With aviation terrorism and a still lackluster employment market dominating year end headlines, the one piece of good news appears to be a fairly widespread decline in homicides in major cities. New York, as trumpeted in yesterday's NYtimes (read Al Baker's reporting) had a year with fewer homicides than any year since 1963 (essentially before the modern crime wave was evident). San Francisco also reported a record drop (read Jaxon Van Derbenken's article in the SFChron) to as low as the city has seen since 1961 (take that New York), and after a series of rather violent years in the middle of this decade. Chicago and LA have also reported declines this year. Providence, was one of the few cities reporting a homicide "spike," with the addition of two dead this week in a drug raid that also left three police officers wounded (read W. Zachary Malinowski's reporting in the Providence Journal). This is good news in a year with little of it.
The journalistic lead is that this is happening despite a severe recession (the man bites dog angle). Whatever the intuitive appeal to the notion that bad times generate crime, few criminologists believe it is a clean relationship. In many respects, times are always bad in those communities that experience the highest levels of crimes like homicide, aggravated assault, and robbery. This, not surprisingly, does not stop police chiefs and mayors from claiming credit (at least if they've been on the job for more than six months) whatever the hazard that their policies might be blamed when crime begins its inexorable return (like most gambles, it probably makes sense in the short term context of political survival). But even criminologists, this one included, are not immune from believing that, combined with the substantial crime declines of the 1990s, and the relative stability of crime through most of this decade, this end of decade crime decline could mark a longer term shift away from the pattern of high levels of gun violence concentrated in cities that has defined urban life for the much of the past forty years. What would drive such change? Here is a New Year's speculation list of the top three "positive" factors underlying declines in urban violence.
May they all continue in 2010!
1. Bottoming out of the de-industrialization of American cities that began in 1946 and continued through the 1980s. Even if new economic engines of prosperity have not exactly re-emerged in many cities, the process of losing existing assets has run its course.
2. Demographic diversification of urban neighborhoods through immigration and in-migration of suburbanites fleeing unsustainable lifestyles.
3. Better trained and motivated police forces.