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Understanding Crime in America

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is DC public safety. I am your host Leonard Sipes. Understanding crime in America is our topic today. Ladies and gentlemen nobody better to explain crime in America than John Roman, he is a senior fellow with the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, You can follow John on twitter @Johnkroman. John, welcome back to DC public safety.

John: Thank you very much sir.

Leonard: There is nobody better to explain the topic of crime in America than you because it gets really difficult to understand. For the last twenty years, it has been an almost containable decrease in crime. In the United States, it has been almost continuous with a couple of blips here and there yet at the same time we have the Gallup organization coming out with poll suggesting that most Americans believe that crime is increasing. We have again another Gallup poll talking about household victimization that even included cyber crime. This is a one year basis criminal victimization. Household victimization is a up to forty six percent.

If you take a look at Ferguson, if you take a look at other issues of importance, if you take a look at what is happening in cities throughout the United States where crime is a problem. If you say that crime has gone down continuously for the last twenty years, it gives you a blank stare. Can you place all of these in the context for us?

John: Sure. I think what happens is throughout, most of the middle of the last century, crime is pretty stable in America for a bunch of reasons we can talk about. In the sixties, crime, particularly violence and particularly crime around drug use and drug distribution, starts to skyrocket and skyrocket throughout the seventies. It stays very high throughout the eighties. It declines in the nineties and sort of stabilizes. Then, in the last five or six years it has declined again. Only the decline in the nineties sort of happened everywhere with the decline in the last five or six years has been focused in particular geographies and not everywhere. People’s experiences with crime decline has been very different of-late.

Leonard: Explain those geographies.

John: Sure. What you see is places like New York City, Washington, Dallas and San Diego are places that have experienced a second large decline in violence. Places like Chicago, Philly , Pittsburgh, and other  cities have seen much less decline in violence. Even in some of these cities  even little uptake in violence over the same period.

Leonard: How do you put all that into perspective. I mean, if you tell the average person that crime has had an almost a continual twenty year decline, it has been a little tick or it has gone up in here in Rio, but over the last twenty years plus crime has gone down. Yet, the average person as recorded by Gallup feel that crime has gone up. I did a radio show yesterday about coverage in America where the Pew studies in 2011 was sited saying that crime is one of the most popular topic the people want in terms of news coverage, I think sports and weather were the only topic that beat it.

People are really concerned about crime. Again, you tell them twenty year decline in crime and you they look at you as if you have three heads, especially if they are from Boston, Detroit  or from Chicago.

John: I think the story is, violence in America according to the FBI has declined towards the last twenty three years. As I said, it declined everywhere in the nineties, sort of stabilized in early more focus in specific places are having better experiences with crime. All that said, the national narrative is one about a violent America being dominated by violent criminals. You can go on cable TV and easily find a show like Gangland that show picture of violent groups of heavily armed people distributing drugs and attacking strangers.

If you are careful on how you look at issues, you know that most of them are showing footage from late eighties and early nineties and almost none of them are showing footage that is carried in the last generation. The message is still penetrates, the message is still is, anytime there is a violence incidence in America, anytime there is a kidnapping, anytime there is a shooting incident with multiple victims. That’s the news that dominates everywhere and everybody inside his home. It doesn’t matter what is happening in your neighborhood, the narrative is America is violent, you need to be scared.

Leonard: Well, America is violent you need to be scared, but it’s wrong because again, crime has been down for the last twenty years. American watch our television shows. You and I had the discussion before we hit the record button of where I can’t stand to watch the crime shows because you have very young, very good looking people with the best possible equipment with all the time in the world surfing crime almost instantaneously through technology that doesn’t exist. Its a myth.

I think people are being pulled in a lot of different direction in terms of what it is that they should believe. There is something called the CSI effect in court rooms where there are actually losing court cases because the Jury comes in with an expectation that what they see on television is what is real. The point is, is that what is real? How should American see crime and how the American lace it within it’s proper context? The follow up question is going to be the hardest question of all. Question that I get from time to time from news media is, why is crime down over the course of the last twenty years?

John: If you are over the age of forty, you’ve never lived in a safer America that you do today. That is true virtually everywhere in America. The popular TV narrative about the criminal mastermind, the hacker, the serial killer, those people don’t really exist. What causes crime in America is dense communities of low skilled young men. We’ve gotten better as a society about policing. Those communities are getting better about how we change what to make up a public housing is and frankly we have taken a lot those young men and we put them under the formal justice system. They are less able to commit crime.

