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Jewish World Review June 13, 2001 / 23 Sivan, 5761

Iain Murray

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Rush to Judgement -- IS the amazing drop in the nation's crime rate over? Yes, was the reaction when the FBI announced its latest crime figures at the end of May -- "Decline in Serious Crime May Be Over" declared major papers, while others told us "U.S. Crime Figures Held Steady Last Year, Ending an 8-Year Decline." But is this really the case? Far from the doom and gloom spread about the nation's chances of victimization, the figures actually tell us something different, and it all depends where you live.

First of all, the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) figures the FBI produce are in no way an actual measure of the amount of crime in the nation. They are simply an indication of recorded crimes. There are many factors that can lead a crime to go unrecorded: shame and stigma (as in the case of rape), distrust of the authorities, and police incompetence are obvious examples. Moreover, in cities like Philadelphia, it is now apparent that previous police administrations have actively manipulated the figures in order to make the city look good. Simply because the UCR figures did not decline for one year does not necessarily mean that crime has stopped falling. It may be that the police are doing their job better and recording a higher proportion of crimes that actually happened. But we will not know whether this is the case until the Department of Justice releases its annual National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS), which attempts to estimate the levels of all crime, recorded and unrecorded, later in the year.

Furthermore, despite the apocalyptic headlines, there are sizeable regional variations in the FBI figures. In Ohio, for instance, Columbus saw a marked increase in crimes, Cincinnati saw almost no change and Cleveland experienced a drop. Los Angeles saw crime rise sharply, while New York City experienced a substantial drop. One of the strengths of the UCR regime is that it issues figures for local areas in a way that the NCVS cannot. Therefore, it's the only way crime should be measured. One paper, The San Francisco Chronicle is to be credited for couching its story in local terms first: "Serious Crime Count Dips in Bay Area: But FBI Figures Show 10-year Decline is Bottoming Out in Rest of the Country" (May 31).

Even within localities, the story is not always clear. Dallas, for instance, had an overall crime level in 2000 about the same as 1999, but there were sharp increases in the numbers of murders, robberies and burglaries, which were offset by a major decline in the number of larcenies. Las Vegas experienced a slight drop in crime, owing to major declines in the numbers of rapes and burglaries, but it also suffered significantly more robberies. And Philadelphia recorded a 6 percent drop in crime overall while also recording more murders, rapes and aggravated assaults than the previous year. Are these cities safer or more dangerous than last year? Hard to say.

All this means that it is difficult to draw conclusions from one year's data. Northeastern professor James Alan Fox was quoted as saying "Our goal should no longer be to bring down the crime rate. It should be to make sure the crime rate doesn't go back again, that it stays at this plateau."

If you were in Los Angeles, where the crime rate has jumped sharply, or in Newark, NJ, where the crime rate has continued to decrease markedly, this advice would seem rather odd. In many ways, there has been no national crime strategy, no "one best way to fight crime" that has led to the overall decrease of the last ten years. Wisely, individual jurisdictions have tailored their strategies to their own circumstances. In some places, like Newark, that is still bearing fruit. In others, like Los Angeles, it is possible that changes in policing style have had negative consequences. The crime drop may have stopped in the area where one of us lives, but in other areas our neighbors may have many years of progress yet to come, while still others may be about to get hit by a crime wave.

But for the nation, crime seems to come and go not like a wave, but like a tide, with waves washing up and down. Anyone standing on a beach needs to watch the sea's behavior for some time before he or she can tell whether the tide is going in or out. It will take a few more observations before we can say for sure that the US as a whole has reached low tide.

Iain Murray specializes in the analysis of crime statistics at STATS - the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington DC-based, nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization. You may comment by clicking here.

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