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Urban Homicide in 2009 – What Does the Good News Mean?

New America Media, Commentary, Franklin E. Zimring Posted: Jan 28, 2010

The crime statistics released by the FBI in January tell a relatively encouraging story, but are by no means easy to explain. Both violent and property crime rates fell in the first half of 2009, with the most serious crime category (homicides) registering the biggest drop (11%). Most of the big cities in the Bay Area reflect this happy national trend, with Oakland and San Jose reporting declines in homicide, and San Francisco reporting a very big drop. Richmond, however, reports big increases in lethal violence for 2009, so the pattern is anything but uniform. Southern California cities, led by Los Angeles and San Diego, also participated in the homicide drop.

There are two reasons why a double digit drop in homicide rates is regarded as a surprise this winter. First, the problematic economic news of 2008-2009 produced popular expectation that increased unemployment and poverty might lead to increased urban violence. Second, there is no obvious change in either police or criminal justice that could explain any substantial crime drop. During a period of budget cuts and declining public services, good news seems to be an unexpected surprise.

So what’s up? First, the drop in violent crime during a recession is by no means unprecedented. There is no strong, or even very clear, relationship between employment trends and homicide rates in the United States over the last half century. The major periods of rising violence in urban areas -– the late 1960s and early 1970s and 1985-1991 –- were also periods of economic growth. And homicide rates dropped during the recessionary conditions of the early 1980s just as they have lately. What this doesn’t show is any reliable relationship between homicide and economic conditions. But a decline in violent death during a recession is no more surprising than an increase.

But what changes in police, or punishment, or public services, produced the 11% homicide drop nationwide? Whenever there is a big crime drop in a city, the authorities search for plausible candidates in government policy to take credit as a cause. This year’s biggest drop is in San Francisco, so that new police programs there are suggested as the probable cause of the city’s good news.

But before the city fathers of San Francisco dance too far out on a limb in claiming credit for good news, the recent experience in Richmond, Calif., should inspire some caution. In 2008, the number of homicides in Richmond dropped substantially -– from 47 in 2007 to under 30. This was a very encouraging development in a city of 100,000, where lethal violence is the primary civic problem. But the relief proved temporary, because the homicide toll for 2009 returned to 47.

Richmond’s recent ups-and-downs suggest two measures of caution in reading the encouraging homicide news from most other cities. First off, longer term trends are much more reliable evidence of real change in risk levels than even the most dramatic single year drops. Secondly, it probably doesn’t make sense to assume that every substantial drop in homicide is produced by a governmental effort.

There are some long-term crime trends in some U.S. cities that suggest police can be much more effective than we previously thought in reducing crime. New York City is the primary example of this, and Los Angeles may also soon fall into this pattern. But there are also cycles in American lethal violence that are beyond the control, and even the understanding, of serious observers. So the good news from 2009 should make us happy but not confident about what happens next.

Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law and Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of The Great American Crime (Oxford 2007).

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