We’ve been effective across a number of different domains in reducing crime in America. That message has not gotten out. There is a saying on capital health and efficiency has no constituency. The idea that we have become more efficient and more effective isn’t a message that anybody is out beating the drum about because there is nobody who is going to be responsible to it.

Leonard: Efficiency has no constituency, that is an interesting thought. Very interesting thought.

John: Anybody who want to the story that the world is getting better, doesn’t really have anybody to tell it to. If you want to tell the story of world being worse and being dangerous, and you showed yourself buy a home security system. I think one of things that are under sold in all these is corporate America. If you look at these ad about home security system, they are really upholding those messages, you know, a young mum in home with her young daughter and guy breaking in through the window, I mean it’s absolutely frightening. Those sort of things don’t actually happen very often and they happen less and less frequently over time, but the messaging has gotten more vivid and more and more scary. I think that causes Americans to be more and more afraid.

Leonard: We never have lived in a safer America, which is perfectly true. Now, there are two sources of information, one on crime report of the laws enforcement and then there is the crime survey, which is reported non reported crime through survey. Both are basically saying the same thing. You may find different variation from time to time, but the trend lines certainly are down for both the national crime survey and the crime report of the law enforcement.

If you take a look at other indices such as drug use, such as people in school … Younger individual in school being involved in crime, there are a dozen of others, they all seem to be down. It’s just not about John’s opinion. This is the bulk of research, good research over decades basically saying the same thing.

John: I think that if you said compared to 1990, is crime down at least fifty percent in America particularly violent crime, I think you are on a solid ground, I think the FBI did reflect that, I think the victimization survey reflects that. I think that if you look at any local law enforcement agency that happens to go back that far, I think they reflect that. I think that story is inarguable true, the question is the one you posed, why has this happened and what can we do to continue  the trend?

Leonard: That is what criminologists want to know. There was a point where, I forget exactly what the year, but the FBI at a certain point said homicide were at their lowest rate in decades.

John: Since the early 1960s. Homicides are really a very good indicator for all these because the rest of the kind victimization is. One of the things that is happening in America is that we are getting older on average and we are getting wealthier on average and that means we are more scared, we are more risk , we want there to be even less crime than there is.

Reporting about crime might change a little bit as people get older and scared, richer, and they have more to protect and might tend to report things as being crimes that they may not have reported when they were younger and poor and less scared. If you look at the national reporting data, it’s inarguable that crime is way in America. It’s very interesting every year, I talk to reporters right around January 1st when we tell the story and I go to the common section of these big international national newspapers and there hundreds if not thousands of columns about why I’m absolutely wrong.

Leonard: Right. I guess that is the point. When you talk at different people they look at you like you have three heads when you start saying the data. It’s not just John’s opinion, we are talking about, again, not to beat the point to death, but in terms of survey data, in terms of crime report of law enforcement, in terms of other surveys, lots of other [inaudible 00:10:05] all follows the same trend line. There is no doubt that you are correct. The criminologist’s question, the reporter’s question, can you give me an explanation as to why crime is down over the course of the last twenty years and my response is called January.

John: I appreciate that. I think we know that the other supporting bit of evidence is that in none of the last national elections has the issue of crime being even addressed in any sense. It’s really was something that we needed to change our policies around. It would come up anytime. That is important. Crime is down for five reasons. Crime is down in the nineties because we quadrupled, we increased four hundred percent the number of people in America who were incarcerated.

That doesn’t mean its a good policy. That doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly inefficient, it doesn’t it’s not a waste of tax payers money to incarcerate that many people, but inevitably if you put enough people behind bars and under supervision, you are going to reduce crime if that happen. At the same time, the crack epidemic in 1991 and this is the lowest number of people using crack cocaine in the last three generations is in 1991. People stopped using it as those drug market dried up, there was less violence around them. Those two explanations explain why the crime declined in 1990s.

