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Crime rate down nationwide but Americans don’t believe it

The crime rate in both local and national jurisdictions is reportedly in steady decline, yet public perceptions of safety appear in opposition to the latest law enforcement statistics.

In Palmdale, city officials and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have announced a 18.4 percent decrease in the number of Part 1 crimes reported in the second quarter of 2016, reportedly slowing the pace of the city’s overall crime rate which has resulted in a projected 210 crimes-per-10,000-population for the year. “Part 1” crimes include criminal homicide, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, car theft and arson.

Less crime in Palmdale

To place the numbers into perspective, Palmdale’s crime rate was 467.71 (per 10,000 population) 20 years ago when the city set a goal to drive the crime rate below 300 by 2009. The goal was accomplished by that specified time and, seven years later, the city’s crime rate has fallen below 200, according the Sheriff’s Department.

If you compare these numbers to the second quarter of 2015—with the homicide rate remaining relatively unchanged—the latest results in Palmdale reveal that aggravated assault was reduced by 10 percent, burglary is down 31 percent, robbery dropped to 23 percent, larceny/theft is down 15 percent and grand theft auto reduced to 20 percent. Areas with reported increases were arson (up 17 incidents over the 14 cases in the prior quarter), and rape, which increased 13 percent. Officials have cited a change in the FBI classification of rape as a possible reason for the increase in cases of violent sexual assault.

In total, there were 1,641 Part 1 crimes in Palmdale at the end of the second quarter of 2016, down from the 2,010 crimes recorded during the second quarter of 2015. Local officials believe that a continued partnership between residents and law enforcement have made a considerable difference and could be the reason for the reduction.

In the fight against terrorism, the phrase “see something, say something” has reportedly aided law enforcement in foiling deadly plots. In terms of reducing and/or preventing Part 1 crimes, the same could be true locally.

Community involvement

“The crime reduction that we have continued to experience in the city of Palmdale is the result of a teamwork effort involving the Sheriff’s Department, city staff, the community, and the support of our local leadership,” said Captain Dennis Kneer of the Palmdale Sheriff’s station. “[Sheriff’s Department] will continue building the public’s trust through our community policing efforts.”

Palmdale’s Neighborhood Services has worked throughout the years to meet the crime reduction threshold and keep the statistics in decline. Again, community involvement has made a big difference.

“We’ve worked over the years to get the crime rate below the 200 mark, and we intend to keep it there,” said Mike Miller, director of Palmdale Neighborhood Services. “Working with our community partners, residents, businesses and law enforcement, we will continue our progress and focus on the areas where we can improve.”

At Palmdale City Hall, the news couldn’t have been more positive. Officials there believe these facts will only go toward attracting new business to town and, importantly, improving “quality of life” measurements throughout the community.

Crime down across the land

“This is the kind of news that really helps us on a lot of different levels,” said Palmdale City Manager Jim Purtee. “When you combine these statistics with having been named ‘Most Business Friendly City’ in Los Angeles County and all the new educational opportunities coming on line, it really helps sell Palmdale to prospective businesses as the place they should be.”

The crime rate across the United States is dropping, measuring about half of what it was at its height in 1991. With such encouraging news, the average citizen would wonder why America’s communities are not celebrating as though it were Mardi Gras everyday. Two years ago, the FBI’s count of violent crimes reported to law enforcement had declined from a rate of 747 violent incidents per 100,000 people in 1993, to 387 incidents per 100,000 people in 2012. The numbers reflect that, over the two-year period in tabulating Part 1 crimes, the homicide rate has fallen 51 percent; forcible rapes had declined by 35 percent; robberies had dropped by 56 percent, and the rate of aggravated assault had been reduced to 45 percent. Property crime rates were down as well.

Criminologists insist that the downward trends are not caused by changes in people’s willingness to report crime to the police but, rather, these crimes are in decline despite a constant barrage of media coverage—including information culled via social media—which may indicate otherwise. The National Crime Victimization Survey reported in 2014 that the rate of violent victimization had declined by 67 percent since 1993. This number reportedly reflects a 70 percent decline in rape and sexual assault; a 66 percent drop in robbery; a 77 percent reduction in aggravated assault, and a 64 percent fall in simple assault.

Why people believe crime is up

Gallup conducted a poll last year and found that a majority of Americans (63 percent) say there is more crime in the United States than there was the previous year. In fact, Gallup for the past 10 years has found that the majority of Americans believe that crime is up. Pollsters tended to rationalize these findings by stating that because Americans are more pessimistic about crime in the U.S. as a whole, as opposed to their own localities, the findings might suggest that many people base their views on what they hear about crimes that take place outside their hometowns. Some pollsters argue that consumption of news  plays a role in this belief by exposing Americans to crimes that they may perceive as more widespread than actually is the case. So if the U.S. crime rate is down—and continuing to fall—why do people believe nothing has changed? James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, told the Christian Science Monitor last year that the crime rate is definitely down, but media coverage can paint a different picture, because [street] crime stories are an integral part of nightly local news.

