Falling Crime Rates Challenge Long-Held Beliefs Crime rates dropped sharply in the past twenty years, according to FBI data, a trend that continues despite the recession and a recent decrease in prison populations. Criminologists see a clear trend, but can't fully explain what's driving the decline in violent and property crime rates.


Falling Crime Rates Challenge Long-Held Beliefs

Falling Crime Rates Challenge Long-Held Beliefs

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Crime rates dropped sharply in the past twenty years, according to FBI data, a trend that continues despite the recession and a recent decrease in prison populations. Criminologists see a clear trend, but can't fully explain what's driving the decline in violent and property crime rates.


Charles Lane, columnist, Washington Post
William Bratton, former chief of police, New York and Los Angeles


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. If violent crime statistics were spiraling up to historic levels, you might expect plenty of blame to go around: angry politicians pointing fingers and blue-ribbon panels pondering what's torn the fabric of society.

The fact is we're on the opposite end of that spiral. FBI statistics show crime down significantly over the past 20 years, homicides by 51 percent, property thefts 64 percent. Better policing gets some of the credit, but criminologists cheerfully admit they can't explain it all.

So what's gone right, and how does that change things? How has the drop in violent crime changed your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, 125 writers on the moment that changed their lives. We'd like to hear the story of your moment. You can email us now, talk@npr.org. But first the decrease in crime, and we begin with Washington Post columnist Charles Lane, who joins us from a studio at the newspaper. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

CHARLES LANE: Thank you, Neal, happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year to you. You're on because you wrote a piece where, among other things, you added up some of the hidden benefits of all this less crime.

LANE: Yeah, I think it's one of those things where the old saying is you don't know what you've got until it's gone, and here it's you don't know what you're getting until it's gone, in a way. We are - crime is down so dramatically that you can see the benefits not only in improved sort of sense of security and psychological well-being that goes along with that, that's shown up in Gallup polls that show people feeling more comfortable now walking at night outside.

It shows up in the improved nightlife of downtowns, which means more money for tourism here and there. There was a story, coincidentally, in the New York Times last week about the nighttime culture of Central Park. Remember that, it was supposed to be such a dangerous place? Now it's full of joggers and bikers and people walking their dogs.

And simply last but very much not least is the lives that are not being lost to crime that used to be. I cited some information in my piece from criminologist Franklin Zimring, who points out that because of the drop in homicide in New York, the death rate for young men in that city is half what it would have been if the homicide rate had remained what it used to be.

CONAN: I took a look at Mr. Zimring's book, "The City that Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control," and one of his conclusions is really interesting: Most of the crime associated with New York in the '70s and '80s, that's when it was spiraling up so badly, was not an organic outgrowth of the people who lived in the city or the way they lived.

Single-parent families, chronic illegal drug commerce and use, economic inequality, problematic urban educational systems and cultural values that emphasized male aggression and machismo can produce a city with homicide rates of 5.6 per 100,000, as well as producing a city with a homicide rate of 30.7.

His conclusion is there has been fundamental change in the crime rate without fundamental change in the city.

LANE: Yeah, that's his very controversial claim, and I think he is - one of the reasons I like his book is that he's very candid about what we do and do not know. I suspect the police department of New York would argue that they did make fundamental changes in the way they approached crime as an institution there, and New York, as you probably know, Neal, was a center of innovation under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.

And they take a lot of credit, but I think it's also probably the case that the credit that's given to those new policing tactics can be overstated. So we do have a little bit of a case study and sort of a crime mystery here. Fortunately, though, the question is trying to figure out a good development that's a bit mysterious.

CONAN: Well, let's get another voice into the conversation. Among those who get some of the credit for those changes, William Bratton, currently chairman of Kroll, a corporate investigations and risk consultant firm but formerly chief of police in Boston, New York City and Los Angeles. And he joins us from our bureau in New York. And William Bratton, nice to have you with us today.

WILLIAM BRATTON: It's very good to be with you, thank you.

CONAN: And I - how much does improved policing and larger numbers of police, how much credit should that be given?

BRATTON: In New York and Los Angeles the majority of the credit, being quite frank with you, that in both those cities - and I was police commissioner in '94 to '96 in New York and for 2002 to 2009 in Los Angeles, the country's two largest cities and presided over the beginnings of phenomenal decreases in crime.

And I give a lot of the credit to the police, who were focused on the changing of behavior because we have finally come to appreciate that crime is not caused by, but influenced by, the economy sometimes, by the weather sometimes, by demographics sometimes, by poverty, by racism. Those are influences which for 30 years criminologists, academics and politicians told us that they were the causes of crime.

