Crime rates are down; UW sociologists try to explain why

UW sociologists (left to right) Joseph Weis, George Bridges and Robert Crutchfield. Photo by Mary Levin.

Riding the subway beneath Manhattan at midnight, driving through South Central Los Angeles in daylight, or strolling through Seattle’s Pioneer Square at 3 a.m., you could be asking for trouble. But even in these risky districts, your chances of passing to safety are much better today than they were five years ago.

Believe it or not, Americans are safer now than they were at the beginning of the decade. According to the FBI, the overall crime rate in the U.S. dropped 10.5 percent between 1991 and 1995. In the first six months of 1996, it dropped another 3 percent.

Violent crime is receding like a male baby-boomer’s hairline. In many cities, the murder rate is hitting a 30-year low. Last year in New York, for example, homicides dropped below 1,000—the first time since 1968. During the 1990s, the number of murders in New York has been sliced in half: from 2,245 in 1990 to only 981 in 1996.

It is not just New York that is seeing the ebbing of the crime wave. Across the U.S., murder is down 16.3 percent since 1991, forcible rape is down 12.3 percent, and robbery is down 19 percent. Even property crime is down 10.6 percent.

The Pacific Northwest is a safer place too. Seattle’s murder rate dropped 32 percent between 1994 and 1995 and 25 percent between 1995 and 1996. The number of gunshot victims treated at the Harborview ER is down for 1996. And the UW campus, already one of the safest urban campuses in the nation, saw its violent crime rate dropping 17 percent from 1995 to 1996.

While the drop in crime is clear, the reasons are murky. And if you ask, “Whodunit?” you’ll get a chorus of people answering, “I did!” Almost every interest group and politician—from the NRA to police unions to President Clinton—wants to take credit for the plunge.

“It’s always easy to be against crime,” notes UW Sociology Professor Robert Crutchfield. “All the politicians fight over who is tougher.”

But Crutchfield and his fellow UW sociology professors, Joseph Weis and George Bridges, say there are no easy answers to the mystery behind the falling rate.

Aggressive police tactics have been getting publicity—and much credit—for the drop, but the UW criminologists question if these tactics really work.

One of the most vocal advocates of stronger police tactics is former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton. His aggressive policy included arresting petty criminals, such as subway turnstile jumpers, people who drink or urinate in the streets, and graffiti artists. These lawbreakers, he says, often commit more serious crimes and threaten neighborhood stability.

Bratton also charted New York police precincts like a battlefield map, sending in the “troops” to high-crime neighborhoods. Police were taken away from “reactive,” random patrol work and told to make more narcotics and gun arrests.

Carnegie Mellon University Professor Alfred Blumstein, once a doubter, now agrees with Bratton. He recently told the New York Times that while the causes of the crime decline were complex and hard to isolate, part of the credit should go to the Brady law controlling handgun sales, more police officers on the streets and “the revised, more aggressive tactics” used by police.

“Police make a difference,” Bratton told a convention of criminologists held a year ago in Boston. “We do take offense at some of your colleagues saying otherwise.”

But Weis, Bridges and Crutchfield side with their more skeptical sociology colleagues. “Law enforcement can reduce levels of crime over short periods of six to eight months by displacing them to other neighborhoods,” notes Bridges. “Bratton’s new management methods did create pressure and accountability. Will there be long lasting effects? No.”

Weis is even more blunt. “Most successful criminals are not sleeping in the street and pissing in the gutters. The people they are arresting are the homeless, the Skid Road population. It’s a tenuous connection in my opinion.”

Crutchfield, while more diplomatic, says he has a “healthy skepticism” about aggressive policing. “I’m not saying that they’re wrong, that it’s not working. I’m saying we should take a serious look to see if it is really the cause of what is going on.”

Along with the police, politicians are taking credit for the crime recession. In January, President Clinton said, “We set out to change this country’s approach to crime by putting more officers on our streets through community policing and taking guns out of the hands of criminals. We are making a difference.”

But all three UW professors dismiss the President’s pronouncements. Claiming that sending 100,000 more police officers on the streets has stemmed the tide of crime “is just naive,” says Bridges. As for the Brady law and assault weapon ban, “gun controls just don’t have a big impact on the rates of violence,” he adds. “States with and those without severe gun control don’t have a big difference (in violent crime rates).”

So if police tactics and new laws aren’t the primary cause, what is behind the crime plunge? All three professors say it is a numbers game. The population of young people most prone to crime went down in the early 1990s, and the crime rate followed this drop.

“Crime is a phenomenon of the young,” declares Weis. In 1980 there were more than 20 million people between 15 and 19 years old. By 1990 that population group had dropped to 17.5 million and reached its low point in 1992 at 17.1 million. Similar drops can be seen in the 20-24 age group, another cohort with a high “crime potential.”

It is a wave criminologists have seen before, particularly during and after the baby boomers reached their teen years in the ’60s and ’70s. Some criminologists, such as James Fox of Northeastern University, even predicted a slight decline in the crime rate would happen in the middle of the 1990s.

But the intensity of the decline has caught most criminologists off guard. Weis, who 10 years ago wrote a paper with a graduate student trying to chart crime rates into the 21st century, predicted a gradual increase—which may still happen, he warns.

And if demographics is the key, why hasn’t the rate gone back up along with the rise in the 15-19 age group, which has been growing over the last two years and now stands at about 18.5 million?

“There is usually a time lag,” says Weis. “It is going to take awhile until you see a critical mass.”

In addition to the numbers in a particular age group, Weis sees two other factors in how demographics affect the crime rate. He feels there is a “cohort” effect when an age group reaches a “critical mass,” such as in the late ’60s when the crime rate soared as baby boomers reached their late teen years.

