years.

Besides murder, other violent crime – aggravated assault, robberies, sexual assault is also down, down, down. Even major non-violent crimes are down.  Nationally, automobile thefts are at their lowest level since 1967. The ongoing, across the board, crime decline can seem almost unbelievable, especially given the popular misconception that crime is supposed to jump in desperate economic times.

To many here in Chicago, though, the statistics do seem unbelievable.  Inner city activists, local and national media, and even criminologists cannot quite account for what public policies have contributed to the crime decline.  And some of these people don’t even want to hear about it.

The last two decades have seen plenty of real reasons for crime to drop.  Our national concern about crime has led to policies of mass incarceration and the use of public resources – diverted from other important programs – to support local police and national security.

Yet the success of these policies in decreasing crime has not been acknowledged by the media, community leaders, and government officials. The result is that crime is still a hot-button issue in Chicago and other urban areas, while more pressing social issues are largely unaddressed.

Community Pessimism

Since 1996, Phillip Jackson, the former head of Chicago public housing, has run The Black Star Project, an organization whose motto is “Educate or Die!” The wiry Jackson has emerged in his post-city government life as voice for marginalized minorities in Chicago. For example, Jackson and his Black Star cohorts have wreaked havoc at Chicago school board meetings, calling out the deep segregation that still plagues Chicago Public Schools.

When I asked to speak with him about the decline in violent crime, he invited me to attend a Saturday afternoon discussion on the issue. The meeting was held at Black Star headquarters in Bronzeville, the historical black cultural center of Chicago that has endured a prolonged state of economic neglect. Black Star headquarters at Dr. Martin Luther King Drive was adorned with reminders of inner city violence. One poster listed the names, ages, and schools of Chicago Public Schools students murdered in the past year. Another carried the message that President Obama needs to send to help Chicago victims of street violence.

A packed room of about 50 Chicagoans of all ages, mostly, but not entirely, black sat through a 30-minute documentary On The Frontline, directed by Derek Grace. The movie, showing the bleak neighborhoods of Bronzeville and neighboring black communities as war zones of gangs and drug dealers, features Grace intoning, “This is like John Singleton’s Boyz n’ the Hood, this is like New Jack City” , — a reference to two movies from 1991 when the violent crime rate was about twice as high as today.

Afterward, I talked to Jackson regarding statistics that show a decline in violent crime. I said that while I agreed with Black Star members’ gripes about a worsening economic situation, that the public safety situation was actually improving.  Jackson laughed and asked that I pose the question to the group. So I did – couching it in the positive message of “What are communities like Bronzeville doing right to produce this crime decline even amid economic struggles?”

I was instantly met with jeers and catcalls. The meeting then continued with each speaker cataloguing various social and cultural ills – everything from poor investment in after-school programs to the lack of voter registration drives to exploitative videos on Black Entertainment Television. Finally one person addressed my query with statistics of his own. “In 1989 the murder rate in Chicago was at 779 – today it is at 483,” he said, and then gave the reason why: “The government knows how to play with numbers!”

Affirmation and applause followed. “So the federal statistics say crime is way down,” Jackson said to the group, imitating my arguably unfortunate description of recent crime numbers. “Now I’m going to tell you that I think some of the people here, for various reasons, will disagree.” One such person was a police officer. “I am a member of law enforcement so I have first hand knowledge of how they are evasive,” she said. I blurted out, “How are they evasive?” and she replied, “Well, because things are not reported accurately or they are moved to different categories.”

One meeting attendee did address the pointed issue of whether crimes committed by, and against, African Americans are down as well. They are – crime has proportionally declined among all races. Murders in Chicago are indeed concentrated in black communities — not so much Bronzeville, but neighborhoods like West Garfield Park, Englewood and Chatham. But this level of violence is still down significantly in 2010 compared to 2000 or 1990 – at least according to the statistics.

Media Pessimism

Certainly on other issues – like education or the fight against economic injustice – Jackson and the Black Star project challenge Chicago’s political and media mainstream, which pays insufficient attention to the city’s notorious race and class divisions. But their criticism that law enforcement and elected officials do not do enough to prevent crime is echoed by local media – and also politicians like new Mayor Rahm Emanuel who pushed out the city’s police superintendent and has made more cops on the street an administration priority.

As for the media, newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and the local broadcast news tend to highlight each sensational tragedy of street violence (the age old, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ problem in journalism) but rarely note that overall violence is down.  In stories that specifically acknowledge crime statistics, reporters do not echo Black Star claims that the FBI and police are deliberately lying. But they are equally dismissive of declining crime statistics.

