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Crime Is Down In American Cities, And 'Uneasy Peace' Explains Why

Jan 20, 2018
Originally published on January 21, 2018 8:02 am

Violent crime is down in America's big cities.

It may not seem so if you watch crime dramas like CSI, NCIS or Chicago P.D., but homicide, assault and rapes have decreased in big cities since the 1970s. Even Chicago had a 16 percent decline in murders last year, to 650. (In 1974, the city had 970 homicides.)

Patrick Sharkey, chair of NYU's sociology department and scientific director of Crime Lab New York, attributes the change, in part, to something that happened in the 1990s. He says, "The entire country, really kind of for the first time in a while, saw violence as a national crisis and mobilized to deal with it."

Sharkey's new book is Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.


Interview Highlights

On how the country mobilized to reduce crime in the 1990s

That took many forms. It took the form of more police on the street and more aggressive policing, more aggressive prosecution, shutting down open-air drug markets.

But another piece of this that I kind of draw attention to in the book is there was also a mobilization in the communities hit hardest. Residents organized and really started to fight against violence, started to fight to take back public parks, playgrounds, public streets. And I think all of these things together explain why violence started to fall.

On increased policing and tougher sentences

[Those] did have an effect. If we're having an honest conversation, then those factors are part of the conversation.

They also brought great costs as well. So we have millions of Americans who are under the surveillance of the criminal justice system. We've all seen the instances of aggressive or violent policing. So these are part of the reason why crime fell, but they've also brought some of the worst costs of the crime decline as well.

On the connection between reduced crime and gentrification

We've looked at how the crime drop has affected changes in the population of low-income neighborhoods, and what we've found is that as violence declines, new populations enter into very poor neighborhoods. It's a drop in the degree which the poor are kind of isolated, separated, from the rest of the city. Now, nationally we've found no evidence that this leads to displacement of the poor. What it means is that residents with more education [and] higher income are moving into neighborhoods where poverty was concentrated. ... [The poor] are not pushed out to a large extent. That's one of the findings that we have.

Now, in some cities — in New York and San Francisco — there are very visible examples where this happened, so I certainly don't want to dismiss it. ... So in those cities, it's crucial that we have policies in place that preserve affordable housing [and] make sure people are not displaced, not just physically, but also culturally, politically.

On the ripple effects of a lower crime rate

Beyond the lives that have been preserved, we have found gains in things like economic mobility. So in places that have become safer, we found a causal effect on the chance that children from low-income families will move upward out of poverty as they reach adulthood.

We've found impacts on academic performance; so in the places that have become safest, academic achievement has improved the most. And actually, racial achievement gaps have narrowed the most in the places that have become safest. And beyond all that, I think the most profound changes is just in the experience of urban poverty. So across the country, for several decades, living in poverty used to mean living with the constant threat of violence. That hasn't gone away. There are certain cities that are still intensively violent, but it's no longer true in most of the country.

Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Violent crime is down in America's big cities. It may not seem so if you watch any "CSI," "NCIS," "Laws & Orders" (ph) or "Chicago P.D." crime dramas. But homicide, assaults and rapes are down a lot in big cities since the 1970s. Even Chicago, which has seen so many murders in the past few years, had a 16 percent decline last year to 650 homicides. The city had 970 killings in 1974. What's been the reason for such progress? What should we learn? And have there been unforeseen consequences?

Patrick Sharkey, chair of the sociology department at NYU and scientific director of Crime Lab New York has looked into the statistics and programs of the last 40 years. His new book - "Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life and The Next War on Violence." He joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

PATRICK SHARKEY: Sure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So as you might want to list them, what are some of the reasons big city violent crime has gone down?

SHARKEY: Well, when I look at what happened in the 1990s, which is when crime started falling, what I see is that the entire country really kind of, for the first time in a while, saw violence as a national crisis and mobilized to deal with it. And so that took many forms. It took the form of more police on the street, more aggressive policing, more aggressive prosecution, shutting down open-air drug markets. But another piece of this that I kind of draw attention to in the book is there was also a mobilization in the communities hit hardest. Residents organized and really started to fight against violence, started to fight to take back public parks, playgrounds, public streets. And I think all of these things together explain why violence started to fall.

SIMON: More police on the streets and tougher sentences had an effect, though.

SHARKEY: It did have an effect. If we're having an honest conversation, then those factors are part of the conversation. They also brought great costs as well. So we have millions of Americans who are under the surveillance of the criminal justice system. We've all seen the instances of aggressive or violent policing. So these are part of the reason why crime fell, but they've also brought some of the worst costs of the crime decline as well.

SIMON: A tricky question - is that force we call gentrification an effector or cause of the dip in crime?

SHARKEY: Well, probably both. But we've looked at how the crime drop has affected changes in the population of low-income neighborhoods. And what we've found is that as violence declines, new populations enter into very poor neighborhoods. It's a drop in the degree to which the poor are kind of isolated, separated from the rest of the city. Now, nationally, we found no evidence that this leads to displacement of the poor. What it means is that residents with more education, higher income are moving into neighborhoods where poverty was concentrated.

SIMON: But does this mean that in, let's say, inner city neighborhoods in Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore - become safer? Poor families are pushed out by increased rents before they have a chance to finally live in a safer neighborhood.

SHARKEY: Well, they're not pushed out to a large extent. That's one of the findings that we have. Now, in some cities - in New York and San Francisco - there are very visible examples where this happens, so I certainly don't want to dismiss it. But over the...

SIMON: What about Washington, D.C.? Would you add it to that list?

SHARKEY: D.C., yes. Of course, yeah. So there - in those cities, it's crucial that we have policies in place that preserve affordable housing, make sure people are not displaced - not just physically but also culturally, politically. You know, 25 years ago the biggest problem in cities, beyond the problem of violence, was the issue of concentrated poverty, a lack of demand, people leaving central cities. Now we have this problem of too much demand and the problems that come with that. I don't want to dismiss them, but it's a much better problem to have than we had 20 years ago.

SIMON: In times when, I believe, all the polls say a lot of Americans are in despair, what have the gains been by having a lower homicide rate in so many big cities? Obviously, more people are alive but beyond that.

SHARKEY: Yeah. Beyond the lives that have been preserved, we have found gains in things like economic mobility. So in places that have become safer, we found a causal effect on the chance that children from low-income families will move upward out of poverty as they reach adulthood. We found impacts on academic performance. So in the places that have become safest, academic achievement has improved the most. And actually, racial achievement gaps have narrowed the most in the places that have become safest.

And beyond all that, I think the most profound change is just in the experience of urban poverty. So across the country for several decades, living in poverty used to mean living with the constant threat of violence. That hasn't gone away. There are certain cities that are still intensively violent, but it's no longer true in most of the country.

SIMON: Patrick Sharkey of NYU and Crime Lab New York - his book, "Uneasy Peace."

Thanks so much for being with us.

SHARKEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.