The cause of crime is quite simple: It's human beings who decide intentionally to commit a crime, criminals, or many others who get caught up in the moment of passion under the inducement of alcohol or drugs and commit crimes. That's what police exist for, to control behavior.

And in New York City, and I can speak very specifically to it, and in Los Angeles, I can specifically towards there also, that was the focus of the Los Angeles and New York City police departments: to control behavior, to change it. And that's effectively what the single most significant cause was, if you will, in both those cities.

And also the embrace of a philosophy of policing, community policing, that after the failed philosophy of reactive policing, community policing focused on the prevention of crime, returning us to our roots.

So if you want to blame somebody for the crime decline in New York and L.A., two cities I'm intimately familiar with, blame the police.

CONAN: Blame the police, OK. Well, it's interesting, there are - during those 20 years, when crime has been declining, for most of that time, except for the last couple of years, the numbers of people incarcerated also spiraled up very heavily. Did that play a factor?

BRATTON: In New York, we intentionally understood that there was going to be a bell curve, that to change behavior, which had not been controlled for 30 years in this city, in which all types of aberrant street behavior was allowed - drug dealing on street corners, 8,000 open-air drug dealing locations in 1993 documented, quarter-million fare evaders every day in the subway system, street prostitution, the so-called broken windows that Kelling and Wilson wrote so eloquently about - that police were not focused on preventing crime or dealing with quality-of-life crime.

They were focused on responding to crime. That's what they were expected to do because they had been told that the root causes of crime were beyond anything that they could deal with.

If you believe that the root cause of crime is individual behavior, well, that's what police in a democracy exist to deal with, and that's what we dealt with, first in the subways in New York City beginning in 1990. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the effect of that in his book "Tipping Point," where fare evasion, which was epidemic, like an epidemic growing in leaps and bounds, once we began to focus on going after the individual fare evader so that people could see we were focused on that behavior, it changed and changed almost overnight.

Just the other day here in New York, a fare evader was arrested by a police officer, 20 years after we developed the tactic, and lo and behold, what did that fare evader have in his possession? He had a 9 millimeter handgun in his waistband, and in his gym bag, he had a machine gun.

And so the idea was that if he'd been smart enough to pay the fare, the police might not have ever focused on him, but because he broke the rules, in New York we pay attention to those rules, as well as more serious crime.

CONAN: Charles Lane, the explosion of prison population a byproduct of the policing that has happened, as well, is it an inevitable byproduct?

LANE: I don't think so. If you look at the numbers, they tell the story that during the period of 1990 to '99, when the country was just beginning to sort of get a hold of the crime rate that had exploded theretofore, you saw the prison population growing really fast, 6.5 percent per year, which was five times the rate of overall population growth.

But in the last decade, that decelerated to 1.8 percent growth per year through 2009, only twice the rate or a little bit close to twice the rate of overall population growth. And now in the last two years, the prison growth rate has begun to actually decrease, marginally, and I think that is natural because now that we've gotten crime down, right, in the last decade or two, there will be, you know, fewer inmates coming on-stream.

We do face as a society a couple of real dilemmas associated with this. One is the just troubling consequences of that many people, a million and a half people, roughly, in state custody. And number two, what to do with all those folks who were incarcerated for long periods in many cases back in the 1990s when they start coming out over the next decade.

But I think there's a lot of disagreement about exactly how much of the credit for reduction in crime, increased incarceration for longer sentences, deserves. But I think most experts agree it at least deserves part of it because during the '60s and '70s, the period where crime really took off in this country, it coincided with, in a way, a relaxation of incarceration, and so I think the reversal of that played some role in improving the crime situation.

BRATTON: This is Bill Bratton again. If I may go back to that point, in New York City, we consciously understood that when we began to change behavior that we were going to increase the number of arrests particularly for quality-of-life behavior, and many of those then led to arrests for more significant behavior such as carrying firearms while you're evading the fare on the subway.

So the prison population in the city jails, Rikers Island went up from about 17,000 to a maximum of about 22,000 in the '90s, today that prison population in the city jail is around 11,000 to 12,000 on average each day. Why? The city has had 700,000 crimes in the early 1990s each year. This year, they'll report about 105,000.

New York City is the principal feeder of the New York state prison system. New York state is, in fact, closing prisons because the prison population has declined. Effectively, it goes back to my point again about the emphasis on police changing behavior, controlling behavior to such an extent you change it.

