In the early 1990s, violent crime had taken over countless American cities. Princeton professor John DiIulio spoke of “superpredators,” young men who “murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, [and] deal deadly drugs.” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, issued equally apocalyptic warnings. “Unless we act now,” he declared, “we may indeed have a bloodbath of teen violence by the year 2005.”
History proved otherwise. Since the 1990s, New York, Washington D.C. and San Diego have seen their murder rate plummet by 75%. In Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle it fell by half. Violent crime in America fell off a cliff.
The great American crime decline has been the source of countless theories. Some have credited “broken windows” policing which aggressively chased down perpetrators of even the most minor misdemeanours. Others have credited the liberalisation of abortion with minimising the number of children born to struggling homes who later turn to crime. Some have even tied the crime drop to the decrease in lead found in the water supply.
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According to Patrick Sharkey, a sociology professor at New York University, none of these interpretations quite cuts it. His latest contribution to the debate, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, condenses decades of research into a virtuosic account of American urban life, the myriad factors that cut crime, and the fraying thread by which the new peace hangs. For Sharkey, it’s the untold work of countless community organisations that should guide the future of policy.
Apolitical spoke to Sharkey about the lessons of the crime decline, and how policymakers can keep the peace.
What caused the violent crime drop?
Violence started to fall around 1993. It had become a national crisis, and there was a national mobilisation to address it. That included traditional law enforcement responses, but it was also thanks to the mobilisation of communities across the country. That’s really the story that hasn’t been told.
Some 60,000 new police officers were put on the streets. They became more aggressive: they shut down open-air drug markets and pursued gang activity in sometimes brutal and ruthless ways. And they started using data more effectively.
In the private sphere, businesses started hiring security guards. Business Improvement Districts [private sector initiatives to improve the environment and enhance services in a given area] were formed and drove out criminals. Camera systems were installed across cities and inside homes. Metal detectors were installed in schools. It was a large-scale transformation of security and the oversight of public space.
But the other crucial dimension was that residents mobilised in local organisation to take back city streets, to make playgrounds safe again, to march against violence and demand addiction treatment and services for those leaving prison.
The residents who worked to bring about the violence drop have not been given the same amount of credit for their work.
Did the violent crime drop benefit everyone? Or did it primarily serve certain demographics?
The greatest benefits of the crime drop have been experienced by the most disadvantaged segments of the US population, but they have also experienced the greatest costs.
If you look at the victimisation rate, meaning whether people have been assaulted or robbed in the past six months, the rate for the poorest Americans right now is about the same as it was for the richest Americans back in the early 1990s.
But at the same time, there have been immense costs to those communities, particularly communities of colour. Huge investment in policing is an example of a policy that was successful in reducing crime, but it created large-scale collateral consequences including mass incarceration that have undermined progress toward racial equality.
We know, with certainty, that more police leads to less crime. But, it also led to the militarisation of police forces, more emboldened and aggressive policing, and programs like stop-and-frisk that spiralled out of control in New York City. It’s only in the past five years that people have become cognisant of what’s been going in low-income communities of colour for a long time now.
If grassroots, resident-led organisations are the unsung heroes of the crime drop, how can policymakers support them?
A change of mindset is needed. The immediate answers to violent crime are always the police and the prison systems. It’s a knee-jerk response.
We need to shift from a mindset of punishment to one of investment. Investing in residents and local organisations is probably the most efficient way to deal with the problem of violent crime. The 2009 Recovery Act spent $800 billion, much of which went into local community organisations. It was one of the most important policies in several decades because it stabilised communities at a point when they were falling apart.
Do we need to devolve greater powers to cities?
A local agenda might be more sustainable. A lot of the most innovative approaches to dealing with violence have come from cities and community organisations. A federal commitment to cities is crucial.
But I also see the need for an agenda that includes city and state government working with philanthropists. Undoubtedly, that’s a by-product of rising inequality. It’s unfortunate that we now have to think about stabilising neighbourhoods through the resources of philanthropists and foundations, but I think that’s a very clear reality.
The best chance we have is working across different sectors, combining the work of city and state governments, universities, local community organisations and law enforcement agencies.
While inequality is rising, is the peace always going to be “uneasy”?
The relationship between violence and inequality is fascinating. The drop in violence hasn’t reduced inequality — in fact, inequality has risen while violence decreased — but it has changed what poverty looks like.
The crime drop has made inequality less rigid. Decreasing violence has made many neighbourhoods less segregated between rich and poor, and between white and black. In places where violence has fallen, we see tangible evidence of improvements in upward mobility. Children raised in low-income families are more likely to rise up out of poverty in places where violence has dropped.
The reason is, first, that violence affects how well kids do in school and how well they can learn. And second, that it affects their community: whether businesses invest, whether jobs are available.
Rising inequality doesn’t inevitably lead to more violence, but it is a cause for concern.
I argue that there needs to be a war on violence, which needs to be distinguished from the war on drugs or the war on crime. This is a war that is explicitly designed to stabilise neighbourhoods.
I think the most promising thing we could do is a large-scale investment in local community organisations. We have decades and decades of social science telling us that residents and neighbourhood organisations have the greatest capacity to control violence but have just never had the same investment as the criminal justice system and law enforcement.
Second, there are changes to be made to policing. The US has just under 18,000 different law enforcement agencies, and they all have their own policies and guidelines. Ensuring a unified move toward a policing style that builds trust, legitimacy and relationships with communities is crucial.
And finally, I think the US can learn a lot from other countries with low rates of violent crime or which have experienced similar crime drops. There are models of gun control that are working, ways of policing that don’t rely on extremely violent tactics, more humane prison systems, better ways to reintegrate people into society when they leave the institution and ways of creating public housing which don’t become a central location for crime in a community.
The US needs to look elsewhere and see what’s working.
(Picture credit: Fort Greene Focus)