Three major metros we’ve left behind
How bad are the cities, really? President Trump points to Democrat-run cities across the country and paints them as cesspools of crime and violence. Through July, homicides are up 51% in Chicago, 21% in New York City, and 14% in Los Angeles. Luminaries like Paul Krugman respond that 2019 in New York City saw only 319 murders, compared to 1993’s bloodbath of 1,927 murders. Crime remains at historic lows.
Unless you or a loved one happen to be part of the increase in murders, then Krugman is generally right. Nationwide, and in most cities, violent crime remains far below historic highs associated with the late 1980s and early 1990s. On the other side of the coin, a few cities remain violent and dangerous, missing out on much of the crime drop of the last generation.
How should we measure?
How many crimes take place in a city? The standard numbers one sees in the news come from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). The FBI collects data from law enforcement agencies on ‘index crimes’ like homicide, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, arson, and motor vehicle theft. The data form the basis for products like the FBI’s Violent Crime Index.
The FBI always warns against using the crime data to make comparisons across cities, stating vaguely that a lot of factors go into crime rates. Even within a single jurisdiction, comparisons across years potentially mislead. Technology and reporting discipline increased over the last decades, so statistics from 30 years ago likely understate how bad things were then.
Reporters and researchers often turn to homicide rates as a proxy for the overall crime rate. Citizens almost always report homicides so the murder rate usually reflects the number of corpses. Plus, index crimes rise and fall in concert, so cities with a lot of murders also endure a lot of aggravated assaults and robberies.
While homicide rates are a good proxy, there are a few additional twists to keep in mind:
- Current rates understate violence compared to decades ago because of advances in medical technology. Victims survive wounds that would have killed a generation ago.
- Homicide rates also understate actual violence because they rely on initial reports. A death later ruled to be homicide will not reflect in the incident reporting.
How much is too much?
The defenders of cities are right in that even with sharp year over year increases in some urban areas, most cities and the United States as a whole remain near historic lows. So how much is too much?
New York City presents a useful case study. In raw numbers, no city had more murders or more opportunities for improvement. Murders peaked in 1990 at 2,245 and dropped to 289 in 2018, the lowest year since 1951. That equates from a murder rate of 30.7 per 100K dropping to a rate of 3.4 per 100K. Crime in the nation’s largest city fell to the same levels seen in small towns and rural areas.
Up to the end of August, the NYC police report 290 murders versus 217 for the same period in 2019. If this trend persists murders could reach close to 400 by the end of the year. Since these small increases are tolerable (except to the 100 extra people murdered) compared to the “bad old days” of New York City, maybe those old days function as a useful yardstick.
The FBI’s warning about using crime stats to rank cities contains some truth. It’s probably not useful to draw judgments between Dallas and Atlanta with 2018 murder rates of 11.4 and 17.7, respectively. On the other hand, comparing San Diego with a rate of 2.4 per 100K and Philadelphia with its rate sitting at 22.1 reveals a dramatic difference. Both cities are around the same size, at 1.4 million residents, and crime is greater by an order of magnitude.
Keeping all this in mind, let the bad days of New York City serve as a delimiter. As murders climbed above 30 per 100K, the citizens revolted and elected a tough on crime Republican former prosecutor as mayor. Maybe a rate of 30 per 100K can serve as a dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable.
Where are the cities now?
The good news: most American cities are below this very rough inverse Mendoza line. And, since nearly all large cities are run by Democrats, this mitigates the talking point about failed Democratic leadership. That said, some outliers have not participated in the crime drop.
There are, indeed, cities crushed by lawlessness for generations. These, too, have been run by Democrats. Republicans at the national level ignore their plight because they won’t vote red anyway, and Democrats ignore their struggles because why politic for an already locked-down constituency?
Baltimore. President Trump criticized Baltimore as a “rat-infested mess.” The Baltimore Sun quipped back that there were fewer rats in Baltimore than in DC (and they weren’t even counting the politicians and journalists). Baltimore is apparently only the ninth most rat-infested city.
The scourge of crime and violence far outweighs any rodent problems. Baltimore’s murder rate peaked in 1993 at 48.2 per 100K, half again New York City’s rate. Baltimore’s rate stayed in the high 30s and 40s until around 2008 when it finally started to make progress. By 2014 the rate had dropped to 33.8, still in our red zone but improving every year through police work, cooperation with local prosecutors, and community outreach.