For example, in December 2010 Annie Sweeney of the Chicago Tribune wrote a piece cataloging problems with the Chicago Police Department and its since ousted superintendent Jody Weis. “Even though Chicago as a whole was safer in the last decade than in the 1990s or 1980s,” Sweeney wrote. “The perception remains in the public eye that crime is virtually out of control.” Sweeney continued:

On the plus side for the department, murders and other violent crimes have dropped during the past five years to levels unseen since the 1960s. By mid-December, homicides in Chicago reached an unofficial total of 424, down from 443 at the same time last year. Yet a violent reputation continues to haunt the city, in part because of 24-hour news cycles as well as some very high-profile crimes.

Frustratingly, instead of acknowledging that the Tribune itself contributes to this violent image, the thrust of Sweeney’s piece was that Superintendent Weis was damaged goods. Mick Dumke wrote a story for the New York Times two weeks later, specially lamenting the uncertain future of CAPS, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy program that has pushed police to get involved in the communities they patrol. “Crime statistics continue to decline,” Dumke wrote. “Yet many officers on the beat, aldermen and community advocates agree that there is a substantial gap in perception: Many citizens believe crime is on the rise and feel unsafe.”

Other reports just express disbelief. Take a front page New York Times article from May – “Steady Decline in Crime Baffles Experts.” The piece trots out a bunch of evidently “baffled experts” like Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox who calls the crime drop “remarkable” and Carnegie Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein who sees the statistics as “striking.”

What Went Right?

Experts are not entirely baffled. In fact, the crime rate has declined so significantly for so long that there is some consensus about the leading causes. “With twenty years of crime trending downward, there are multiple things going at the same time,” Fox said in an interview.

Fox and other criminologists have mainly cited a decline in violence over the buying and selling of crack cocaine – a violence that peaked around 1991, longer prison sentences that has kept more would be criminals off the street, and improved policing strategies – which means both more police on the street and also smarter, more community-oriented policing. Other factors might include the focus on preventing violence from community groups like Black Star and Ceasefire in Chicago.

Almost all experts agree that the decline in violence around crack cocaine was a significant catalyst in the 1990s crime drop. “There was a turning away from crack as people saw the horrors it was introducing onto family members,” said Blumstein in an interview. Crack use appears to have significantly declined. A Wall Street Journal article from May notes that between 1992 and 2009 American hospital-admission rates for cocaine or crack use fell by nearly two-thirds. Conceivably, then, fewer people commit serious crimes to obtain crack cocaine. The lower use of crack – combined with its perpetually declining price – has also provided less incentive for dealers to commit crimes over potential drug markets.

There is also less crack-related crime because more crack dealers and users – and more Americans in general – are in prison. Now notorious laws like the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act have sent drug users to jail for years. The law particularly targeted users of crack with the result being that young, black men from poor communities were thrown into jail. “It’s the incapacitation effect,” said Alfred Lurigio, a psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago who focuses on criminal justice issues. “2.1 million young people are locked up in prison and jail.” William Spelman, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas, and Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist and author of Freakonomics, have argued that greater incarceration can explain at least 25 percent of the crime decline.

But is a lower crime rate a worthwhile tradeoff to live in a country where 1 in 31 adults are in prison? Criminal justice experts like Lurigio are quick to point that that the build-up of prisons is a huge public expense that has ripped into black and Latino communities. Few criminologists endorse crime-fighting strategies that have lead to America having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Still, experts have to concede that having more people in prison has meant a decline in crime.

A more clearly positive public policy change is improved policing. When crime increased in the early 1990s, the 1994 federal Crime Control Act gave local government more money to put more police on the street. This meant a bigger police presence – and more police interaction with citizens – in communities that were used to seeing police only after something awful happened. Even as federal money for the states began to dry up in the Bush administration, more police became the standard local policy in Chicago as well as  New York and Los Angeles.  New Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the popular recent decision to put 150 more police officers on the street even though Chicago faces a record budget deficit.

Adding police on the streets almost certainly has reduced crime – but changes in policing strategy have also been important. Chicago instituted CAPS in 1995, which made officers attend monthly neighborhood meetings. “Police realized that they are very limited in what they can do if there is not the full buy-in of residents,” Lurigio said.

