According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report (see here and here), compared with data from 2008, violent crime in America decreased by 5.5 percent; property crime declined by 4.9 percent; and arson offenses declined by 10.4 percent.
When disaggregating the data, we find that all four violent crime offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — declined. Robbery dropped by 8.1 percent; murder by 7.2 percent; aggravated assault by 4.2 percent; and forcible rape by 3.1 percent. Violent crime declined by 4 percent in the nation’s metropolitan counties and by 3 percent in non-metropolitan counties. And all four regions in the nation showed decreases in violent crime in 2009 compared with data from 2008. Violent crime decreased by 6.6 percent in the South, 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest, and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.
In addition, all property crime offenses — burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft — decreased in 2009 compared with 2008 data. Motor-vehicle theft showed the largest drop in volume, by 17.2 percent, larceny-thefts declined by 4.2 percent, and burglaries decreased by 1.7 percent.
The figures, which are still preliminary, indicate a third straight year of crime decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.
The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”
Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.
The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”
It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.
One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.
We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.