Friday, November 12, 2010

The Bonnie and Clyde Effect

The bullet ridden car of Bonnie and Clyde, 1934

Do bad economies cause crime waves? The infamous Bonnie and Clyde saga in the 1930s happened during the biggest economic downturn in history. It was covered in the national media and it stirred fear of rampant crime. The economy was a mess and more crime comes with it. Gangsters were everywhere. At least that's how the story went.

Whether rampant crime was a reality (it wasn't) didn't seem to matter. It sold lots of papers.

Today we again see local crime stories on the national media during a time of economic challenge. They too stir fear about rampant crime. As before, those stories sell lots of papers (or today's equivalent).

Is crime getting worse with the Great Recession? When they feature horrific local crime stories that convince us we're off to hell in a handbasket, are national news editors getting it right? (Hold the sarcasm. I know that's laughable. Bear with me a moment)

Back in January I wrote about crime rates. Turns out this year's local crime picture has been blurry. Nationally, official crime rates continue their decades long decline. In some cities and regions it is the opposite.

Criminologist James Allan Fox recently told the Huffington Post that economic downturns generally result in some crime increases. Check out the national crime rate store here.

Fox says "there is a connection between an economic downturn and crime: Budget cuts create significant challenges in keeping crime rates low." True, economic downturns tend to correspond with youth crime and street level drug activity. One example is the crack cocaine epidemic during the economic decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On the other hand Criminologist David Kennedy thinks it isn't downturns, but rather boomtimes when crime peaks. "Just look at the 1920's,' he says, "It was a period of booming economic prosperity…and very high crime. The 1950s and 60s were the same. The economy was great, but crime rates rose every single year."

Check out the Huffington Post story here.

Bonnie and Clyde made for readable, and sellable, national news

The Bonnie and Clyde effect blurs what matters most. National, or for that matter citywide, crime rates detract us from getting the job done: the task of building safer communities in our own neighborhoods. Generally speaking, it is crime in our own neighborhoods that matters. It is fear of crimes elsewhere that keep us inside. National news stories on horrific local crimes tell us nothing about our neighbors and less about our local safety.

Who, I wonder, holds national news editors accountable?

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