Another new strategy was the 1994 introduction in New York of Compstat, which used computerized maps to figure out where crime is taking place and gave district commanders the power to shift around police to criminal hotspots. This breathtakingly obvious use of crime information (You mean we should have more police squad cars by places where a lot of crimes take place?) may have taken until the 1990s to get started. But it is now widely imitated in cities across the county, including Chicago. “Chicago police began focus more on hot spot areas to reduce homicides,” said Tio Hardiman, director of the Chicago violence prevention group Ceasefire. “They stopped allowing people to just hang out and loiter on the corner all night and day.”

In Chicago, Ceasefire , devoted to mediating neighborhood conflicts before they erupt in violence, deserves credit for the more than 130 outreach workers it has across Chicago’s most violent communities. And the Chicago public school system has responded aggressively to the deaths of public school students – using a greater police presence around dangerous schools and personalizing outreach to students most at risk of being victims of violence.  Police helicopters even circle problem schools at the start and end of each school day.

A Guessing Game

It would be nice to conclude that better investment in policing and increasingly efficacious public institutions are responsible for the drop in crime nationwide. But there are no studies that state how big a factor they really are.  Is better policing three percent of the reason crime is down? 15 percent? The decline in crack-related violence and mass incarceration are generally considered more important factors – each are judged as anywhere from 10 to 30 percent responsible for the national crime decline.

Since these percentages don’t add up to anything in particular, it’s likely that other  actors are at play.  For example, there are more senior citizens per capita (a group unlikely to commit violent crimes).  Levitt and Dubner infamously argued in Freakonomics that legal, affordable abortion has been the main factor of the crime decline, as it has prevented millions of children from growing up in potentially unstable environments. But there is no accounting here for why crime keeps going down while the number of abortions is not going up.

This is where explaining the crime decline gets really speculative. Blumstein even suggests that a tanking economy is perhaps a reason for less crime. “Some will argue that the recession made things better because people were around more and protecting their property,” he said. Fox dismisses such a notion. “More people in their homes should have meant an increase in domestic violence.”

Blumstein has another theory – one that may not go over too well at Black Star headquarters.  The crime scholar says that crime may have dropped especially far in the last year because Barack Obama is in the White House. The crime rate went down precipitously in the past year in several cities like Birmingham, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. that have high black populations. Blumstein suspects an “Obama effect” where “previously disenfranchised black males felt more hope about their future.” He notes as further evidence that the black crime rate in Chicago fell further than the white crime rate over the past year.

However, Blumstein admits that that the crime rate also dropped rapidly in cities like Phoenix. “Phoenix has hardly any blacks,” Blumstein said.  “It highlights the fact that crime data is very noisy. It is tough to get something definite and that’s why you’re stuck with speculations.”

The Future of Crime Decline

Given the speculative nature of the ‘Why is crime down?’ enterprise, I may as well throw my hat in the ring and suggest that the pessimism itself – the pervasive doubt that crime has really dropped as much as official statistics say — has contributed a certain vigilance.  It may be that people are more vigilant precisely because they are skeptical, and fear they are being sold a bill of goods.

It seems in Chicago that the less overall violence that occurs, the greater the reaction – and overreaction – when individual tragedies do happen. For example, the videotaped beating in September 2009 of high school student Derrion Albert lead to millions of dollars more in resources to police and public school programs to prevent the next tragedy. Just last week, the dilapidated Chicago Transit Authority received a federal grant to, of all things, install ten to thirty security cameras at each public transit station. The security upgrade was inspired by the death of a 68 year-old women this January, who was pushed down CTA stairs by a robber that had stolen another commuter’s iPhone.  But videotaped crimes often make it to the Internet in minutes – and so can increase people’s conviction that crime is on the increase.

There is clearly something fundamentally decent about being upset and angry over the senseless death of one public school student or one CTA commuter. But basing the use of taxpayer money around these tragedies and the attendant “perception” that “crime is virtually out of control” is a terrible way to make public policy. The Chicago Public Schools needs money to compensate its grossly underpaid teachers and under resourced students – and pay off its $812 million deficit. The Chicago Transit Authority needs money to modernize its entire system and provide rail service to black neighborhoods in Chicago  where there is no access to rail transit.

Community advocates like Jackson at Black Star get upset about crime because of the crimes themselves, but also because it symbolizes something broader that is wrong with society. But the facts show two things: First, there is a decline in crime. And second, a decline in crime means nothing more than a decline in crime. Chicago has seen a measurable, impressive improvement in public safety the last 20 years. The same cannot be said of public schools, public transit, public and affordable housing, economic opportunities, and an ameliorating of the city’s deeply-rooted race and economic segregation. It is toward these issues – in Chicago and probably other urban areas in America – that we should redirect our vigilance and outrage.

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