Dallas’ 2014 murder rate was its lowest since 1930 — the year Bonnie and Clyde met at a West Dallas house party.And the Dallas Police Department’s preliminary count of 116 murders last year — there is one unexplained death awaiting a ruling — would be the lowest yearly murder tally since 1965. It’s also a notable drop from the 143 murders in 2013 and it’s fewer than half the murders recorded in 2004.Police officials say their crime-fighting and crime-prevention strategies have played a major role in reducing homicides, the rarest of major crimes. Others say outside variables — medical advancements, changing demographics and better social services — deserve much of the credit.But they all are marveling at the figures.“I’m really amazed at how low that number has gotten,” said Dallas ISD Police Chief Craig Miller, who became a Dallas police officer in 1982 and later headed the homicide unit.Miller said police technology, such as surveillance cameras, has helped deter criminals. He also said paramedics and better trauma care have played big roles. Dallas Fire-Rescue has touted improved response times in recent years. And officers also are now equipped with tourniquets and gauze. One officer used the aids last week to help save a gunshot victim in South Dallas.
But it isn’t just the murder rate; the overall crime rate also continues to drop in Dallas.
In general, I think there’s too much of a tendency to credit or blame policing tactics for crime rates. The massive crime drop we’ve seen across the country since the mid-1990s occurred in places that both did and didn’t engage in mass incarceration, did and didn’t engage in “broken windows”-style policing, did and didn’t commit to real community-oriented policing, did and didn’t use a widespread stop-and-frisk policy, and so on. It’s quite possible that the drop had nothing to do policing strategy at all and instead was the product of rising standards of living, an aging population, or even environmental factors like a decrease in childhood exposure to lead.
None of which is to say we don’t need cops — only that crime rates may well be driven more by larger, society-wide trends than individual approaches to policing. The evidence for this is that it isn’t just crime that has dropped since the mid-1990s; nearly every social indicator has been moving in a positive direction for the past quarter-century or so.
All of that said, in a free society we should want our law enforcement officers to use the least amount of force, confrontation and violence possible, while still maintaining an acceptable level of public safety. Dallas is just the latest evidence that the old song about freedom and security being a zero-sum game — that when you increase one, you’ll always get less of the other — is a canard. You can embrace policing policies that are community-friendly, open and transparent, and dedicated to minimizing the use of force and violence . . . and still enjoy the same or greater drops in crime we’re seeing elsewhere.
And it isn’t just in Dallas. My hometown of Nashville also has embraced community-oriented policing for a while now and has seen correlating and historic drops in crime. Salt Lake City also has a police chief who puts a priority on minimizing the use of force and on engaging with the community. Crime is falling there, too. Historically, community-oriented police chiefs like Joseph McNamara in San Jose in the 1980s and Jerry Wilson in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s instituted similar policies and watched crime drop in their cities as it soared in most of the rest of the country.
There are far too many other factors that contribute to the crime rate to specifically or exclusive credit this sort of policing for the increase in safety in the cities that have tried it. But if we can get the same or better public safety results by training police officers to deescalate, to use the minimum amount of force necessary to resolve a confrontation, to engage with the community and to opt for conflict resolution over violence . . . why wouldn’t we?