Why is crime declining today? Beginning about 2007, crime started to decline again. As we stated, it’s not everywhere, it’s Washing, New York, Dallas, and San Diego, it’s not more to Philadelphia and Chicago. Why is that? There is three reasons for that and there are other reasons why people will look at you like you have three heads. One reason is that some of these cities became very friendly to immigrants. On average, according to the criminologists that I believe, a community of recent immigrants that is basically poor living in dense place will have on average a lot less crime associated with that community than exact same impoverished community of people who lived here for generations.

What happened is, and you have seen cities like DCs and New York, you can transact business in with government of these cities. They have really tried to attract immigrants as anew source of labor. What happens is, neighborhood that are cheap and poor become safer and they attract people who want to live and want to own their own home but they cannot afford it and they don’t want to buy in dangerous places and all these places in Washington Dc and places like that. This is true, in every city you can find these communities. They overall become safer and cheap. So people move in, they buy, and they invest. That investment brings more investment and overtime that part of the community starts to thrive and becomes less segregated.

Leonard: Are we saying that these are market forces taking place that are just as important as the criminology efforts?

John: I’m saying that almost every explanation for why crime has declined in the last ten years has pretty much nothing to do with criminal justice policy. I think we have got better policing, I think technology have gotten better, but if you look at the other explanations I don’t know that they have a lot to do with how we spend out public resources. There is a reason why the car that is most often in stock in America was manufactured in 1999 because you can take a Flathead screwdriver and shove into the ignition, twist it and drive off with it. Try to doing that with a cars that was manufactured in the last ten years.

Leonard: You can’t do it.

John: Can’t do it, doesn’t work. That is a big part of the explanation.

Leonard: All that is down, are you taken a look at all the areas where you have security devices coming into play and the discussion in terms of stolen iPhones, stolen computers and now we are talking about making sure that they cannot operate when they are stolen. There were technological advances that are economic advance, advances in criminal justices system, those who vest in criminal justice system will say what we did was to stabilize these communities to the point where they could change economically. They are going to take credit for that, from a law enforcement point of view or a correction point of view. You have all of these plus what?

John: I think all of that is exactly right. I think we have learnt a lot about how to do better policing, I think we have learnt a lot about how to do better supervision of people in custody. Whether it’s a community correction or within criminal justice correctional system itself. I think we have gotten much better about treating the underlying causes of people’s criminal offending whether that is alcohol abuse or drug abuse and health problems. Whatever it is that makes people unhappy with their state in life.

We have gotten better a lot better in trying to address the underlying problem rather than locking people up. The technological and the security improvement all these things create a trend that should cause there to be more crime if it just get out of it’s way.

Leonard: This are the ever amazing conversation every time I have John Roman senior fellow from the Urban Institute by the microphone. I’m always fascinated by the discussion. There are a lot of those within the criminology community who do wonderful research, but I’m not quite sure they can explain it well as John. John again is with the Urban Institute justice Policy Center, You can follow John at twitter @Johnkroman. We are talking today about understanding the crime upheaval in America putting it in the context and explaining it because of the continued twenty years reduction in crime yet there are a lot of people out there who remain very concerned about crime per Pew and Gallup and just people who are living in cities who are having crime problems.

John, in those cities that are continuing to have the crime problems, you look at criminal justice … Summaries from criminal justice reporters every single day and you take a take a look at Chicago, if you take a look at the Boston. People there are concerned, how do you solve their problem? How do you bring … How do they follow what is happening in Washington Dc, in New York and other cities where we have been successful?

John: Some of it is acknowledging what your weaknesses are and some of it is acknowledging what your strengths are. If you look at the map of Chicago, compare to a map of new York and you look at the distribution of people where they live by their weights. What you will see when you look at Chicago is an incredible segregated city. What you look at when you look at New York is not a perfectly integrated city, but a much more integrated city.

It’s that isolation of people where they are never exposed to anybody who has a different experience than they have, who int poor, who is a job, whose dad isn’t incarcerated. In New York, you are much more likely to have those multiple experiences and exposures. That allows you to have hope to try and work on making your life better and in ways that don’t happen in places like the outside of Chicago where all experiences in angle were bad.

Leonard: The integration and immigration and other market forces once again as much as they are criminology efforts.

John: I think that’s right. It’s what we said. The natural trend of the world is far more safety. Security is getting better, the ability to secure your property is getting better, you call your home yourself, police are getting better investigating arresting people who are involved in criminal opportunities. There are all kind of other things going on in the world that make the world safer.

