Chapter 2: Is Crime Increasing?
Chapter 2 Preface
Crime rates from across the nation are compiled yearly in two government reports: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Crime Victimization Survey. The FBI counts the number of crimes reported to police each year, while the BJS asks thousands of people whether they have been the victim of a crime within the past year.
While these official statistics show that rates of violent crime have decreased by some measure during the 1990s, many commentators maintain that the overall crime problem is still extremely serious. Francis Mancini, a columnist for the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin, contends that crime rates are still much higher than they were in the early 1960s. The crime rate must decline to the levels of the 1960s, he argues, before the situation can be considered acceptable. “We must not allow ourselves to get accustomed to the current high rates of criminal violence,” Mancini asserts.
Others, however, maintain that the crime problem is no worse now than it has ever been. For example, Morris Thigpen, director of the National Institute of Corrections, points out that the murder rate is actually one-tenth of a percentage point lower than it was in the early 1970s, meaning that an average person’s chance of becoming a murder victim is nearly exactly the same as it was then. Thigpen blames the media for creating the incorrect impression that crime rates are unacceptably high. “On the basis...
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Crime Is Increasing
All through 1993 official agencies claimed that crime was declining. The FBI said that violent crime in the first six months was down three percent overall, and down eight percent in the Northeast.
One Long Descending Night
For crime to be down even eight percent would mean that a precinct that had had a hundred murders in 1992 had ninety-two in 1993. But nobody came around on New Year’s Day of 1993 to give everyone’s memory a rinse, obliterating the horrors of the previous year. The effect is not disjunctive but cumulative. By the end of 1993, ninety-two additional people had been murdered.
Many people can also remember years before 1992, in large cities and in small. In 1960, for example, six murders, four rapes, and sixteen robberies were reported in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1990 that city, with a population 14 percent smaller, had thirty-one murders, 168 rapes, and 1,784 robberies: robbery increased more than 100 times, or 10,000 percent, over thirty years. In this perspective a one-year decrease of seven percent would seem less than impressive.
New Haven is not unique. In Milwaukee in 1965 there were twenty-seven murders, thirty-three rapes, and 214 robberies, and in 1990, when the city was smaller, there were 165 murders, 598 rapes, and 4,472 robberies: robbery became twenty-one times as frequent in twenty-five years. New York City in 1951 had 244 murders; every year for more than a decade it has had...
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Violent Crime Is Increasing
Each person’s chances of being set upon by violent thugs and robbed, killed, or raped grow each year. The number of Americans altering their behavior— avoiding night activities, eschewing automated teller machines, staying away from downtown areas even if it means missing a play, ballet, or basketball game—is at an all-time high, according to behavioral experts.
Violent Crime Increases Each Decade
Some statistics, such as the murder rate in Washington, D.C., bear out the apprehension with which people face the world. The brutality of crime increases almost exponentially each decade, so that what once horrified us we now accept as sadly routine.
“The climate is changing,” says Dennis Martin, a former police chief who is president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. “We are working on a comprehensive study with Columbia University that shows our attitudes have clearly changed. We have become almost desensitized to crime and violence.”
In a study involving 374 mayors or municipal executives from cities with populations over 10,000, the National League of Cities found a growing sense of unease among those living in urban or suburban areas.
For 1993, more than 4 in 10 felt violent crime had worsened in their city in the past year. Another 5 in 10 thought the number of gangs involved in criminal activity had grown. Only 2 in 10 thought violent crime had lessened, and fewer than 1 in 10...
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The Increasing Fear of Crime Is Justified
The corner of 105th Street and Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan’s West Side seems an innocuous enough place as urban areas go. It has its immigrant-run shops, its working-class families and its ever-present vagrants. Children wearing backpacks scamper across the busy street every morning on their way to the local public school around the block. In morning’s light it seems an unremarkable, workaday urban neighborhood.
Danger Even in Normal Neighborhoods
So it is. But even unremarkable neighborhoods are fraught with hidden dangers these days. A few weeks ago, 9-year-old John Valentine was on his way to school when the sidewalk turned into a free-fire zone. Little John had walked into the middle of a gun battle between two gangs of drug dealers. John was the only casualty, falling to the cold sidewalk when a bullet hit him in the right shoulder and passed through his chest. Another day, another casualty in the low-intensity war that takes place in our very backyards.
John Valentine survived, but his awful story serves as a reminder that despite rumors to the contrary, you still have to be careful out there in America.
The generals who are fighting America’s war on crime assure us not only that there is light at the tunnel’s end, but that tranquil, sunlit uplands await our arrival. Their optimism is not without cause. Crime rates are falling faster than General Motors sales figures of two decades ago. If crime were an...
