How Low Can the Crime Rate Go?

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To anyone who looks over their shoulder walking home late at night in a big city, the idea that America has won its war on violent crime might seem absurd. But the continuing drop in violent crime in big cities across the country makes it seem possible. The FBI recently reported that homicides fell by 6.5% in the country's biggest cities — those with populations of one million and up — through the first six months of 2007, and by about 1% across the U.S. Violent crime, overall, was off by about 2%. Even more astoundingly, New York City ended 2007 with 496 murders, the lowest number since 1963 [when statistics were first collected] — spurring New York magazine to ask the provocative question, "What would it take [for the murder rate] to go all the way to zero?" Chicago, bruised by enough scandal to unseat its superintendent of police, still managed to record just 443, the fewest since 1965 and the fourth straight year of logging under 500 murders.

That's quite a turnaround from the doomsday predictions made in the early '90s. It was less than two decades ago that the country's crime wizards were warning of a unprecedented, bloody spike as a super-predator generation — kids armed with equally menacing weapons and attitudes — inflamed gang and drug wars; murders hit over 2,000 in New York and nearly 1,000 in Chicago during the early 1990s. Many theories for the decline over the past decade and more have been floated; from the Freakonomics suggestion that legalizing abortion effectively wiped out a population of would-be criminals, to the decline of the crack epidemic, to an increase in law-abiding immigrants, to savvier police work, technology and just plain economics.

Of course, if the economy does play such a key role we could be in for a spike, with unemployment already on the rise — 5% in December — and fears of a recession mounting. Some observers say its impact is already visible in some smaller cities and rural parts of the country, where violent crime has been on the uptick in recent years. Others say a more simple formula is behind it. "What goes up comes down," said James Alan Fox, a leading criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "But in big cities, there was more room to drop, and in small cities there was more room to go up. And that may be what we're seeing here." Wherever there's a 20% spike, as Boston saw not long ago, he says, there's "a better than two-to-one chance homicides will fall the next year."

Not everyone believes it's just the laws of gravity, or the laws of supply and demand, that account for peaks and valleys in the crime rate. "The relationship between the economy and crime has never been well understood or clear-cut," says Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University in Chicago. "The changes in law enforcement policies and significant declines in homicides cannot be ignored or dismissed as coincidence or fluke. Policing has become more strategic and smarter than it has ever been."

People in law enforcement, not surprisingly, agree, and aren't willing to ascribe the slide in crime to things beyond their control. On the contrary, some suggest that the super-predator generation would have been realized if not for an emphasis on fighting juvenile crime in some cities. Others point to better, more systematic monitoring of recently released ex-cons.

In Chicago, Frank Limon, the man who is in charge of tracking the ups and downs of crime and conceiving strategies to battle the upswings, said the impact of technology can't be overlooked. "You can't rely on one strategy; you have to make them flexible to deal with the gangs and the drug dealing," said Limon, who is the acting deputy superintendent of the CPD's bureau of crime strategy and accountability. "But technology, for us, this has worked. Take just the cameras [which sit atop poles, are monitored constantly and focus on hotspots]. We've put in 650 since 2003. It's been paying off."

But the cameras are only a piece of a big puzzle that ranks Chicago as one of the most techno-savvy departments in the nation. The city's advanced weapons against crime include instant suspect notifications and photos that are sent to police in the field via BlackBerrys; special cameras that police can use to scan partial or full license plates to see if a car is wanted; and gunshot detection equipment in certain pockets of the city that uses sensors to alert cops to shootings before citizens even pick up the phone to call them in.

In New York, where programs such as Operation Impact has teamed veterans with rookies in the neediest hotspots for the past four years, it's hard to get around the policies that took shape under former mayor and presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani. Even the most minor of crimes — jaywalking, urinating in an alley, turnstile jumping — were pursued with vigor under the notion that cutting out the everyday "quality-of-life crimes" would help reduce the majors, such as murder, rape, robbery and assault.

At about the same time, Chicago was out front implementing community policing. While not the first to toy with idea of getting cops out of their cruisers to walk the beat and get to know the neighborhood, its businesses and, perhaps especially, its potential criminals, Chicago was determined to take it as far as any department.

"I've been on this job 30 years," Limon says. "What we're seeing is incredible, but I'm not surprised. We've improved the process. We're working with area suburbs, we go after the worst in the worst areas. But if I had the crystal ball, we could focus on these gang-related murders and work on prevention and intervention in the areas involved. If we move in that direction, going after the juvenile crime harder, we're going to see more of a drop."

So if it's unrealistic to think the murder rate could ever fall to zero, could murders in the quadruple digits be something we no longer have to endure? "No one knows for sure why crime rates fell in New York and Chicago, and in the absence of a blue-ribbon commission of experts who can get to the bottom of this mystery, we are all left with just speculation, conflicting theories, and self-serving claims for credit by interested parties, including police departments and elected officials," said Andrew Karmen, a criminal expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the author of the recently reissued book, New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s. "And if we don't know why crime fell so sharply throughout the country in the 1990s, and in certain big cities right up to the present, we won't know what policies to follow if crime rates start to rise again."

But among those willing to take a shot at forecasting forward is Fox, of Northeastern, and his outlook isn't rosy: "We've plateaued," Fox says. "There is an issue of young black males, by and against. And if we ignore that in our celebration of success, it could get worse, and what happened in the late 1980s could happen again. You don't solve the crime problem. You control it. And if you start getting complacent, thinking the bad old days won't return, that's exactly when you're most vulnerable."