Why are crime rates dropping?

Crime rates have dropped dramatically in major cities across the US, despite a worsening economy. What's behind this trend? Could improving technology have something to do with it?

Major city crime rates in the US in general — and in Washington, DC in particular — have dropped precipitously this year. DC's murder rate has dropped by between 17% and 30% (depending on who you ask) so far this year, in fact. Other cities seeing such dramatic decreases in crime rates include notable centers of criminal activity such as Boston, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

As the Washington Post reports in Plummeting Crime Rates Puzzle Experts, many criminologists are baffled by this turn of events. A common assumption is that a worsening economy correlates strongly with a worsening crime rate as levels of desperation and unemployment rise, though many criminologists dispute that fact, especially this year.

Police, of course, are quick to take credit.

"Everybody wants to beat us up when it goes up, so we'll take credit for it when it goes down," D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.

She has stronger arguments in favor of police activity being responsible for the drop in crime rates in DC than that, though. Increasing use of modern information processing techniques, policies, and technologies may have an effect on the ability of law enforcement organizations to predict and prevent criminal activity, as well as to effectively investigate and successfully prosecute after the fact.

Changes in the way police do their jobs include:

  • New York City: Police have started dispatching mobile data centers to neighborhoods where homicides have occurred to coordinate information such as parolees in the area.
  • Prince George's County: Top police commanders receive updates on criminal activity via their mobile phones every fifteen minutes, ensuring they are "in the loop" on law enforcement at all times.
  • Washington, DC: The police department maintains a weekly "Go-Go report", tracking concerts for local bands that may attract members of rival gangs, as well as a weekly gang report that allows them to better predict potential gang violence.

The key is better management of information, coordination of police efforts and resources, and pattern analysis for crime prediction.

DC Crime

This year's murder rate in Washington, DC — at about 79 a little over halfway through the year — is currently about 400 lower than that of DC in 1991. At this rate, we're looking at a crime rate drop of better than 67% since DC first became known as "the murder capital of the country".

Violent crime rates in general dropped from a high of around 2500 per 100,000 people in the early to mid 1990s to about 1500 or so per 100,000 throughout most of this decade. The first really significant drops in the 2000s that cannot reasonably be shrugged off as normal perturbations in social environment or the trailing end of dropping crime rates from the '90s occur as recently as 2008. Even in 2007 the violent crime rate in DC was more than three times the national average.

Chief Lanier in part credits roadblocks around bad neighborhoods that prevent people from entering or leaving those areas without providing a convincing excuse for traveling, as well as the increasing number of "crime cameras" in the District, for the drops in violent crime rates. The existence of such measures may actually be creating a preventative pressure, helping discourage people from committing crimes, whereas the other measures mentioned by Lanier and other cities' police chiefs and representatives seem primarily to focus on investigative success rates rather than direct prevention.

On the other hand, it's easy to imagine cameras and roadblocks having no appreciable effect on crime rates, or perhaps even worsening crimes — pointing to other factors being more important in explaining the drops in crime rates. Just as a "three strikes" rule tends to lead to an increased motivation to murder witnesses to a non-violent felony when the criminal already has "two strikes", it seems that increasing prevalence of "crime cameras" is inducing criminals to steal cars for use in crimes that may be caught on camera.

People in the community have been sending text messages to police "anonymously" with crime tips, according to Chief Lanier, too. Of course, short of using a prepaid cellphone bought with cash, I'm not sure how anonymous that can be — but it's certainly another sign that modern technology is contributing to societal security, in this case by helping people get more involved in security themselves. I'm sure a lesson can be learned from this for corporate security policy.

Other Factors

There are other factors that may have an effect as well.

  • Change of Focus:With all the sound and fury in the press about how crime rates will spiral out of control as the economy falls apart around our ears, it's probable that the entire focus of law enforcement that has changed. Proving the common sense notion that dumping resources into "securing" the wrong things (such as DRM) can actually damage security in other, more important areas, the War on Drugs has created whole categories of violent crime, and contributed to dramatic increases in rates of preëxisting categories of violent crime as well. More police officers have died in no-knock drug raids on the wrong house than in many other types of presumably dangerous law enforcement actions.Diversion of police resources from drug possession law enforcement to violent crime prevention may have a significant positive effect on crime rates. I'm unfortunately not aware of any statistics that have been gathered to support or dispute this theory of dropping crime rates, but it strikes me as a very plausible factor in explaining decreased crime rates, if such redirection of resources is happening.
  • Guns:Surveys of convicted felons — people who have good reason to fear the police, since they've been caught, convicted, and incarcerated — have shown that the fear the criminal element has for the police is eclipsed by that held for civilians who have firearms. This may have a rather direct effect on DC crime rates this year at least.Historically, Washington, DC has had some of the strictest firearms laws in the entire country, possibly outdone only by Chicago (another major city with a particularly bad violent crime rate). Summer of 2008 saw a significant change in how gun laws are treated in DC, though. A supreme court case, DC v. Heller, explicitly affirmed that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual right, and invalidated some of the more restrictive DC laws against handgun ownership and licensing. Then, in November 2008, a new President whose preference for strong gun control legislation is quite well known was elected to office, helping to spark the beginnings of the biggest increase in firearms and ammunition purchasing behavior by US citizens in my lifetime. The run on guns in southern California during the Rodney King riots, the Clinton era spike in gun sales because of increasing strictness of federal gun control laws, and the Win2k scare had nothing on the current rush to stock up on guns and ammo. Even adding the three together doesn't equal the dramatic increases in rate of firearms and ammunition sales since November last year.
  • Luck:It may all just be, at least to some extent, a matter of luck as far as public policy is concerned. There may not be any reasonable way to accurately pick out a major causative factor and use knowledge of that factor to influence public policy to help decrease violent crime rates.

Good News and Bad

The fact of the matter is that I'd love to have either, or both, of the following:

  • a clear explanation, complete with supporting evidence, that can be used to illustrate basic security principles
  • an obvious, notable case of technology helping to improve security, especially if I can say the Internet is saving the country

Unfortunately, the truth is that neither wish is likely to be granted any time soon. All we can do is speculate. Of course, the good news is that violent crime rates are dropping.


Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

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