Unknown historical factors can also influence crime-prone age groups. Weis says the “period effect” of the Vietnam War in the ’60s and of crack cocaine in the ’80s helped push up the crime rate in those decades.

But Bridges warns that demographics can’t explain everything. “We don’t have the theories or evidence to make those predictions. It’s not like physics. Human behavior at the aggregate level is very hard to explain.”

All three criminologists concede there is more than just population statistics going on, but they diverge slightly when they examine the other factors that may be contributing to the drop in crime.

If police work is not the answer, could it be changes in criminal behavior itself? Several sociologists see a drop in the use of crack cocaine and an easing of “turf wars” between gangs to control the crack market.

There may be something to this theory, says Weis. Crack reinvigorated the gang scene in the 1980s. “It made a social and economic context where gangs could flourish,” he explains, similar to the rise of organized crime during Prohibition in the 1920s. A turn away from crack could contribute to peace on the streets.

But Bridges doubts the drop in gang activity could account for the overall plunge in crime. “I’m not persuaded that gangs are responsible for all the activities that are attributed to them, particularly in the city of Seattle,” he says.

“Crack and gangs were kind of a bogeyman,” adds Crutchfield. “Even at the height of gang paranoia, there were very few gang murders for the amount of coverage they got in the press.”

The three also dismiss more conservative theories. Some commentators say expanding the death penalty and passing the “three-strikes-you’re-out” law for repeat felons have had a chilling effect. The NRA, for example, credits the widespread sale of handguns, arguing that having guns in the home has scared criminals away from unlawful activity.

Bridges scoffs at the claims. “Do people actually contemplate the likelihood of arrest in the act of domestic violence or robbery?” asks Bridges. Most research shows that they don’t, he adds.

Bridges also says research at Florida State University—some of it financed by the NRA—shows “the availability of guns increases the lethality of violence. People who used to be stabbed or assaulted are now shot.” Juvenile crime, one of Bridges’ specialties, may have become more lethal now due to the proliferation of guns.

Comparing states with high gun ownership with those with lower rates also counters the NRA’s argument. “There are too many places where guns are not widely held where the crime rates are much lower,” says Weis.

Looking at “three-strikes” provisions, Crutchfield compares Washington to Oregon, which doesn’t have this law. Both have experienced the same drop in crime rates, he notes.

The death penalty also has little effect, Crutchfield says. He compares Illinois to Michigan—similar Midwestern industrial states, one with the death penalty and one without. Both have experienced similar drops in crime over the last five years.

But with the prison population doubling since 1985 and the crime rate dropping over the last five years—isn’t there some kind of correlation? “It just doesn’t begin to wash,” counters Crutchfield. “Most of the expansion has been for drug violations. Yet the crime rate has fallen in other areas.”

Bridges is slightly less skeptical. “There might be a correlation but it’s not a strong one,” he says. He notes that while in the 1990s, about 75 percent of the Washington state prison population is incarcerated for violent crimes, the property crime rate has gone down just as fast as the violent crime rate.

Historically the correlation just isn’t there, Bridges feels. “If you go back 50 years and look at prison population rates, you will see that they can go up at the same time the crime rate goes up,” he says.

Stopping crime at its source may be one answer, say the threesome. Some community-based prevention programs are helping combat crime, while other efforts are not very effective. “It’s hard to attribute the success at the national level, but there is long-term promise for some community-based programs, if they are funded adequately,” says Bridges. Neighborhood block watch groups, adds Weis, seem to be effective against property crime.

A study by the RAND Corp. compared the effectiveness of different prevention programs. “They found that the biggest impact, in terms of reducing the risk of committing crimes, was paying kids to finish high school,” Bridges says.

“The most basic prevention programs keep kids involved with their school,” adds Crutchfield. “What we need to do is support families and improve schools.” Weis is impressed with programs that seek out “dysfunctional families” before the children turn to crime, “programs that work within the community with families that need help,” he says.

The professors have little good to say about some visible prevention programs such as D.A.R.E. or midnight basketball at community centers. “A number of studies have shown that D.A.R.E. has had no effect on drug use,” says Crutchfield. “The same with gang intervention programs.”

As for midnight basketball, he scoffs, “Crime takes five minutes. There might be good reasons to do it for the community, but not for crime control.”

One other factor in the crime recession could be the economy. Since Americans are doing much better than they were in 1991, could that explain the corresponding drop in crime?

“The economy matters to some extent,” answers Crutchfield, “but it’s not as straightforward as some would like to believe.”

Crutchfield has spent much of his career investigating the ties of crime to income levels and the economy. “A better economy might have some little effect, but it is not true that a rising tide has brought up all ships,” he warns.

He points to the 1930s, when the economy plummeted, but so did the crime rate, and to the 1960s, where the economy soared, as did crime.

It is not the employment rate that matters so much as the types of jobs available, Crutchfield explains. “For young adults in particular, it makes a difference if you have a good, family- wage job that you can build a future on.”

Another factor is the kind of work your family and friends hold. “If you are a marginal job holder and those around you are marginal job holders, the chance of criminal behavior is higher,” he explains.

Demographics, police tactics, tougher penalties, gun control, prevention programs, economics—no matter what the causes, the three criminologists say we should enjoy the calm while we can. “By the end of the century, you should expect some gradual upturns,” warns Weis.

“My guess is that, all things being equal, crime will go up in a few years,” adds Crutchfield. “We should use this period to figure out what works and what doesn’t work—outside of the rhetoric.”

Bridges agrees. “We have to attack the causes of crime and those causes will not be eliminated in two or three years,” he maintains. “Our society faces a difficult challenge: finding a long-term solution to the crime problem while protecting the safety of its citizens. We have to do both at the same time, and we’re not.”