If you want to buy drugs today, you don’t have to go to an open air drug market where you are going to be surrounded with dangerous people some of whom are drug seeking, some of whom are selling and they are armed. You can with your cell phone and call someone and they will bring ti to you. The world is getting safer, the trend is towards more safety. The question is, what can cities do to help accelerate that trend?

Leonard: What can they do?

John: One thing they can do is being friendly with the immigrants. Allow these communities to develop out people who can live in a city to help the city grow, bring new resources to it, help accelerate the trend of justification, help decelerate the trend of segregation and create an atmosphere that is more conducive to lower crime and more economic development.

Leonard: You take a look at the Worldwide crime trend rate, me and you talked about this in another show, I remember in advanced criminology course a long time ago looking at the crime trend for New Zealand, for Australia, for Great Britain, for Canada, the other western industrialized countries, crime seem to go up and seem to come down with the same trend line. Not necessarily the same numbers, but the trend lines seem to be there. Not only are we talking about an explanation of crime in America, we are talking about an explanation of crime in the we stern and industrialized world.

If all basically rises and fall s at the same time, it’s just not an explanation within United States, it’s the western and industrialized explanation.

John: I think that is exactly right. There are two things going on that are very interesting. The one is, do the trend line in Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and the US are they the same? And they are. What is interesting about it is that none of those other countries have the same experiences we had with crack cocaine and none of them had the mass incarceration response.

If you think that the world is trending together and you want to know why the crime is declining, it does make you want to scratch you head a little bit and wonder why other nations that didn’t have the crack cocaine, didn’t have mass incarceration are experiencing the same level of decline. There are some explanation for that. One of the explanation for that is a simple one, which is that we took lead out of gasoline and in 1970s, in sudden most western industrialized countries.

When I think about lead poisoning I think of kids eating lead paints which is against … But it’s not what is dangerous, what was dangerous was the leaded gas, the regular gas. In 1970s, people exposure to lead in the blood stream to be much higher than it is today and that of lead poising that lead exposure causes people to behave in more in antisocial ways, to be less able to exhibit self control and it postulated that that is part of the explanation.

Another part of the explanation is that security technology has got better everywhere. Another part of the explanation is that, we have learnt a lot about policing. Policing in Australia, Canada, US, and Great Britain all talk to each other, they go to the same campuses, they go to the same researchers. They are all …

Leonard: It’s the criminology system

John: I think it’s right. The focus has been much more on trying to do things in the community, trying to keep adolescent out of juvenile corrections, and in family based therapies, trying to treat underlying disorder rather that incarcerating people, teaching police how to be part of the community rather than a police a force. All those things have contributed in stabilizing communities to allow these other to accelerate the county crime.

Leonard: Within the context of all this, declining crime, but yet as I said before the Gallup poll indicating that people are more concerned about crime. Gallup poll saying that the less cyber crime forty six percent of household on a yearly basis experience crime. Within that context of criminologists and reporters and average people trying to put all this in it’s proper context, we have Ferguson. The other issue is that now we are having a very intense discussion over the role of the police, the role of the community, what is proper, what is just, what we should be doing.

It’s a conversation I think we in the criminal justice system welcome, but it’s confusing to people because they are told that the New York city miracle, I think it is a miracle, but done through very aggressive law enforcement. That was the issue that held crime down in New York and that has been exported to criminal analysis, crime mapping, very proactive law enforcement. That has been offered as an explanation for why crime has gone down in certain cities. Put that up against the conversation we are having now about praising law enforcement in America, how do you make sense of all that?

John: In 1990, in New York city, there were over twenty two hundred homicides, last year, they were under four hundred. Twenty two hundred to under four hundred.

Leonard: It’s an unbelievable decline.

John: There were hundred and ten thousand motor vehicles stolen in New York city in 1990, last year, they were about ten thousand and all that was due to very aggressive policing. Now, contrast that with Washington Dc, which had four hundred and seventy nine homicides that same year, 1990, which got it’s lowest eighty eight a couple of years ago. Four hundred and seventy nine to eighty eight in a …

Leonard: Huge drop.

John: Eighty plus percent is a …. What chief [inaudible 00:23:31] has done in Washington Dc is community policing. She has all officers write their cell phone numbers on the back of the business cards, tell them to call me anytime day or night if you think a beef is developing and is going to turn into something serious. Call me and I will come.

