Crime Keeps Falling Despite A Recession — But Why?

Dec 28, 2011
Originally published on December 28, 2011 7:32 pm

We've reported that crime continues to fall in the United States. The FBI said it was down for the first six months of the year and the Justice Department said violent crime was down 12 percent in 2010.

It's a 20-year trend. One that has continued, despite a recession when people expect crime to pick up.

All Things Considered's Robert Siegel spoke to Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau and a former FBI agent, to ask him why.

First Scafidi points out, "there isn't empirical evidence to make the case" that crime picks up during tough economic times. Scafidi says it didn't even happen during the Great Depression.

Now, Scafidi mostly deals with auto theft and he has convincing, simple explanations for why that kind of crime is down:

-- First, technology: A 2011 car is much harder to steal than a car from the '90s. They have all kinds of technology to help locate the car and simply make it harder to drive off with.

"For a lot of auto thieves, it's just not worth it," he told Robert.

-- Second, police now set up bait cars and have the help of license plate readers, which increase the risk for auto thieves.

-- Third, said Scafid,i it might be an issue of reporting. As police departments slash budgets, there are fewer officers to take crime reports. How many people, said Scafidi, will take the time to complete a police report online? How many will just give up and the crime goes unreported?

As for the broader drop in crime, Scafidi says he likes to take the optimistic view.

"I like to think people are pulling less and less of these crimes. Maybe they're finding that the upside of it isn't that all that high, that the risk is not greater than the reward and are just letting those sorts of behaviors alone," he said.

A few days ago, CBS News spoke to Bill Bratton, the former chief of police in New York City, Los Angeles and Boston.

He said the drop in crime had to do with better policing. CBS News reports:

"'In the 1990s, policing got it right," Bratton told "Early Show" anchor Chris Wragge. 'We began to focus once again on preventing crime; '60s, '70s, '80s, we focused on responding to crime. It's a lot different to try to prevent it, and we've become very successful at preventing it.'

"Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox disputes the popular myth that crime should be going up in a bad economy.

"'They're using technology; they're using data, crime patterns, maps to figure out where are the hot spots, what's the trend in terms of crime and trying to be proactive,' Fox said of law enforcement agencies. 'People are either criminals or not, independent of whether they have a job.'"

All Things Considered will have much more of Robert's conversation with Scafidi on tonight's edition. Tune in to your local NPR member station to listen. We'll also post the as-aired version of the interview at the top of this post, later today.

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Last week, the FBI announced that crimes reported to the police were down in the first half of this year and those numbers were in line with a trend of recent years. Crime rates fell in 2010, 2009 and 2008. And as columnist Charles Lane pointed out in the Washington Post, over the past 20 years, crime rates have really dropped. The likelihood of homicide is just under half what it was in 1991. And here's a number that Lane seized upon, over the past two decades, auto theft has dropped by 64 percent.

That stunning number led us to Frank Scafidi, who is the director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Mr. Scafidi is a former FBI agent, and before that a former Los Angeles deputy sheriff and he joins us from the studios of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Welcome to the program.

FRANK SCAFIDI: Good afternoon. Pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, what are some reasons that people cite to explain this dramatic decrease in the number of car thefts over the past couple of decades?

SCAFIDI: Well, they range from just being less incidents to report in the first place, certainly through the introduction of advances in technology to make theft harder than it's ever been before, to products that are available in the aftermarket for consumers to protect their cars and even to let them know when they're being moved without their permission.

And it could even be that there's even less reporting of actual incidents of crime as well.

SIEGEL: Why would there be less reporting of actual incidents of crimes?

SCAFIDI: Well, we know that in recent years, certainly, there has been budget pressure on a lot of municipalities, on a lot of police and law enforcement agencies around the nation. We're even seeing some officers laid off here in California that we've never seen before in our history. So a lot of the lesser crimes, property crimes, things of that nature, that don't require an officer to physically show up and take a report, that data may be lost because people might not feel comfortable either reporting online or don't have the ability to or just don't want to hassle with it.

SIEGEL: Hum. Well, let's assume that at least most of the decline actually has to do with a decline in car thefts, not just reports of car thefts. You say that the automobile that's on the streets now in 2011, first of all, is just a tougher nut to crack than the cars of 1991.

SCAFIDI: Indeed it is. There are advances today, there are things that our manufacturers are putting in those vehicles today, whether it's the pass keys, you know, the kinds of equipment that people like to have. And the higher you move in the food chain within each model line, the more bells and whistles that come with that vehicle to protect it.

SIEGEL: And even if you can break into the car and steal it, there will be something like a Lo-Jack or On-Star, very often, some device that will make it very easy to track the whereabouts of the vehicle.

SCAFIDI: That's exactly right. It's just, for a lot of auto thieves today, it's just not worth it for them to participate in that activity because the risks of being apprehended are far greater today than they ever have been.

SIEGEL: While it's hard to identify a single big cause for why the rate of car theft has gone down so much, and other property crimes, one explanation that doesn't stand up to the facts of the past 20 years is the notion that in hard economic times, property crimes typically rise. We've been in very high unemployment times for the past few years and the declines have just continued.

SCAFIDI: Well, that's a great observation because that was - and for so long it's sort of a knee-jerk reaction, that when an individual, when a family, when a country goes through some hard economic times, that the overnight reaction is going to be more crime. But what we've seen recently has impacted a lot of folks differently, but I don't think we can make that link. Certainly, there isn't the empirical evidence yet to make that sort of a connection.

SIEGEL: That's Frank Scafidi, who is the director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. He's in Sacramento, California. Mr. Scafidi, thank you very much for talking with us.

SCAFIDI: Thank you, sir. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.