Then came the Freddie Gray tragedy, the riots, the consent decree, and a tsunami of murder. In 2015, the murder rate rose to 55.4 per 100K and has stayed above 50 ever since. 2019’s rate is estimated at 58.6 per 100K, almost twice the bad old days of New York City and even higher than the bad old days of Baltimore.
At this level, the risk of death from merely living in Baltimore for 11 years equals the risk of death from contracting COVID-19.
St. Louis. Murder in peaked in 1993 at a whopping 69.3 per 100K. The numbers fluctuated a lot over the years, but the bulk of the data shows rates in the high 30s to low 40s. Then, after Ferguson, murders jumped back up to nearly 60 per 100K residents, and have stayed there.
The New York Times argues that the St. Louis crime rates are misleading. Because the boundaries are tightly drawn around the urban core, crime is higher than in cities with more suburban-like areas included in the major city. There may be some truth to this, but on the other hand, what suburban-like areas are included in New York City?
With more people packed into a smaller area, even Staten Island has a higher population density than St. Louis. In fact, crime in Saint Louis is even more compact.
Homicides don’t distribute equally. Lots of people know about Chicago’s north/south divide, but Saint Louis effectively concentrates the vast majority of its murders into about fifty percent of the city, doubling the murder rate in those areas.
The most positive thing about crime rates in St. Louis is that it’s not East St. Louis. This small town of 26,000 on the Illinois side of the river isn’t big enough on its own as a big city. It clocks in at a stratospheric 96 murders per 100K. Only 25% are ever charged.
Detroit. The murder 2018 rate of 38.8 per 100K shows improvement over its most recent peak of 54.6 in 2012, though this may reflect a return to ‘normal’ of the high 30s and low 40s from the early 2000s. Murder may have peaked as early as 1987 at a rate of 62.8, and it stayed at almost this level until beginning its decline in the early 1990s like the rest of the country.
Detroit presents a unique case in American history. It is the only large city to dry up and blow away, and its disintegration results in a large part from generations of crime and violence, not just the early 90s high-water mark like the rest of the country.
Many point to the 1967 Detroit riots as the turning point. Among the most violent and destructive riots in American history, at least 43 people were killed, 1,400 buildings were burned, and 5,000 people were left homeless. The scale of destruction is unimaginable compared to today’s riots with only a few hundred “mostly peaceful” protesters.
However, Detroit’s decline started well before 1967; the riots were an accelerant, not the cause of the flame. In 1950, Detroit was the 5th largest city in the country, with 1.85M people. By 1960, it had already lost 180K. The murder rate in 1960 was 7.8 per 100K, and by 1966 it was 13.6. While still small next to the coming apocalypse with its first peak at 51.4 in 1974, murder was already a growth business well before the 1967 riots.
High crime, declining tax base and investment, tax policies, idiosyncratic transit policies, racial tension, declining schools, and a host of other problems promoted not only white flight but eventually multiracial flight as well. As of 2018, at just over 672K population, it is the 23rd largest city in the country, and there is no reason to think it will ever reverse the trend.
There are a lot of theories about why crime at the national level and in cities steadily increased from the 1960s to the early 1990s, then steadily decreased. What is clear is that a few jurisdictions mired in poor management or corruption were left behind. But there’s reason to believe that reform and good policing can move the needle today. Take New Orleans, for example.
The Big Easy’s early 90s murder peaked at 85.8 per 100K in 1994. It never really subsided, and then spiked to 94.7 per 100K in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina. As recently as 2012, the rate was still over 50.
The last few years, though, have seen reason for hope. Some report progress in New Orleans’ notoriously corrupt police department. A 2012 federal consent decree sparked a new wave of reform. Unlike Baltimore, the decree does not seem to have sparked mistrust, low morale, and police pullback, but has resulted in a better approach to policing.
Coordination with the community, outreach, and a human-centered approach to reducing criminal activity appears to have paid off in reduced murder rates, at least up until this year. 2019 saw the lowest murder rate in decades, down to 30.7 per 100K.
Smart policing and cooperation between law enforcement, prosecutors, and community services have shown that crime can be reduced without depending on stop-and-frisk, which alienated a generation of minority youth. Boston showed the way in the 1990s, and the approach is finding success in places like New Haven, Connecticut.
What is clear, though, is that what is happening in Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis isn’t working.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.