Listening to politicians, reading headlines, or watching local television news with its motto “if it bleeds it leads,” one might think the U.S. is the midst of a violent crime surge.
In fact, murder and other violent crimes — while still much too high — are declining, an encouraging sign, writes Al Hunt In The Messenger. There probably are multiple causes, including the end of the pandemic and better policing.
There is a worrisome shortage of cops and profusion of police chief vacancies in major cities. “Now staffing is a problem,” says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. “If it persists, it will become a crisis.”
Even with this, violent crime has demonstrably declined in the first five months of 2023. Jeff Asher co-founded AH Datalytics, a data firm that measures crime rates in major cities. His preliminary data, he wrote in The Atlantic, suggests the U.S. “may be experiencing one of the largest annual percentage changes in murder ever recorded.”
New York, Los Angeles and Chicago showed significant declines in murders from the same period last time. There was a 22% decline in Baltimore and a 26% decline in Philadelphia, where conservatives charged that the liberal District Attorney, Larry Krasner, would turn the city into a crime hell. That hasn't occurred, and Krasner easily was reelected.
There were outliers: Memphis experienced a nearly 40% increase while Washington, D.C., reported a 19% hike.
An FBI compilation found that Memphis and Detroit were the most dangerous cities, with a violent crime rate exceeding 20 per 1,000 persons. The next two most violent are Little Rock, Ark., and Pueblo, Colo.,
“The dirty little secret of criminology is things happen in the real world and not a controlled experiment,” notes David Harris, a policing expert at the University of Pittsburgh Law School. “We can't have a decisive explanation; we can make some reasonable guesses.”
At the top of these reasonable guesses is recovery from the pandemic when social support and family assistance programs were suspended. The shutdown in services may have particularly affected violence-prone younger people.
Harris also cites some policing improvements, like focused deterrence where cities like Chicago and Baltimore are concentrating many more resources in those small areas where most violent crimes are committed. “Focusing on the right place gets better results,” Harris says.
Police departments are trying several strategies to head off a staffing crisis. New recruits are being offered signing bonusus of up to $40,000 in Redding, Calif., where police chief Bill Schueller told the Wall Street Journal that was necessary to get an experienced candidate and cheaper than the cost of training someone with no experience.
There's a need in some places for more cops, in all places for better-trained and more accountable police.
It's a tough business with many problems, but despite the political rhetoric and headlines, there is some good news on the crime front, Hunt writes.