As welcome as such changes have been, explanations for the nation’s plummeting homicide rate remain elusive, stymieing economists, criminologists, police, politicians and demographers. Have new police strategies made a difference, or have demographic shifts and population migrations steered the change? Could the reasons be as simple as putting more bad guys behind bars, or does credit go to changes made a generation ago, such as taking the lead out of gasoline or legalizing abortion?
Mass shootings such as last year’s searing incidents in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., have put gun and mental-health policies back atop the nation’s agenda. But the narrative of crime over the past two decades runs in a different direction. Law and order has largely vanished as a political issue — in 1994, more than half of Americans called crime the nation’s most important problem; by 2012, only 2 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said so.
Today, there are more theories about why crime has fallen than there were slayings on Hanover Place in the past decade.
The drop in deaths from firearms and in slayings overall — over the past two decades, homicide declined by 80 percent in the District and overall crime fell by 75 percent in New York City — has come even as the economy has tanked, the number of guns owned by Americans has soared and the number of young people in the prime crime demographic has peaked.
“There has been a real drop in crime, and anyone living in New York or Washington sees it,” said David Greenberg, a New York University sociologist who has tested theories for the decline. “In principle, we should be able to explain it, but it’s easier to determine what factors don’t contribute than it is to say what does.”
On Hanover Place, residents are quick to name two reasons the nights when they heard as many as 75 gunshots are a fading memory: The cast of characters has changed, and the police cleaned out the place.
Starting in the mid-’80s, D.C. police focused on the open-air drug market Hanover Place had become. Emptying onto North Capitol Street, Hanover could not have been better designed for drug dealing and the gun violence it spawns. Entered through a warren of alleys, the street gave bad guys any number of quick exit routes — through back yards, walkways and unmarked alleys — but prevented police in squad cars from seeing anything from adjacent streets.