Crime Rates in the United States


Nov. 17, 2014 (San Diego) Starting in the 1990s, the United States saw a dramatic decrease in crime rates. This is well known among both police agencies and academics. Yet, from media reporting, many people have the impression that crime is as big a problem as it’s ever been. Parts of this disconnect lies in what is shown on the nightly news. Reports of criminal activity bely the fact that is is way down. Some of this it is expectations from people. Youth, we have been told, is out of control, and we have been expecting a crime wave. Yet, even among the youth, crime is way down.

Gallup polling reveals this. While crime rates are the lowest they have been in decades, people still believe that crime rates are very high. This disconnect can be exploited by politicians during political campaigns. After all, a fear of crime can be a powerful driver for citizens to approve more public spending, especially if it goes to public safety. On the other hand, citizens can demand more spending in law enforcement beyond the point of usefulness.

When did crime rates start to drop? According to the data kept by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), they started to drop in the early 1990s. It was a dramatic fall, and it was nationwide. San Diego has not been an exception. You can find this data with the Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) which is where we fund the relevant statistics. San Diego’s are on the city website and they are far more granular than the national ARJIS statistics. We used for this article the same national crime index.

The best measure of crime rates is that of homicide. According to Steven D Levitt, writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Between 1991 and 2000, homicide rates per capita fell from 9.8 to 5.5 per 100,000, a drop of 44 percent. Since that time, homicide rates have been steady.”

According to Levitt there are a series of explanations used to explain why crime rates dropped. Some are more popular than others, but none explains the phenomena fully. They range from a better economy, to an aging population, to the crack epidemic, and the end of it, to better policing practices. None offers a full explanation. Yet the questions remain? Why did we see a decrease in crime rates?

One of the most popular media explanations is more police and better policing practices. In fact, New York City, which saw the most dramatic drop, is usually offered as an example. Yet, according to Levitt the increase in police forces, and New York Police was the most dramatic, does not explain the reduction in crime. Moreover, this increase in police hiring started before Mayor Rudy Giulani took over, even if he took credit for it, with his successor Michael Bloomberg. Several of the police practices that started under his administration, including targeting of youth of color, have come under attack in recent years due to civil rights violations. Since current New York Mayor Bill De Blasio reversed them.

San Diego saw a drop in crime almost as dramatic as New York City. The Voice of San Diego documented this two years ago. Violent crimes in San Diego peaked in 1990, which saw upward of 15,000 violent crimes. Last year the city saw 5,303 violent crimes. This is a very significant drop. The 1990s San Diego PD enacted a program of community policing that has also been credited with these results. Though this is rarely acknowledged in the national media, but it is in academic circles. This was also the time that federal monies were given to police departments that used such programs. San Diego was likely one of the most successful implementations

According to Levitt, in New York City and he expanded that to San Diego, the different policing tactics and techniques were part of this reduction in crime, but hardly the complete answer. He also disputes that the economy had as large a role as some economists believe. He muses that if the economy was that critical, we should have seen a spike in the crime rate after the 2008 economic crash. We did not. This confused many criminologists since it went against all kinds of predictions.

One reason for the spike in crime and sudden fall is the crack cocaine epidemic. This is the only one that seems to match the pattern the best, according to Levitt. But one thing that is also hard to explain is another fall. This is the crash in crime rates among youth. One of the predictions by criminologist during the 1990s was that the fall in crime, especially among the young, was a mirage and would soon reverse itself. Yet, we have not seen a new crime wave that would make the 1980s look like the good old days. In fact, youth crime rate has also crashed.

There is another explanation usually used by get tough on crime politicians. These are the longer prison terms and three strikes you are out laws. This has led to the largest percentage of imprisoned Americans in history, and in Levitt’s views the long prison terms have had a negative role in society. He is not alone.

The New York Times reported in 2013 the role of these terms with the cycle of poverty. They wrote “For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job

This leads to social costs that were not predicted by those pushing those policies in the 1990s. Children growing without males, or expecting to go to prison, is a social cost. We are just starting to see the effects of this in society.

