As if we needed any reminder that times in America have changed, there is further evidence that the nearly decade-long rally of prosperity and reduced crime has ended.
We are officially in a recession, a panel of experts told us last week, after months of speculation and hundreds of thousands of layoffs. At the same time, many big cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Boston and Pittsburgh are reporting an increase in homicides this year, potentially signaling an end to the slide in violent crime.
In Chicago as of last week, police had recorded 612 murders so far in 2001 compared to 584 in the same period last year. And in New York City in a recent four-week period, shootings were up 36.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago and murders were up 25 percent — although crime is still down about 13 percent for the year.
Even urban undesirables such as squeegee cleaners, panhandlers and illegal street vendors are appearing in greater numbers in New York these days, after dwindling during police crackdowns in recent years.
With developments like these, it would be reasonable for Americans to grow concerned that the recession is bringing a return to the urban grime and violence more common in the '70s and '80s.
But criminologists disagree about the connection between a sour economy and spikes in crime and whether aggressive policing strategies introduced in the last decade can prevent a sustained rise in crime.
"There's no iron law linking [the economy and crime]," said UCLA criminal justice professor Eric Monkkonen. "This recession could see a crime wave or could not see a crime wave. It could promote crime, but it could be 15 years from now."
Will Desperate People Turn to Crime?
The economy is only one of many factors criminologists cite in bringing down crime in the 1990s, including: A decline in crack cocaine use and sales, tougher sentencing laws, and more innovative policing strategies, to name a few.
Even if the precise relationship between the economy and crime is murky, though, some scholars say we are likely to see spikes in crime if the recession lasts for too long.
"If the recession persists longer than we anticipate, it's not likely to trigger a major upturn in crime," said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University. "But if it does persist, it is certainly a risky consequence."
Roger Lane, a Haverford College professor and author of Murder in America: A History, says the economic downturn will almost certainly contribute to increased crime rates in the near future.
Hundreds of thousands have already been thrown out of work — many who not too long ago moved from welfare to work under recent reforms. Those individuals may now face new lifetime limits on welfare and find themselves in a particularly porous safety net, Lane said.
"In a short period of time we may see levels of desperation that we have not seen in a long time," he said.
When people get desperate — particularly young, low-income people — they are more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol and crime, some experts say. "It may give rise to a growth and demand for drugs as self-medication for the stress of unemployment," Blumstein said. "All of the horrors that follow from illegal drug markets can follow."
Crime Rates Often Unpredictable
Of course, not everyone who gets laid off is likely to turn to crime, experts say. Safety nets such as unemployment payments are usually effective in reducing desperation in hard times, said Robert McCrie a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "People are busy painting their house when they're unemployed," McCrie said. "They don't say 'Hmmm, I've been laid off, I think I'll try robbery next week.'"
Indeed, crime experts are cautious about blaming the recent increase in homicides in some major cities on the economic downturn or any other specific factor.
They need only look to history to see that crime rates are often unpredictable. During the Great Depression, for example, crime went up for two years as poverty and desperation ran rampant among the American people, but then fell through the remainder of that era.
And short-term increases in crime do not always signal a lasting trend. Take this year's spike in homicides in Phoenix, for example. As of last Wednesday, 224 homicides occurred so far this year compared to 172 last year. But police there say this year's numbers are "getting back to normal" after a sharp uncharacteristic drop in 2000 after policy changes at the nearby border with Mexico.
In Chicago, police say the uptick in homicides there is perplexing. Crime across the board has not increased — rates are down for other serious crimes such as robbery, sexual assault, and auto theft. "That's what makes it so difficult, there's nothing you can pinpoint," said Patrick Camden, deputy director of media relations.
'Twin Cities,' Different Crime Experiences
Even if crime does creep back up again, many experts say police tactics that have become more common since the early 1990s could help to keep crime at bay. "The good news is the policing strategies that have been effective over the last 10 years would work in a downturn as in good times," says Robert Castelli, criminal justice and security management professor at John Jay College.
Such strategies include "community policing," which loosely refers to a proactive approach in which police are involved with the court system, schools, public health officials, social welfare agencies, religious groups and neighborhoods to identify problems before crime occurs.
Many police departments are also using computers to aid them in identifying crime patterns. New York City was the first to use the Comstat method of law enforcement, or comparative statistics, which helps police analyze crime data and hold precinct commanders accountable for crime, even minor "quality of life" infractions, at weekly meetings.
Lucy Gerold, deputy chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, credits her city's version with helping reduce crime even as St. Paul, Minn., just across the Mississippi River, has seen crime hikes along with the rest of the state.
The "twin cities" have had divergent experiences with crime despite similar economic conditions, Gerold said, suggesting that effective strategies can work even in a recession. "We have seen decreases that cannot be accounted for by good times or other simplistic ideas," she said.
But other experts warn that specific policies only account for so much of any crime trend. "Looking at specific crime control strategies, they may be effective but it takes 10 years and makes up 2 percent of crimes," says UCLA's Monkkonen. "When any official takes credit for the drop in crime, I am suspicious."
Anti-Terror Efforts Could Prevent Other Crimes
Recent increased security measures designed to combat terrorism, such as more careful police patrols, could also deter more run-of-the-mill crime, other experts say.
"After Sept. 11, we have a whole new attitude toward security that can come under crime prevention," said Monkkonen. "That could cause lots of changes that are very good."
Another effective tool against crime is at the disposal of every citizen, several experts said: the human spirit. Even after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, and as economists predict "doom and gloom," citizens could maintain the spirit of defiance and hope that has been voiced so often in America these last three months, says John Jay's Castelli.
"There's no reason to think we will sink into a new era of criminality," Castelli said.