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Despite well-publicized shootings, crime rate is down

In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting and the contentious push for new gun control laws in both Washington and Albany, it’s often easy to forget that the United States has been experiencing what some have called the "Great American Crime Decline."

Each year, Utica College professor Shanna Van Slyke begins her criminology class by asking students what they know about the crime rate. She gets the same answers every time.

“The majority of my students feel crime is going up, that it always has been, and that they’re very likely to become victims of violent crimes,” she said.

It turns out that Van Slyke’s students are pretty typical. The most recent Gallup poll on the perceptions of crime showed that more than two thirds of Americans think violent crime has gotten worse. This is what polls have shown for the past decade. Half of the respondents say there is more crime where they live than there was the year before.

“All indicators I’m aware of suggest that people are just getting more and more scared,” says Van Slyke. “Things like sales in home security systems, gated communities and watchdogs.”

Van Slyke says the public is misled by the news media and television shows.

“What they show about crime and what the movies show about crime are the most atypical crimes you could possibly have. We call those the celebrity crimes. What gets most publicized are the least common and most frightening crimes.”

The crime rate started to rise in the 1960s before exploding with the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Though much of the public hasn’t seemed to notice, there has been an equally staggering drop in crime since 1992.  The rates for murder and robbery are half of what they were 20 years ago.  In New York state, the total number of violent crimes has fallen by 18 percent in the past decade, driven in part by a historic drop in murders in New York City.

Van Slyke states that, “violent and property crime right now are at their lowest since the early 1970s.”

Criminologists can’t say for sure what’s caused the decline. But most agree that an increase in incarceration has played a role, as more criminals spent more time behind bars.  Demographics may play a role as well. As the population has aged, there are fewer young people, the group most likely to commit crimes. Shawn Bushway of the University at Albany School of Criminal Justice says some of the falling crime rate is due to fundamental changes in the market for illegal drugs.

“Crack cocaine is just not that big of a deal anymore. It’s no longer a fad, it’s a well established market. There’s less violence associated with the market and there’s fewer users,” Bushway said.

There’s more police on the streets now, too, and Bushway says one thing that may be a big deal in reducing crime is the way those cops do their job.

“Policing now is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Twenty years ago people thought police can have no impact on crime. I don’t think anyone thinks that anymore.”

Many departments have embraced a strategy called "hotspot policing." It turns out that most crime is clustered in certain small areas conducive to it. Police can use data maps to identify those locations. Then, if they ratchet up the pressure, they can prevent crime there, as well as in nearby areas.

Bushway says, “There’s been very good research that shows experimentally when you do this proactive, very targeted policing, you can actually reduce crime without displacing it to other places.”

Upstate, that’s the goal of Project Impact.  The New York State Police are working closely with local forces in 17 metropolitan areas outside of New York City. Captain Francis Coots sends some of the 100 troopers he supervises to help patrol parts of the city of Utica.

“We’re not just riding around looking for traffic tickets. We actually have directed patrols. Sometimes we’re looking at prostitution, sometimes we’re looking at known drug locations.”

Coots says smarter use of technology allows him to move quickly, unlike his early days as a trooper when he had to tabulate crime reports by hand and send them to Albany to be collated with all the others.

“By the time you get it back it’s stale. It’s not doing me any good, all it is is numbers on a piece of paper. Now it’s real time. Departments like the Utica Police Department, they’re getting their information immediately. They’re pushing it out to the field.”

A survey from the U.S. Department of Justice shows assaults did increase recently, and there’s some question whether that was just a reporting blip or if the long decline in crime may be coming to an end.  But the number of murders and robberies continues to fall, whether the public is aware of it or not.

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's storiesat their website, nyrp-uc.org.