Regarding youth crime though. The fact that youth do not have parents would tell us that we should be seeing a spike in youth crime. This is not the case.

According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice “New figures for 2011 released by the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center (CJSC, 2012) show arrests of youths underage 18 fell by 20 percent from 2010 to 2011, reaching their lowest level since statewide statistics were first compiled in 1954. “

This failure of that crime faith to materialize is a good thing. But it is also puzzling.

Now we took the time to go over the crime index for some individual departments in the County. We think that it is useful to compare two small, mostly urban departments, with two large departments, one large urban, the other rural. These are the Chula Vista and El Cajon for our small departments, and San Diego PD and the Sheriffs Office for large departments.

The total crime index, while much lower than what it was in the early 1990s, still has swings from year to year. They are not that large, but they are there. San Diego Police has the largest swings, and it might be related to it’s problems keeping officers in the force due to pay issues. San Diego Police is among the lowest of large metropolitan areas in the state. This was reported recently by KPBS.

First the swings and we are giving you the total numbers.:

Crime Stats for San Diego County

Total 2010: 77880

Total 2011: 74282 -5 percent

Total 2012: 79819 +7 percent

Total 2013: 79196 -1 percent

So far 2014: 51418


Total 2010: 16355

Total 2011: 15913 – 3 percent

Total 2012: 17252 + 8 percent

Total 2013: 16162 – 7 percent

Total so far 2014: 10461

Within the county only areas, not counting contracted cities, the Sherif’s crime rate dropped by  11 percent. This is according to the San Diego Annual Report. Our total reflects contracted    cities, such as Poway, Santee and some North County jurisdictions, which are more urban.

Chula Vista

Total 2010: 5789

Total 2011: 5690 – 2 percent

Total 2012: 5661 – 1 percent

Total 2013: 5879 +4 percent

Total so far 2014: 3877

El Cajon PD

Total 2010: 3153

Total 2011: 2999 – 5 percent

Total 2012: 2941 -2 percent

Total 2013: 3099 + 5 percent

Total so far 2014: 1757

San Diego


Total 2010: 36369

Total 2011: 34813 – 5 percent

Total 2012: 37229 +7 percent

Total 2013: 37031 -1 percent

So far 2014: 21038

NOTE: We used round numbers for clarity.

While some of these swings seem dramatic, in reality they are not that dramatic. It is also good to compare geographic service areas.

Chula Vista,

Area:52.054 square miles

Population: 256, 780

Unemployment Rate: 7.3 percent

El Cajon

Area: 14.43 square Miles

Population 102, 211

Unemployment Rate 8.5 Percent

City of San Diego

Area: 372.4 square miles

Population: 1.356 million

Unemployment rate: 6.2 percent

Unincorporated Area of San Diego County

Area: 3,572.0 square miles

Population: 486,604 (As of the 2010 census)

Unemployment Rate: Not available

For the two largest departments this is how many officers exist per citizen,

As of July 2014 the SDPD had 1819 officers on staff, while they were losing 17 a month on average, For the purpose of this exercise we will use the July numbers. There are about the same average number of officers per citizen in both San Diego and the unincorporated areas. This is 1.3 per 1000. That said, the physical area that each Sheriff’s Officer has to patrol is much larger, and it is considered a rural region, with a response of 20 minutes being acceptable. The city of San Diego is an urban center and response times are supposed to be much smaller.

San Diego’s ideal staffing is 2000 sworn officers. This would raise it to 1.4 officers per 1000 residents. The difference may not seem that large, but this is the difference between responding to lower priority calls or not responding at all.

So next time you turn on the news and you hear about the latest crime, remember, crime is at historic lows. This does not mean that they could not rise in the future, But for the moment, they are still at a historic low.

Twitter: @nadinbrzezinski

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Categories: Crime, Police Forces, policy

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