Around this time last year, the estimable Heather Mac Donald took to the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages to analyze a curious development: The recession-induced surge in unemployment had been paralleled by a significant drop in violent crime. “As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008,” Mac Donald wrote, “criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the ‘root causes’ theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s.”
Preliminary evidence suggests that this trend is continuing. During the first six months of 2010, “the nation saw a 6.2 percent decrease in the number of reported violent crimes and a 2.8 percent decrease in the number of reported property crimes compared to data for the same time frame during 2009,” according to the FBI. Murders were down by 7.1 percent, robberies by 10.7 percent, and motor-vehicle thefts by 9.7 percent.
Of course, many pockets of urban America remain harrowingly dangerous, and budget cuts are now threatening to weaken the law-enforcement capabilities of cash-strapped city governments. Meanwhile, in an ominous trend, gang membership has been creeping upward. The 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment calculated that membership had jumped from roughly 800,000 in 2005 to approximately 1 million (a conservative estimate) in September 2008 — a 25 percent increase. “With gangs usually comes a lot of violence; we’re looking at this very closely,” National Gang Center director John Moore told USA Today last October.
Given the spike in gang activity and other countervailing factors, how do we explain America’s recent crime drop? Disentangling the precise causes is a tricky enterprise. But it’s undeniable that the country as a whole has experienced much less violent crime with unemployment above 9 percent than it did when the jobless rate was below 5 percent. The belief that a painful economic downturn inevitably triggers more violence has been refuted. Even long-beleaguered cities notorious for their safety woes are making impressive strides.
Yet as the local Sun newspaper reports, Baltimore finished 2010 “with declines in nearly every category of crime used to track the city’s progress, in spite of a bad economy and even as police lock up fewer people.” Aggregate gun crime has been falling for three years, and the murder rate has dipped to its lowest level in more than two decades. Much of the credit belongs to Baltimore police chief Frederick Bealefeld, who has emphasized a new set of priorities for the men in blue. “Since 2007,” the Sun notes, “when Bealefeld assumed control of the Police Department amid resurgent crime, police have focused on targeting the worst of the worst — Bealefeld has often referred to his strategy as fishing with a spear instead of a net.”
In other words, he is heeding one of the principal lessons conveyed by The Wire, HBO’s critically celebrated Baltimore police drama, which underscored the folly of padding stats with picayune drug arrests. Under the Bealefeld regime, officers have been urged to concentrate their efforts on violent offenders — “bad guys with guns,” as the commissioner likes to say. According to the Sun, total arrests in the city decreased from about 110,000 in 2005 to less than 70,000 in 2010. Over that same period, the annual number of homicides went down substantially.
Indeed, the Bealefeld approach seems to be working. (And starting this week, Baltimore’s top cop will be assisted by a promising new state’s attorney, Gregg Bernstein.) “We’ve just been building and building,” Bealefeld told the Sun. “This is not a story about 2010. This is a story about 2008, 2009, and where we are now and moving forward. We’re on rare ground.” Admittedly, the progress in Baltimore is relative — 223 murders (the body count in 2010) is a staggeringly high figure for a city of around 640,000 people — but it’s still progress.