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Crime Rate Plummets: Fewer Killings Predicted for D.C., New York and L.A.

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Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009; 12:00 PM

Violent crime has plummeted in the Washington area and in major cities across the country, a trend criminologists describe as baffling and unexpected. The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

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Washington Post staff writer Allison Klein was online Monday, July 20, at Noon ET to discuss the figures and the possible reasons why.

A transcript follows.

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Allison Klein: Hi everyone. Crime is down! Thoughts? Questions? Let's chat.

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Capitol Hill: Thanks for this encouraging article, which I read with much interest.

My Capitol Hill neighborhood, near Eastern Market, seems to be an anomaly here. Muggings, car incidents (mostly broken windows for unclear purpose), and even some forced-entries into homes seem to be on the rise.

Are other neighborhoods showing any increase in lower-level crime? If so, what might explain this pattern? I wonder if urban neighborhoods without any obvious gang presence more vulnerable to lower-level crime.

Thank you!

washingtonpost.com: Major Cities' Plummeting Crime Rates Mystifying (Post, July 20)

Allison Klein: Hi Capitol Hill. I have noticed that there have been a bunch of these incidents in your area. Looking at the stats for the first police district, most crimes are actually down for the year. I think technology (listservs, texts, etc) has made people more aware than ever about what's going on in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the kinds of crimes you mentioned are not new on the Hill. Full disclosure: I know this because I live there, too.

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Alexandria, VA: Baby boomers retire, crime plummets!

Allison Klein: Funny...I think we have a baby boomer in the audience.

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Laurel, Md.: There's plenty of data on crime rates by race.

Is there any indication that the election of Barack Obama has affected crime rates by reducing feelings of hopelessness and exclusion among African-Americans?

Allison Klein: I have gotten a lot of e-mails this morning about this. There's really no way to tell if this is true. A lot of Obama supporters seem to think so, but none of the dozen or so criminologists I talked to for this article cited it. I suppose time will tell.

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Baltimore, Md.: Trying to figure out cause and effect is tricky, and you repeat some police department booster-ism. Have you looked systematically to see whether the cities where crime has dropped (not just D.C., PG County, Fairfax Co., Montgomery Co., and New York, but also Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and Minneapolis) are ones which have instituted new policing measures, whereas those where crime has increased (Baltimore, Dallas) have not?

The fact that the change is so widespread nationally (and apparently extends to property crime) makes me wonder whether more systemic factors are at play. Do you have any ideas for what those might be? One that comes to my mind is the slowing/reversal of immigration from Latin America. Crime rates and gang involvement for Hispanics tend to be higher than average, so the idea at least has surface plausibility, but needs to be looked at rigorously.

Allison Klein: Hi, Baltimore. Interesting you bring up the immigrant angle. Many of the criminologists I talked to said that immigration actually has the opposite effect. They pointed to studies that show people who are born here are more likely to commit crimes than people born elsewhere.

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Washington: More criminals are being put in prison and kept there longer. Doesn't this account for at least part of the decrease in crime?

Allison Klein: It does. Getting violent repeat offenders behind bars certainly reduces crime. But there hasn't been any identifiable trend of lock-ups that would account for the recent dip in crime this year.

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Chicago: I didn't see Chicago anywhere on your list of cities experiencing surprise drops in crime. I'm not surprised. Do you have any feel for how Chicago's major crime rates are doing and why that city is an anomaly compared to its peers? Thanks.

Allison Klein: Chicago is a bit of a mixed bag. The homicide numbers are actually down a bit this year, but the city has been suffering from several extremely violent crime spurts. Sadly, youths are getting killed in high numbers in Chicago this year.

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Prince George's County: Simply put, people who are behind bars cannot offend in the community. The longer violent young men are detained, the longer communities have to recover from the significant social impacts of their violence. Isn't it likely that the admittedly high rates of incarceration so frequently decried by the left have in fact resulted in substantially lower violent crime in our cities?

Starting perhaps with the get-tough era of Gov. Rockefeller, the 40-year trend lines correspond eerily: population behind bars going steadily up while violence nationwide goes down. Yes, the Crack Wars saw a surge in urban violence, but the longer term correlation between incarceration and lowering violence even seems to have been confirmed, not refuted, as the War on Drugs has chugged along.

This is certainly not a fashionable view in liberal cities, but it's an obvious and practical one that should be addressed.

Allison Klein: Your theory makes sense, but it doesn't account for prisoner re-entry. Most prisoners get out of jail, and often times they have trouble re-entering society. This sometimes leads to the cycle of committing more crimes, going back to jail, etc. So locking people up isn't the only answer.

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Maryland: Okay, maybe this is naive, but the boomer retirement seems plausible. Higher populations (boomers) would seem to equate to larger numbers of criminals (other things being equal). Just like crimes rise at the holidays, wouldn't criminals eventually "age out" and "retire" as well?

Allison Klein: Many criminals do "age out" and retire. But babies are born every day, and some of them turn into criminals.

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Another Cap Hill resident: I think it's a pretty simple story. First, gas prices skyrocketed in the first half of 2008, people stayed home more, reducing the number of possible offenders and victims. Then the economy went in the tank, and the cycle repeated; again, fewer potential victims and offenders out and about. As long as there is widespread economic insecurity, crime will continue to decline.

