Violent deaths down, but reasons are elusive

Marc Fisher • The Washington Post /

Published Mar 5, 2013 at 04:00AM


Back in the crack-infused 1980s, young men with guns and drugs ruled the single block of Hanover Place NW in Washington, D.C. People who lived in the two-story rowhouses one mile north of the Capitol fell asleep year round to the sounds of the Fourth of July, a pop-pop-pop that they hoped was firecrackers. It rarely was.

But after two decades of consistent and dramatic declines in homicides and gun violence in Washington and many other major cities, Hanover Place is mostly quiet these days. Complaints to the police tend to be more about kids shooting craps on the sidewalk than about drug dealers shooting at rival street crews. On a block where houses were unloaded for as little as $30,000 in the 1990s, the most recent sales have ranged from $278,000 to $425,000.

As welcome as such changes have been, explanations for the nation’s plummeting homicide rate remain elusive, stymieing economists, criminologists, police, politicians and demographers. Have new police strategies made a difference, or have demographic shifts and population migrations steered the change? Could the reasons be as simple as putting more bad guys behind bars, or does credit go to changes made a generation ago, such as taking the lead out of gasoline or legalizing abortion?

Mass shootings such as last year’s searing incidents in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., have put gun and mental-health policies back atop the nation’s agenda. But the narrative of crime over the past two decades runs in a different direction. Law and order has largely vanished as a political issue — in 1994, more than half of Americans called crime the nation’s most important problem; by 2012, only 2 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said so.

Today, there are more theories about why crime has fallen than there were slayings on Hanover Place in the past decade.

The drop in deaths from firearms and in slayings overall — over the past two decades, homicide declined by 80 percent in the District of Columbia and overall crime fell by 75 percent in New York City — has come even as the has economy tanked, the number of guns owned by Americans has soared and the number of young people in the prime crime demographic has peaked.

“There has been a real drop in crime, and anyone living in New York or Washington sees it,” said David Greenberg, a New York University sociologist who has tested theories for the decline. “In principle, we should be able to explain it, but it’s easier to determine what factors don’t contribute than it is to say what does.”

On Hanover Place, residents are quick to name two reasons why the nights when they heard as many as 75 gunshots are a fading memory: The cast of characters has changed and the police cleaned out the place.

Starting in the mid-’80s, D.C. police focused on the open-air drug market Hanover Place had become. Emptying onto North Capitol Street, Hanover could not have been better designed for drug dealing and the gun violence it spawns. Entered through a warren of alleys, the street gave bad guys any number of quick exit routes — through backyards, walkways and unmarked alleys — but prevented police in squad cars from seeing anything from adjacent streets.

“It’s not an easy place to get into, even though it’s the perfect walk-in spot for drug sales,” said Andy Solberg, police commander for the 5th District, which includes Hanover Place.

Different population

So when the city got serious about taking down dealers such as drug kingpin Cornell Jones, whose family home was on the block, they set up a trailer on a vacant lot and created at least the illusion that the cops were always there, always watching. Then the D.C. government, using federal, local and private money, worked with a community development corporation to buy vacant properties, build houses and sell them at cost to people with jobs and clean records.

The result is a very different population, said Joyce Robinson-Paul, a 32-year resident and the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area. “The new neighbors are very quiet,” she said. But “the real crime problem didn’t leave until many of the dealers were arrested and went to jail.”

Since Solberg became a police officer 25 years ago, the prison population has tripled nationally, the result of anti-drug and anti-gun enforcement efforts, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the widespread elimination of parole. Most studies agree that increases in incarceration explain part of the decline in violent crime, though Solberg and many criminologists say the warehousing of young men convicted of nonviolent crimes causes as many social problems as it solves.

Police and residents also credit community policing, in which officers meet with local activists and keep close tabs on known bad guys. But studies of police tactics such as New York’s stop-and-frisk campaign or the “broken windows” emphasis on enforcing minor infractions conclude that those measures have little impact on crime.

Population change is no slam-dunk explanation, either. Through most of the 1990s, criminologists and politicians, including President Bill Clinton, predicted that crime rates were about to soar, that a generation of super-predators — part of the population bulge created when the baby boomers had children — would reverse the decline in shootings and killings.

It didn’t happen. The number of young people did rise, but crime fell. What did happen in many cities was gentrification. On Hanover Place, some renters had to move when they could no longer afford the soaring price of housing. And some longtime owners cashed out. They moved to Prince George’s County for better schools, safer streets and eyepopping profits, getting $300,000 or $400,000 for houses they had bought for a few thousand dollars.

Crime and the economy

Policymakers and scholars long assumed that crime and economic health were organically connected — tough times, therefore, should drive up crime. But that didn’t happen after the 2008 financial collapse and the resulting recession.

Property crime does sometimes track the state of the economy, but not always. In the 1960s, despite powerful growth, crime soared. It is clear, however, that violent crime does not correlate with the unemployment rate.

So researchers have looked for other explanations. Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, argued that four key factors explain the decline of violent crime: more police, more criminals in prison, the ebbing of crack’s popularity and the legalization of abortion.

On Hanover Place, men still hang out drinking from bottles in paper bags, but violent crime subsided markedly as the crack cocaine craze of the 1980s faded. Similarly, homicide rates for young black men nationwide spiked as demand for crack expanded, then they fell in the 1990s as crack use declined. (Hospital admissions related to cocaine use fell by two-thirds between 1992 and 2009.)

Levitt’s abortion theory proved more provocative. His data show violent crime dropping two decades after the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion. More abortions, he concluded, led to fewer unwanted births and fewer children growing up in situations that would have made them greater crime risks.

Legalizing abortion reduced the nation’s birth rate by about 5 percent, and twice that among teen and non-white mothers. Levitt showed that states with the highest abortion rates experienced the sharpest declines in crime; in high-abortion states, homicides dropped 26 percent from 1985 to 1997 while increasing 4 percent in low-abortion states.

Some criminologists question Levitt’s narrative and statistical analysis. Killings did drop dramatically in New York City, which had an abortion rate three times the national average, concluded economist Theodore Joyce in a 2009 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research. But the timing and degree of the decline in homicides did not line up with what Levitt’s theory would have predicted.

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