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Violent Crime Is Not Increasing
Meteorologists add the wind-chill factor to their winter weather forecasts to make the actual temperature seem worse than it is. Likewise, when the F.B.I. reported [in May 1996] that serious crime had declined slightly for the fourth year in a row, it was still making the statistics sound worse than they actually were. That’s because the Government tends to exaggerate the violent nature of crime.
How Violent Is Violent Crime?
According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than a third of the 6.6 million violent crimes committed in the United States in 1992 (the last year for which statistics are available) resulted in injury; most of the victims suffered only minor cuts, scratches or bruises. About 20 percent of them needed minor medical care; 7 percent went to emergency rooms. Only 1 percent of the victims were hurt seriously enough to require hospitalization.
The incongruity arises because of the way the law defines violent crime. For example, aggravated assault is defined as either intentionally causing serious bodily harm or using a weapon to threaten or attempt to cause bodily harm. Fortunately, most aggravated assaults fall into the last category; most victims are never touched by the offender.
The same holds true for armed robbery. In 1992, less than a third of robbery victims were injured and only 3 percent required medical treatment. Less than half of armed robbers displayed guns,...
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The Extent of Crime Has Been Exaggerated by the Media
We reporters should be at least embarrassed, if not ashamed, of the way that we have breathlessly hyped almost every threat that comes across our desks. Okay, maybe some have not, but most of us have, much of the time. I’ll start with crime. Polls show that many Americans fear crime more than anything else—and why should they not? Gruesome stories lead local news shows night after night. I watch, with grim fascination, grateful that the horror did not happen to me. Any individual story I can slough off as a bizarre aberration; but the repetition takes a toll. Whenever I return to New York City after weeks away, I am more fearful. The late-night walk home—a routine stroll before— now feels ominous; Central Park is suddenly less . . . inviting.
The Media Create the Impression of a Crime Wave
The fear diminishes within a week. Just experiencing my neighborhood reminds me that it is not that scary. But while I’m away, absorbing news about the city through television and through newspapers that my office sends me, I’m left with the feeling that the city is a terrifying place. And should I not feel that? After all, the horror stories are real—reporters do not make this stuff up. And we all know that there is much more violence now; Politicians and the media have pointed out that crime rates are skyrocketing, especially for violent crime.
But the fact is that crime is not rising. Yes, the horror stories...
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Crime Is Decreasing
[In fall 1994], while politicians and candidates of every stripe were falling over themselves trying to prove to concerned voters that they were tougher on crime than their wimpy opponents, I had a slightly more personal encounter with the surprise hot campaign issue of ’94. Somebody tried to mug me.
Paying Attention to Crime and Crime Rhetoric
Fortunately, thanks mainly to my assailant’s incompetence and a good deal of luck, I escaped unharmed, and he was later apprehended by the local police. Still, though the incident didn’t transform me into a conservative or lead to a National Rifle Association membership, I have felt its lingering impact. More than once in the last few months I’ve jumped at the unexpected sound of running footsteps, or glanced repeatedly over my shoulder on the nightly walk home.
Even more, however, I found myself paying closer attention to the public conversations politicians and their constituents were having about crime in America. Unfortunately I found many of these blistering exchanges—whether attacking opponents for putting too much “fat” in the crime bill, or blasting candidates for being “soft” on crime—just as disturbing as the attempted assault.
All too often politicians and pundits were content to address crime with sound-bite analysis and simplistic solutions, instead of attempting to grasp its real shape and causes or offer solutions that might be both effective...
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The Increasing Fear of Crime Is Unwarranted
For many years, from the beginning of the 1970’s, my family and I lived in Peterborough, a town of about 5,000 in southern New Hampshire. Thornton Wilder was in residence there when he wrote Our Town, which used, unchanged, the names of the nearest mountain and river and exemplified the community’s peace, modesty and common sense.
A Crime-Free Small Town
Though we moved to Houston 13 years ago, we return to our old neighbors every summer, to the secure, nurturing society in which our children grew up. This is a town where shopkeepers still walk fearlessly down Main Street carrying their bags of cash- register money to the bank. Where a newspaper headline that read “Crack Found in High School” referred to the condition of its walls.
We continue to be devotees of the weekly newspaper, the Peterborough Transcript, which is mailed to our Houston home. Our favorite column has always been the “Police Log,” which documents every call on its phone records and even reveals the ages of the recipients of traffic tickets.
Once, I remember, the log reported that someone had stolen a towel from the local motel. This chronicle continues to bring us word of barking and biting dogs, sick raccoons who wandered into civilization, a teenager who missed his curfew and scandals like the “funny odor” coming from an apartment that, after the evacuation of the building, turned out to be “somebody’s bad...
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