Violent crime in the United States has been falling across the board for at least the past five or six years.
While no one is complaining about this development, it is baffling to experts, given that the nation's population has been steadily climbing, drug abuse remains widespread and the economy has been battered.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), violent crime (which includes rape, murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault, etc.) dropped by 5.5 percent last year, while property crimes (like burglary, auto theft, etc.) fell by 2.8 percent. The declines were particularly pronounced in the South, Midwest and Far West.
Consider the sprawling metropolis Los Angeles, which at one time was beset by gang warfare, drug trafficking and murder. Violent crime plunged by 8 percent in the first half of 2011 -- in accordance with a decade-long decline.
Los Angeles is also now ensnared in a huge fiscal crisis that has hammered the entire state of California.
While the murder rate in New York City rose a bit last year, the 600 or so murders the Big Apple has been recording the last nine years is dramatically lower than the 2000-plus homicides reported in 1990.
Criminal behavior is extremely complex and there is always a confluence of factors that determine its incidence.
International Business Times spoke with Susan Koski, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain to explore this unusual social trend.
IBTIMES: Why is it so difficult to identify specific causes for crime rates?
KOSKI: There are numerous theories about why crime occurs at all. It is difficult to determine any one factor, since the nation differs so greatly by region; and additionally each state has differing legislation that contribute to the rise and decline of many issues beyond crime and criminal behavior.
The culture of a particular area, as well as local media and public opinion, often shape how crime is viewed and therefore reported.
IBTIMES: Violent crime in the U.S. has been falling for the past several years, despite a growing population and (since 2007) a worsening economy. Does this surprise you, or are there some legitimate factors behind this phenomenon?
KOSKI: Yes, it does surprise me to some degree, given that stress and joblessness often contribute to criminal behavior.
But there are many types of crime and although violent crime (typically murder/non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) may appear to be declining, other types of crime that are more closely related to the worsening economy such as property crimes may be on the rise.
It is also important to keep in mind that data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), although supposedly "uniform," may not actually be so. Each police department classifies crimes differently -- and therefore they may
categorize their crimes differently when reporting to the FBI.
IBTIMES: Could demographics be playing a role? That is, even if the overall population is climbing, people are also aging rapidly, thereby reducing the percentage of the population that is youthful (who tend to commit most
KOSKI: I think this has more to do with prevention. Police are perhaps more successful today at deterring young people (through targeted programming and governmental funding) from violence and are, therefore, driving violent
crime rates down.
On another note, although age and employment rates are often linked to criminal behavior, the research consistently show that this is not a factor in juvenile arrest rates (primarily because they are not in the job market).
IBTIMES: Between, say, 2005-2010, did we see more police getting hired and more aggressive tactics by cops?
KOSKI: Actually, many police departments have been unable to hire due to "hiring freezes" or other funding issues, but technology has also improved and advances in technology/software has aided departments in their deficits.
IBTIMES: How have technological developments like DNA testing and the proliferation of surveillance cameras helped to reduce crime?
KOSKI: Although these are often controversial elements in preventing crime, they do have important qualities. DNA testing in particular in association with the Innocence Project has helped to free many innocent people.
Cameras, like other prevention techniques are helpful, but with the advent of any new technology, the criminal will adjust his/her tactics as well.
IBTIMES: Now that state and municipal governments are cutting spending and enacting layoffs (including police), are we now liable to see a uptick in crime?
KOSKI: Perhaps, but as I already mentioned, there have been advances in technology that are adjusting for the gap in hiring.
It is also important to keep in mind that with a decrease in law enforcement officers, there may also be a decrease in crimes being reported.
The UCR data compiled by the FBI relies on information provided to them by the police departments - but, if the departments are under-staffed, there may be less attention to this task. This often leads to departments not contributing at all to the report -- typically already-underfunded departments and often the ones with the most crime to report.
Moreover, in the last few years, police department budgets have shrunk, resulting in a return to general law enforcement duties and a decrease in specialized crime units (gangs, vice, cyber, etc.). Thus, initial arrest rates of crimes, which require specialized or long-term investigations, decline.
Also, the investigations of petty crimes decreased due to manpower being diverted to focus on major crimes/first responders.
Policy decisions to not prosecute simple drug offenses also have had a significant impact.
(Go to Part 2 of interview.)