We are going to be tested in the next several years as a large part of that prison population is being accelerated out of prison because of budget issues, et cetera, and coming back into an environment where, in many cases, they're not going to be under supervision of parole agents or probation agents.

So we have a new potential area of concern and area of study to learn from. Can we in fact control their behavior once they come out of prison?

CONAN: We're talking about the drop in crime rates over the past 20 years, a major drop in crime rates. How has that changed your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll continue with Washington Post columnist Charles Lane and William Bratton, the former chief of police in Los Angeles and New York City. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The economy remains sluggish. Even after the recession ended, a number of states released prisoners to cut costs or comply with court orders. Still, crime rates continue to drop. Criminologists can't fully explain why.

We're talking today about what's gone right in the fight against crime and how that changes things. How has the drop in violent crime changed your life? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Washington Post columnist Charles Lane, William Bratton, former chief of police in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, now chairman of Kroll, a corporate investigations and risk consultant group. And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. We'll start with Linda(ph), Linda with us from St. Louis.

LINDA: Well hi, happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year to you.

LINDA: I have a kind of unusual aspect - perspective on it. I'm thinking that violent video games have helped. I think when people get frustrated, and they go home, and they can shoot a few people on video, they don't have to do it in real life.

And, you know, I walk around my neighborhood, and, you know, I feel safer. People are in their house, and, you know, every window has a blue TV screen shining out of it. And, you know, that's - I think that's an outlet for people, and I think that they're using it a lot more. It's cheap, it's readily available, and you do it in the comfort of your home. You don't have to get on a subway, you know.

CONAN: Interesting theory, Linda. Charles Lane, I suspect if - again going back to that opening, if crime were going up, people would say it's those violent video games.

LANE: That's right, and they do say that when certain crimes happen. But I would offer kind of a modified hypothesis of what your caller just said. As Mr. Bratton well remembers, there used to be a place in Boston called the Combat Zone. It was an area where XXX films were shown, and it became sort of zoned there, and it was an area where criminals became active. And lots of cities had sort of red-light districts like that.

But now that pornography can be viewed on the Internet and before that on home video, a lot of that went indoors, and a lot of the sort of prostitution and outdoor kind of criminal activity that went along with it disappeared, as well.

I think there's a really potentially fruitful area for inquiry related to the whole change in urban downtown activity that may have been brought about by moving a lot of this kind of entertainment, adult entertainment, indoors to private homes.

CONAN: Interesting, Linda, but you do say you do feel more comfortable walking around downtown at night?

LINDA: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, I don't think that there is as much of a problem. People aren't coming up behind you. You know, it's calmer. I think that's the sense I get overall is the whole area, it's calmer.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Linda.

LINDA: All right, bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Robert(ph) in Little Rock: It's good to know crime is down in some places. However, that's not the case everywhere. In Little Rock, the murder rate doubled in 2011 from 2010. The problem with consolidated crime statistics is they downplay the very real problems in some communities where crime rates may deviate from the arithmetic mean. Perhaps L.A. or New York City can spare a few police to help us here in Little Rock.

William Bratton, it's important to point out, yes, some places do have problems, and some places, like New York, have had even more success than that mean.

BRATTON: Well, I think the point of the email is a very good one in that crime is not down everywhere in the significant way it is in New York and Los Angeles. But the good news is one of the things that has happened is the collaboration that goes on between government, between police, between communities in terms of what is working that we have more of an ability to share now than we did back in the '70s and '80s.

There's more willingness to share and to work with each other. The recent spate of arson fires in Hollywood, for example, the officials out there are crediting the collaboration between agencies that as recently as 10 years ago might not have even spoken to each other for a common problem that they quickly came together and called us and set up a task force and gave out a lot of information, and the social media was engaged in it.

Times have changed, and one of the great things that has changed is the ability to communicate and to share ideas. And I began in the 1970s, when ideas weren't even being researched to be shared, and the ability to share them was de minimus.

The world is a very different place today. So Little Rock, for example, can in fact learn from other communities as to what do they do to deal with the same issues they're dealing with. And like medicine, medicine works on different patients, it's a matter of being aware of it and having the appropriate medicine.

CONAN: We should note, William Bratton earlier said a lot of the credit should go to the police for the drop in violent crime statistics. In 2011, U.S. police fatalities rose 13 percent. So we need to note that and note that those changes in statistics come at a price for those who are on the front lines, and that happens all the time.

Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Joe's(ph) on the line with us from Tampa.