Four reasons for the drop

“We are indeed safer than we were 20 years ago,” Fox said in explaining that, despite the strong evidence of crime dropping, the public sees the reverse. “Recent Gallup polls have found that citizens overwhelmingly feel crime is going up even though it is not. This is because of the growth of crime shows and the way that TV spotlights the emotional. One case of a random, horrific shooting shown repeatedly on TV has a  more visceral effect than all the statistics printed in a newspaper.”

Criminologists like Fox point to four main reasons for the drop in crime:

—Increased incarceration including longer sentences that keeps more criminals off the streets;

—Improved law enforcement strategies, including advances in computer analysis and innovative technology;

—The waning of the crack/cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, which made cocaine cheaply available in cities and provided capital for street gangs; and

—The “graying” of America characterized by the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population—baby boomers—passing the age of 50.

Better police technology

Technology has come a long way since law enforcement used push pins on a map of high-crime areas. Now they use data bases and computers. Today’s detectives have new tools to better analyze blood and DNA samples or other forensic evidence. Computerized “hot spot” crime mapping has helped police “connect dots” in ways that were more difficult before. Beyond technology, law enforcement personnel are much better educated and trained today, and communities have also become smarter at addressing crime. The yearly National Night Out campaign, for instance, brings together citizens and law enforcement to discuss the best ways to prevent crime, while the many social programs and services for youth have made great strides toward targeting those hours after school, when most youth crime is committed.

One lingering problem is gang activity. Law enforcement personnel will point to the difficulty of stopping gang activity as it happens, because jailing youth doesn’t get at the heart of the problem. Gang activity has become even more difficult to prevent because young people have access to the Internet as a recruiting tool.

“Gangs are now able to recruit with the click of a mouse rather than knock on doors,” Fox said. “Arresting the violent offenders will help in the short term, but unless there is a system in place to work with potential gang members who very likely will become violent offenders, we are not addressing the source of the problem.”

Less crime, more jails?

At the beginning of the Great Recession, many criminologists began to postulate a surge in crime because more people were out of work and, in desperation for money, robberies and burglaries would increase. A strange thing happened, however. Since people were out of work, they tended to remain home more often thereby thwarting potential burglaries. Richard Rosenfeld, former president of the American Society of Criminology at the University of Missouri, told reporters in 2011 that the economic downturn resulted in a “decline in opportunities” for criminal behavior.

“During severe recessions like the current one, with chronically high unemployment rates, more people are at home and can act as guardians of their home,” he said, adding that the poor economy has, effectively, left people with “less cash and valuables” making criminals less likely to target them for theft.

While there was not a surge in crime, when more people were out of work, the prison industrial complex continued business as usual. Last weekend, various organizations and community members with the Antelope Valley People’s Coalition hosted a town hall meeting in Palmdale to speak out in opposition to a proposed new women’s jail in Lancaster as well as the replacement/expansion of the Men’s Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles. Organizers cited the fact that Los Angeles County reportedly operates the world’s largest jail system and now the law enforcement community wants another $3 billion for jail expansion. “We call for more investment in community-based alternatives to imprisonment,” said Mohamed Shehk of Critical Resistance. He cited the need for bail reform, mental health and substance abuse programs, and also healthcare and affordable housing as ways to significantly reduce the jail population. “These methods can strengthen communities and make any more jails unnecessary,” Shehk said.

Politicians can’t take credit

Does increased gun ownership play a role in crime reduction? Some ardent National Rifle Association supporters say the decline has occurred because so many Americans have chosen to arm themselves and have, therefore, created safer streets and households. Conversely, anti-gun proponents point to the increase in the number of gun laws as being the reason violent crimes are on the downswing. Presently, there are no firm statistics to back up either theory.

Neither Democrats or Republicans can take full credit for the drop in crime, say criminologists. Crime dropped during times of peace and at times of war, in the boom times of the late 1990s and in the Great Recession era. In recent years, both criminologists and the public have been baffled by the improving crime situation, especially when so may other social indicators appear so bleak. The crime rate has not dropped because people are “nicer” to one another, nor is there any single “smoking gun” that can account for the drop, although most criminologists say that formal social controls (i.e. police and prisons) and broader shifts in the population and the economy may play a part. Apparently, experts believe that the main drivers in crime reduction has been social, or the incremental changes in our social lives and interaction with others including shifts in our institutions, technologies and cultural practices.

According to Rosenfeld, Americans can’t be certain where the crime rate will be in five years, but “if we had to bet,” he noted, where it would be in one hundred years, “we could be reasonably confident it would be measurably lower than it is today.”