Allison Klein: Interesting thought. You also could turn that theory on its head and say that because people are staying in more, close quarters breed more fights and violence.

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Vienna, Va.: What about other crime rates -- are they down, too, or is it just homicide?

Allison Klein: If you're asking about Prince George's County, Montgomery County and the District, many -- but not all -- measures of crime are down. As an example, in D.C., homicides, assaults with guns and burglaries are down. Robberies with guns and thefts are up.

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Columbus, Ohio: Why are liberals so willing to credit Obama's "hope" message for the reduction in violent crime? That is sheer fantasy. Criminals don't care about pretty words coming from the Oval Office. They do care about the fact that more law-abiding citizens are taking advantage of "shall-issue" concealed weapons permits so that criminals do not automatically view everyone as a helpless "potential victim/target" anymore.

Allison Klein: It's hard to generalize about what criminals care about. But I know from my e-mail inbox that a lot of people agree with you.

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Alexandria, Va.: Isn't this also a function of better emergency medicine? Fewer violent crimes result in death these days, which brings down the murder rate, but we have doctors to thank (or blame) for that, not police.

Allison Klein: Great doctors and hospitals are certainly a factor. They save a lot of lives. But if you peel back the layers and look at gun crimes such as shootings, you'll see they are trending downward in many cities.

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Baltimore, Md.: Again, have you looked systematically to see if there's a strong correlation nationally between changes in police department practices and changes in crime rates?

Second, in fact, the data on illegal immigrant crime rates are hard to come by (since it doesn't seem to be widely tracked), but areas with high levels of illegal immigration tend be those with higher crime rates. And the effect doesn't have to be direct -- smaller immigrant population could mean less conflict with native groups over gang territory and even jobs. In any event, it seems as if a more systemic explanation is still called for.

Allison Klein: As I'm sure you know, your question isn't easy to answer. Cities have different crime issues and create specialized ways of attacking them. What works in one place doesn't make a dent in the next. If you ask the police departments that are experiencing crime going down, of course they take credit for it.

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Arlington, Va.: I read a study that correlated the decrease in crime with a decrease in exposure to lead contamination in young children. Have you looked into this mechanism or any other environmental factors?

Allison Klein: I have not, but my colleague Shankar Vedantam recently wrote a story about it. We'll post a link.

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Maryland: Babies are born every day, but haven't we been at a population low? Thus, there just is a flat-out lower number of criminals coming of age now.

Allison Klein: I see your point. I raised a similar point with many of the criminologists and crime experts I talked to. They said there doesn't appear to be a demographic link to this recent crime trend.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I've heard from a couple different sources over the past week or so that the D.C. drop is at least partly a number game that Chief Lanier is playing. For example, if someone was badly hurt but didn't actually die for a week or so after an attack, previously this would still have been counted as a homicide, but recent policy changes now count it as a "police investigation" or something like that. Do you have any insight into the veracity of this and how much of an effect it might have?

Allison Klein: The medical examiner rules on whether a death is a homicide or not. If the circumstances of a killing seem unclear, police may investigate as a "death investigation" until the medical examiner rules on it. But once the medical examiner decides, it's on the books as a homicide.

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Another Capitol Hill: Well, the basic crime model is that you need a motivated offender, suitable target and the absence of guardianship for a crime to occur. If there are more people at home, there is more guardianship on average, and there should be less crime.

Overall, we pay a lot of attention -- maybe too much -- to preventing 'motivated' offenders from committing crimes, and don't think much about reducing our own 'suitability' as potential victims. In this case, we haven't made any conscious changes to people's behavior, the bad economy did it for us.

Allison Klein: This is an interesting thought. The only thing I might challenge you on is more guardianship at home. I wouldn't say that's true across the board.

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washingtonpost.com: Research Links Lead Exposure, Criminal Activity (Post, July 8, 2007)

Allison Klein: Here's link to lead exposure story.

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Laurel, Md.: In regard to what Another Capitol Hill resident said, I once read that the reason for thriving piracy across the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries was due to the explosion in the amount of wealth in the world economy due to European colonial expansion. More wealth creates more incentive for criminals to commit their acts. Could we apply the same principle to the modern situation, i.e. economic contraction has created less wealth in the system, resulting in reduced incentive to commit acts? It's simplistic, I admit.

Allison Klein: I haven't heard this before, but I wouldn't completely rule it out. Fewer flashy cars on the streets means fewer flashy cars to steal.

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Washington, D.C.: Robberies with guns up 11 percent is significant. I was recently held up 1 block from 14th and U at 10:30pm on a Thursday by two teens and had lived in the neighborhood for 10 years with no problems. Are guns more readily available now that the D.C. guns laws have been stuck down?

Allison Klein: Sorry to hear that. By writing that crime is down, I in no way mean to imply that crime is gone. There are still many, many victims out there affected by crime. I have not heard that the overturn of the gun ban has had any real effect on D.C. crime yet. I think we will probably know the effect in a few years.

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Allison Klein: Thanks for all the questions everyone. Until next time...

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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