JOE: Hey, Neal, great show as always. I've got to say New York is now once again my favorite city. I grew up there in the '70s, and you would never ride the subway. Now in the '80s, you would see there was a lot more police riding the subway, and we were just up there last year. I let the kids go and see some stuff in downtown Times Square on their own and, you know, came back, we stayed right there, had a wonderful vacation.

CONAN: Charles Lane, you noted the Combat Zone in Boston, Times Square in New York City, well, a lot tamer than it used to be.

LANE: You know, I showed my journalism students in a recent class a film about New York that was set in the mid-'80s, and it depicted that kind of wild scene in Times Square, and it was like showing them a film from another country. They didn't know what I was talking about.

But there are incredible statistics. Central Park in 1981 reported 731 robberies in Central Park alone. In this year, the recently passed 2011, 17 robberies in Central Park. That - you know, the positive spiral that this sets off is just extraordinary, and it goes right back to what Mr. Bratton was saying.

When police departments are not swamped by the crime in their own jurisdictions, they have more time and more people available to do the kind of communication he's talking about, and that in turn helps them lower crime further. That frees up additional resources.

In fact, New York has sustained these reductions in crime with a smaller police force. It has shrunk by about 6,000 men over the last - men and women I should say - over the last decade. And so I can't emphasize strongly enough that once you achieve that tipping point, the positive spiral that it sets in motion is really dramatic in some cases.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to Daniel(ph), Daniel with us from Oxford in Ohio.

DANIEL: Good afternoon, how are you today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

DANIEL: Excellent. I wanted to make a comment that I think will inform a little bit of your discussion. I'm a law enforcement officer working in a rural environment. In the areas of a rural state like Ohio, we've noticed that total arrests per officer are down. I would like to consider, like, at least your panelists to consider, the fact that officer-initiated violator contacts are down because of fewer number of law enforcement officers. And that would directly relate the total number of arrests and reports of crime.

CONAN: So you're suggesting there's crime, even violent crime, that goes unreported?

DANIEL: Indeed, and what I would - I would present that the officer-initiated crime is down significantly, at least in my area of the world, largely because there are fewer officers that are actively on patrol specifically in our rural areas. The urban areas that you've discussed earlier, clearly there is less public crime in the downtown areas because of the good work of law enforcement, you know, professionals like Chief Bratton and many of the others that have followed in his example.

Wherever you have areas that have lots of legitimate visitation and good populations of law-abiding citizens, the violating population feels less comfortable and less inclined to do violence. I think that was a large part of Chief Bratton's book that he published in the mid-'90s, his book entitled "Turnaround," that I'm confident is the fact in the areas where you have large populations and proactive professional law enforcement, it's created environments that...

CONAN: Well, it's interesting you say that, but Chief Bratton, I'm taking Daniel's comments, they're important, but nevertheless I don't think there's, for example, less drug traffic in places like New York and Los Angeles than there used to, there's just less violent crime associated with drugs.

BRATTON: Not necessarily that in New York, I mentioned that in 1993, '94, that there were 15,000 documented drug-selling locations, 8,000 on the streets, street corners, and 7,000 indoor locations. Certainly those 8,000 external, very visible locations that were destroying neighborhoods are largely gone, not to say there's still certain areas in New York that you can see open-air drug dealing, but not anywhere near the scale of which it occurred in 1993, '94.

And the issue, I think, is the idea that where police focus their attention, that the number of police are important, you get what you pay for, that you can expect what you expect. And in New York in the '90s, we had a lot of cops: 38,000. It went up to as high as 41,000 after I had left. But in Los Angeles, I had a police force of about 9,000. And while we were able to grew it by almost a thousand over the seven years I was there, I still proportionally had a police force that I would have had to have had 18,000 officers in L.A. to have had equivalent numbers to what I had in New York.

But it was how we use them. We use them very proactively, hot-spot policing. We use them very assertively. And we use them to control behavior. The challenge was to do it constitutionally, compassionately, consistently. But L.A. now is into - going into its 10th straight year of crime decline with a police force that's actually shrinking in size, similar to New York's situation. And what has, in fact, happened was that with a population that has grown in both cities, the criminal population has not grown, that the behavior is being controlled.

And so to your caller's point, it's a combination of factors: enough police, but, as importantly, what those police are doing. Are they, in fact, assertive? Are they policing? Are they addressing what's creating fear? In New York for 30 years, they were not addressing what was creating fear among the eight million, and that was bringing about the 700,000 victims that they had in the early 1990s. Starting in the '90s, we began to address what was creating the fear, as well as the root causes.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much for the call.

