Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Falling Crime Rates: Do We Know What We Think We Know Do?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
September 24, 2011

According to two reports released this week violent crime continues its downward spiral. The FBI released its Crime in the United States report. In 2010, violent crime dropped 6 percent, the fourth consecutive year violent crime declined. The report is based on information provided by more than 18,000 city, county, university, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies. Most importantly, the report contains information on the number of reported crimes, including murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults and burglaries.

A second report, the National Crime Victimization Survey, gathers information on nonfatal crimes by questioning a nationally representative sample of U.S. households. The report found that violent crime fell by an even greater 12 percent nationwide last year.

The continued decline in violent crime is forcing some criminologists to reexamine their theories on the causes of crime. “It will be years before we get the answer, if we do, to what’s going on right now,” said Professor William Pridemore from Indiana University in Bloomington. “Criminologists have been pretty stumped.”

Could there be a black market in victimization -- an underground crime industry that is neither reported to police nor disclosed in a victimization survey?

The culture in some neighborhoods of not cooperating with police -- the idea that the “snitch” is both in danger and a neighborhood pariah -- has surely had some impact on crime reporting.

Last year, Pittsburgh’s decline in violent crime was even greater than the national average. The city saw a 9 percent drop in violent crime. Among violent crimes, robberies were down nearly 13 percent in 2010, and citywide aggravated assaults were down 4.2 percent.

Yet, last year murder was up 41 percent in Pittsburgh. Murder cannot go unreported. However, a drug dealer being robbed at gun point can and does go unreported. A home invasion, an assault, a shootout among rival gangs, most assuredly is going unreported.

National clearance rates for murder and manslaughter have fallen from about 90 percent in the 1960s to below 65 percent in recent years. Experts say that homicides are tougher to solve now because crimes of passion, where assailants are easier to identify, have been replaced by drug and gang-related killings. Many police chiefs -- especially in areas with rising numbers of unsolved crimes -- blame a lack of witness cooperation.

If witnesses are reluctant to cooperate in a murder investigation, it is reasonable to assume witnesses are equally reluctant to cooperate or report robberies, assaults and threats. In light of that reluctance, are we getting a true picture of the safety and security of our neighborhoods?

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