VIOLENT crime, homicide in particular, has been declining for the past five years, in large cities and across the country. Given that many of the underlying problems related to violence, such as a proliferation of highly efficient guns, have not gone away, this decline is nearly as surprising as it is welcome.
The national homicide rate has moved from a record high of 10.5 murders per 100,000 persons in 1993 to eight in 1995 (the most recent national data available from the FBI). The exact timing and size of the downward shift differs from state to state and from city to city, making the phenomenon seem, on the one hand, to be local and, on the other, to be loosely national. But it can't be both.
This good news has caused various experts and policy makers to offer widely different explanations. They haven't yet debated the issue, perhaps because as long as rates decline, everyone is happy. But why do these experts disagree?
There are at least five reasonable explanations being offered for the decline. Each is, in many ways, intuitively satisfying. The explanations include recent changes in policing strategies emphasizing community policing; shifts in drug sales, especially crack, that make it less public and less likely to cause violence; subtle demographic decreases in the numbers of young men and in their propensity to commit crimes; rising employment, which takes people into less risky lives; and increased imprisonment resulting from mandatory sentencing.
Yet, no one answer is definitive. There have been dramatic downturns before, ones that defy sensible explanation. In late-19th-century New York, for example, homicides declined at a time of corrupt and inefficient policing, terrible crowding and poverty, and when the likelihood of a murderer getting caught and going to prison was very low. At the time, few social observers realized their good fortune.
At the same time, the young were not nearly as violent as today. It is not that there were not young murderers then, for there were boys of 13 and younger stabbing or stoning each other to death. But the rates per age group were low.
During the 20th century, the national homicide rate, as well as that of big cities like New York and Los Angeles, fell from the early years of the Depression through the early 1950s, when they flattened, then began the long increase that we hope has finally ended.
Politicians, including our president and many mayors, claim that community policing has led to the decline. The problem is, violent crimes have declined in cities without community policing. It is hard to argue that a change in policing in New York has reduced violence in Chicago.
New York had no uniformed police in the early 1840s; homicide rates decreased for two years after the city got its first police, then seesawed back to new highs.
The same thing happened in the mid-1850s, when the police went through a dramatic breakup and re-creation. Is it not possible that policing innovations came just as things had begun to change for other reasons?
There are other pretty good reasons for the decline in homicide, for example, a drop in the number of young males.
Recent research by a group of social scientists associated with the National Consortium on Violence Research implies this might be the case. They discovered that the decrease in violence in some large cities is for specific offenses, those related to crack. The drug now has a bad reputation; crack addicts are disdained by youths. At the same time, the crack markets have become less chaotic. Just as with legal enterprises, the market shake-up has left a more orderly group of suppliers and buyers, who often work in less risky locations, using pagers and cell phones. Hence, the drop in drug-related crimes.
But there are other pretty good reasons for the decline in homicide, for example, a drop in the number of young males.
And, what about unemployment and high rates of imprisonment? For some reason, these two ideas have taken on ideological shading, as though they are mutually exclusive. Just getting 140 potential Los Angeles County shooters into prison or a job would reduce homicide rates by 10 percent. Has this happened? Maybe, but we can hardly find out if someone would have murdered if they were not working, or were out of prison.
We have difficulty explaining homicides because they are relatively rare and because we have too many good explanations and too few actual tests of them. Careful research on homicide and personal violence is done by a small number of people across the United States. It is characteristic of a field about which we don't know much to expect big solutions, big breakthroughs. For homicide, the first step toward knowledge is to allow experts to say how much they do not know, to allow them to posit partial explanations and then to be flexible in their policy applications.
The systematic study of violence is young. Meanwhile, expect hTC diverse range of accounts for the decline in violence, but ask for some quality research to back them up.
Eric H. Monkkonen, a UCLA history professor, wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
Pub Date: 12/05/97