DANIEL: And thank you very much for your time and, Chief Bratton, for your valuable service.

BRATTON: Thank you.

CONAN: And Charles Lane, I wanted to go back to that point, though. It is - Mr. Zimring's contention in his book, "The City That Became Safe," indeed that by most demographic projections, the way the population of the city - in New York City he's writing about - you would expect, by previous expectations, that crime would have gone up. In fact, it has gone down.

LANE: Yeah. I think one of the reasons I wrote in my column was that I think journalists generally don't spend enough time trying to understand good news. And I think this is a challenge to all of us who try to analyze what's going on in the society, is to understand why this positive trend took hold at a time precisely when everyone - all the experts were predicting that in the early 1990s that we were about to experience an even worse crime wave in this country. And it did - not only didn't happen, it went dramatically in the other direction.

One of the things that was supposed to be about to happen was the rise of the sort of youth super-predator category - didn't happen. Another thing that was supposed to happen was that, you know, crime in small cities was going to start to approach the same level as New York City - didn't happen. And so forth, and so on. And I think, again, it's a problem that really needs study. If I wanted to call for anything in this, it would be detailed, careful study of this positive trend, so that we can make sure to continue to do the things that will prevent this from ever reversing and ever having the country go back to the past levels of violence.

BRATTON: Charles Lane is a columnist for The Washington Post. He wrote about crime statistics for the newspaper. William Bratton, the former police chief for Los Angeles, New York City and Boston, now current chairman of Kroll. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go to Tara, Tara with us from California.

TARA: Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. I love your show. You have a great show. My husband and I listen to it all the time.

CONAN: Thank you.

TARA: Yeah. I just wanted to say real quickly that we've been experiencing the opposite. We're in Northern California, and quite a few areas have been experiencing an explosion of crime - not violent crimes. It's more home invasions, home break-ins, that sort. But I don't agree with that last caller. I think reduced police force, maybe a reduce in recordkeeping and statistics - so, you know, for L.A. to have less crime, I'm really surprised. I'm from L.A. And with the problems on the border, you know, drugs and so forth, I'm really surprised that they show less violent crime.

CONAN: All right, Tara. Thanks very much. And again, it's important to remember categories of crimes and location, location, location. Here's an email from Jonathan in Massachusetts: Why is it now that murder rates are falling? You hear little or no talk about changing criminal law to provide more liberty and less security. Why don't we also pass laws to be a little softer on criminals or make prisons more humane? We are quick to move to a more police state when things get bad, but refuse to move back when the facts change. I wonder, Charles Lane, if you have a comment.

LANE: Well, I guess I don't agree with the caller's premise. I think that actually a number of states now are exploring alternatives to incarceration. I think the - kind of the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction. We've recently had the Supreme Court order a large-scale release of prisoners from California state prisons because they were deemed to be unconstitutionally - the conditions were unconstitutionally bad. And I think that, in fact, the nature of the fall in crime itself is about to start solving some of the concerns that the caller or the emailer raises because, I repeat, as you have less crime, you will have less incarceration. I think this problem, though, a real one is - I hope, and I think the numbers suggest - may be already on the way to ameliorating itself to some degree.

CONAN: And, Chief Bratton, you've talked about some of the things that you thought went right, including, of course, important changes in how the police operate. What is the most important thing to remember as we move forward? What lesson should we learn?

BRATTON: Well, I think, of the 1990s, we had a perfect storm, in a good way. We had, truly, for the first time, a collaboration, a partnership between the national government, the omnibus crime bill, President Clinton, the creation of the community policing office and the embrace of that philosophy. So we had partnership - federal, state, local government. We had a philosophy that repudiated the professional philosophy of focusing police on only responding to crime.

It was now going to be turned into a focus on prevention. We had an investment, a huge investment made in seven - excuse me, 100,000 additional police officers in the United States who are better-equipped, better-trained, better-led. We had lessening of some of the racial tensions that have been so much part of our problems in the '60s, '70s and '80s. We had a very good time in the 1990s in that we invested significantly in trying to correct the problem that had been going for 30 years.

Now, as we go into the 21st century, we are disinvesting, and we're going to - we have to take a close look at what does that disinvesting - what is it going to result in? Will it see a return to some of the bad old days? We just don't know right now, because we're at the beginning of the turn of that pendulum.

CONAN: William Bratton, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Charles Lane, also thank you for your time. Charles Lane, a columnist for the Washington Post, joined us from a studio at the newspaper there.

Up next: the kiss, verdict, the second chance - tell us about the moment that changed your life. 800-989-8255. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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