Leonard: In both cities you can feel this.

John: You can feel it right.

Leonard: You can feel it, touch it, smell it, taste it. Those of us who have been to New York city several times, those of us who work in DC or live in DC you can feel this. What about strangers, let’s talk about Ferguson, what Ferguson means in that context of these different policing style.

John: I think one of the one of the take away from Ferguson that hasn’t gotten any attention is an acknowledgment that the way we feel about law enforcement in America has changed. In 1990, in New York city, when there were over two thousand homicide in a single year, which is an astonishing number, the tactics that were employed in Ferguson and in Cleveland and in Long Island. There was much violence and we all accepted that we needed to get these places stabilized as you said. I think that is right.

Today, we have gotten to the point where crime is declining, where people don’t believe there is as much violence. They are not accepting these kind of police tactics as they would have been twenty years ago.

Leonard: It’s a new conversation.

John: It’s a new conversation.

Leonard: It’s a new conversation for a new time.

John: It’s almost, in many ways, it’s an optimistic conversation. Right. The fact that people were willing to … It’s worth noting that it takes an enormous amount to get people to go out into the street. To put their liberty at risk. In order to make a statement about a policy issue like how the police police. The fact that we see all these huge gatherings across America, eventually every city is a sign people caring no mercy about this issue. Then, we have seen almost virtually every single of these demonstrations have been non violent.

This is unlike the sixties or the riots.

Leonard: People need to understand that context. I mean, we lived through decades where there was a lot violence associated with the demonstrations and there was endless demonstrations for endless reasons. Now, most of these, the great majority of these are non violent demonstrations.

John: It goes to your other question, which is very interesting part. If I am sitting there as a criminologist watching these demonstrations thinking about what it means in terms of policy, my reaction is, this is very hopeful, this makes me feel good about the world of people care enough to go out and voice their opinion on this topic that they are non-violent. The chief of  police in Philadelphia. He followed the demonstrators and would tweet thing like, citizens exercising their rights. That is wonderful.

Leonard: It’s opportunity for new conversation, but maybe that conversation is welcome and necessarily.

John: It is, but the problem is that the news media is focusing on few people who are part of those demonstrations who are breaking into the seven and eleven taking casing of water and will have that done over their faces how masking they were identities because that makes for better television even though this conversation has been overwhelmingly positive than news media portrayal of it has been frightening to a segment of American whose risk are to begin with.

Leonard: That is why we are calling the program understanding crime in America because again people need to have some sense of context reporter citizens needs to have, we in the criminal justice need to have some sort of context in terms of not just to what happens within the last two years, but to what have happened within the last thirty or forty years.

John: That is right. The big change in America has been our urban policies. Urban policies in fifty and sixties were designed to divide. We build big estate and highways that separated, segregated and isolated huge portions of our citizens lanes. We are beginning to take those things down. We are beginning to build subways that integrate our communities, we are encouraging immigration,  we are encouraging economic development, we are encouraging all sorts of racial interaction that didn’t exist before.

All those natural forces along with technological growth, the growth of security, the maceration and evolution of our policing agency. All those things present a trend where America the next generation should be even safer than it is now. Those policies could be accelerated if American could be convinced that the world is in fact a good place today and they will be willing to invest in those things.

Leonard: Fine, at middle of other programs John, we did have a point where five six years ago, we were talking about the super predators when they were coming increasing in crime, that hasn’t happened. How long can we take this declining crime? How far out?

John: I think it can go along way. There have been a lot research … As a researcher, I find that it’s where that research penetrates, but one bit of research did, this was some studies that Larry and colleague did at the Temple University where they did studies about brain evolution, maturity, social, and emotion maturity of young people. What they concluded was people continue to evolve into their late twenties and the threshold of eighteen being an adult is arbitrary.

I think criminal do know justice system should really respond to this message and began to think about young people differently. It has helped us to avoid having this super predator thing happen.

Leonard: We have a better understanding of crime in America which is the title of our program. Ladies and gentlemen we have had John Roman, senior fellow with the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center. Before our microphone we get a lot of positive comments in terms of John’s ability to explain very complex issues., @Johnkroman if you are interested to following John on twitter. Ladies and gentlemen this is DC public safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticism and we want everybody to have themselves a very present day.