Murders are on the Decline? What’s up with that?

Murders are on the Decline?

What’s up with that?

As 2010 draws to a close, we are hearing some good news. Crime, especially violent crime, is down. But isn’t this a recession? Isn’t crime supposed to go up when times are hard?

“Across the nation, homicide rates have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly a generation. And overall violent crime has sunk to its lowest level since 1973, justice Department Justice statistics show.

“The reductions have continued despite a grinding recession, a slow economic recovery and spikes in gang membership, according to recently released FBI figures for the first half of 2010.

“The long-term trend is particularly striking in the nation’s three largest cities New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Homicides in New York have dropped 79% during the past two decades — from 2,245 in 1990 to 471 in 2009, the last full year measured. Chicago is down 46% during that period, from 850 to 458. Los Angeles is down 68%, from 983 to 312”

From USA Today

Even Oakland, CA, among the top five “murder cities” in the US, caught a break.

“Mirroring nationwide crime trends, Oakland is ending the year with a 14 percent drop in violent crime and about 90 homicides, compared to 104 homicides last year. That’s the city’s lowest rate since 2005, the police department said. With staff waning, police spokeswoman Holly Joshi said the department owed the lower numbers to a shift of focus from quality-of-life to violent crimes.”

Among the factors cited by experts to explain this trend:

“…the absence of gang-fueled wars over a drug of the moment, such as the turf battles over crack cocaine that led to unprecedented urban violence in the 1980s and ‘90s.” (USA Today article just cited)

A second factor is the application of real-time computer mapping of crimes, enabling police agencies to deploy limited resources more quickly and efficiently.

The underemphasized revelation: The long standing myth that crime is strongly linked to economic conditions that holds, at its most simplistic, that poverty “causes” criminal behavior is discredited.


A major consideration is missing from the discussion: Social capital has improved in the declining crime areas. Why? Because of terrorism and the recession.

The social scientist, Francis Fukyama, connected social capital and the crime rate in his 2007 book, The Great Disruption. He defined it as “a set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permits cooperation among them”. He went on to identify periods when social capital was disrupted and correlate them with a breakdown in law and order.

Social capital declines as various social pressures disrupt common values. For example, an area inhabited by a highly mobile, transient population, one where the stable families have moved out, becomes a community of strangers, or more accurately, a collection of strangers. These areas are social capital poor, and high crime follows.

“Mere” ideas can degrade social capital, such as the malign notion that “all morality is just made up.”

Strong social capital was evident in turn-of-century American cities, populated by extended families living in close quarters. Think of those urban settings where neighbors look after each other and even strangers are alert to predators. Imagine a shopkeeper in a busy commercial district noticing a small girl wandering unattended, while another mother’s eyes follow the child until she reaches safety. In a high social capital community these interactions are multiplied one hundred fold…and the activities of criminals and predators are sharply suppressed.


The recession has returned at least one member of the household to the home-front during the daytime. And the ongoing terrorist threat, particularly in the target cities, has changed the mindset of strangers as they relate to each other and the larger community.

I witnessed this “911 effect” in New York City in the days immediately following the 2001 attacks. Not only was everyone more vigilant, there was a palpable sense of shared, common values that transcended all of our petty differences. Social capital sharply improved as a result of the common threat. Terrorism has also placed law enforcement on edge and increased its visibility and prestige in the community.

The economic stress of unemployment and the ongoing terrorist threats are challenges to be overcome, but all these developments have worked together to remind us that strong social capital depresses the crime rate. Our moment of comparative public safety might melt away unless we choose to remember and honor the basics of crime control:

Robust law enforcement, shared community values and relationships confer a public safety benefit to everyone.

There is a tendency to cut public protection funding, even in prosperous times, when the crime rate falls. “Punishing” law enforcement success is a mistake, even in tough times. It’s hard enough to be poor, but to be poor and forced to live in a crime ridden neighborhood is a nightmare. A robust, visible police presence depresses crime, and the drop-out of a regular police presence inevitably increases the boldness and activity of the crime-prone individuals. No community is exempt; crooks and thugs inhabit every city and town in the country, but their criminal behavior rises with public complacency and neglect, and falls with community vigilance and police support.

Economic poverty does not cause criminal activity to grow, but poverty in our shared moral foundations and social capital does.


Jay B Gaskill is a California lawyer who served as the Alameda County Public defender before her left his “life of crime” to devote full time to writing. His profile is posted at .

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