What's Behind America's Falling Crime Rate

The murder rate in America is at an all-time low. Will the recession reverse that?

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New York City police officers

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Maple sold his boss, William Bratton, on the idea of data-driven policing, and when Bratton was promoted to police commissioner under New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994, his ideas went citywide. They evolved into CompStat, a real-time database of crime statistics and other intelligence useful for pinpointing trouble spots and targeting resources. CompStat put precinct captains and district commanders in the hot seat, and results followed. Crime plummeted. The city of fear became one of the safest major cities in America, and Commissioner Bratton landed on the cover of TIME.

A new survey of retired New York City police supervisors, however, confirms what many skeptics have suspected for years. Pressure from the twice-weekly CompStat reviews inspired a certain amount of fudging (exactly how much is unknown). Police hunted for bargains on eBay so that they could adjust theft reports to reflect lower values of stolen goods, magically transforming major crimes into minor ones. A fight involving a weapon — aggravated assault — might become a mere fistfight by the time the police report was filed. Nevertheless, behind the gamesmanship was a genuine drop in crime. (Murder is down an astonishing 80% from its peak in New York City, and it's very hard to fudge a murder.) Similar declines have been recorded in many other cities.

Versions of CompStat now shape police work in metropolitan areas from coast to coast. In the Maryland suburbs of Washington, for example, Prince George's County chief Roberto Hylton sings the praises of "a technology that we call Active Crime Reporting, which provides information every 15 minutes, so I can see, even from a laptop away from work, the whole crime picture of the county. I can shift resources. It actually provides me with the trends, patterns that have occurred the previous week, previous day, maybe even the previous year." Paired with a program to improve trust and communication between police and crime-plagued communities, the data-driven approach is working, Hylton says.

The New Economy of Crime
Criminologists will tell you, however, that the tale of CompStat is not the whole story. New York City's crime rate actually began to drop a couple of years before Giuliani became mayor. And rates began falling in cities without CompStat at about the same time — though not as rapidly as in New York. For while police were changing tactics, the criminals were shifting gears too.

The high-crime hell of the 1980s and early '90s was a period of chaos in the illegal drug trade. Powder cocaine was generally measured and sold in multiple-dose amounts behind locked doors, but crack was relatively cheap and highly portable. Upstart young dealers saw an opening and shouldered their way into a business long dominated by established kingpins. Trading valuable drugs for ready cash in plain sight was a recipe for robbery and intimidation. Dealers armed themselves for protection, and soon every teenage squabble in crack territory carried a risk that bullets would fly.

From that low point, the drug business has settled down in most cities. Distribution is better organized. Crack use has fallen by perhaps 20%, according to UCLA criminal-justice expert Mark Kleiman, as younger users have turned against a drug that had devastated their neighborhoods. Opiates and marijuana are illegal, just like cocaine, but they don't turn users into paranoid, agitated, would-be supermen. "A heroin corner is a happy corner" where junkies quietly nod off, says David Simon, creator of the TV series The Wire, who used to cover cops for the Baltimore Sun.

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