Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Great American Crime Decline?

Toronto or...
New York...Who's got crime?

Whenever the political prophets talk crime and peddle propaganda to solve it on their nightly TV holler-fests, I feel parched for truth on a media so devoid of it. As a criminologist I know what passes for truth about crime on TV is but a mirage.

Then I heard some truth about the mystifying urban crime declines of the 1990s. The words came from Professor Franklin E. Zimring whom I briefly met at an Alberta crime prevention conference last year.

If you have never read the work of Zimring, do so! Read his book The Great American Crime Decline. Zimring is meticulous showing how the crime declines throughout the 1990s were not only sustained and real; they were unprecedented in the 20th Century. click for Zimring's book

Previously on this blog I have described academic research called ROTO: Research-On-The-Obvious. read the ROTO entry

Zimring’s research is not ROTO. It is methodical, cautious and does not overstate.

His last chapter talks about lessons learned from the decline years. With the recession upon us and rates inching upwards, perhaps it is time to revisit his conclusions? Crime Decline conclusions

As with many truths, solutions are not simple. Zimring says no single cause can be attributed to the crime declines, not even the criminal justice system fixes - more cops, more 3 strikes laws, and more prisons. He concludes American crime studies missed the boat. They failed to look outside the borders. Hence they missed the fact that US declines almost perfectly echo those in Canada where there were no US-style fixes – no more cops, no more prisons, and no 3 strikes laws! Yet the declines happened anyway.

While there is no single cause of the good news, there are probably multiple causes of it. According to Zimring the glad tidings for crime control start with an improving economy and reductions in the number of young males in the so-called “crime-prone years” (15-29). Coinciding with these trends (though Zimring glosses over this) I would add police practices in both countries shifted toward the COPS philosophy: community-based, problem-oriented policing.

COPS emphasizes problem-solving crime hotspots in partnership with residents. Studies report success with COPS projects, the most notable being the Goldstein Problem-Solving Awards and the annual Problem-Oriented Policing Conference. visit POP Center website

Do we get a simple bottom line? Not by Zimring standards. But there are some truths to remember. Here are three:
1) Professional observers of crime completely missed prophesizing the 1990s declines. They simply didn’t know it was coming.
2) Crime theorists still try to convince us their explanations work, when Zimring shows us they don’t.
3) Political and media pundits continue to pontificate, convincing me to turn off night-time TV.

It suggests, at least to me, that we cannot rely on politicians and experts to solve our crime problems for us – they simply don’t know what to do.

It suggests that crime is not an inevitable factor in any neighborhood or at any time. Crime does not require massive changes to our social structure to reduce it. It suggests we don’t yet know enough about social policy to know what government policy works best to reduce crime.

Mostly it suggests we need to go with what we know works: small scale, neighborhood efforts where we see actual improvements; COPS style policing in collaborations with residents; working within neighborhoods and with enlightened residents who collaborate with knowledgeable service providers.

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