A drop in violent crime that's hard to explain

A new study shows major types of crime at a 30-year low - leaving criminologists hopeful, but wary of complacency.

Unexpectedly, the national crime rate has taken another dip.

All the indicators, from the sagging economy to the increase in newly released ex-cons on the street, had led many criminologists to predict the crime rate would go up. But it's not - at least according to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It found that violent crime and property crime are at a low not seen since 1973.

In 2002, there were 23 violent crimes per 1,000 people, compared with 25 victimizations per 1,000 people in 2001. A decade ago, the victimization rate was twice as high, meaning there's been a 54 percent drop in violent crime since 1993.

While everyone applauds the new figures, they're also wary. They worry that hidden in the good news are harbingers of problems ahead. Top on the list of concerns is complacency, followed by budget cuts. The deficit crunch has prompted local towns and big cities alike to scale back on crime prevention and reduction programs - key factors in the decade-long decline of everything from attempted robbery to rape.

But beyond the concern, some criminologists are willing to venture a theory - not proven, or provable - that might explain this surprising drop. Call it the Sept. 11 effect.

"The only thing that I can think of that can be seen as contributing to a downward trend is some sense of cohesion that's emerging as a result of the terrorist threat or the terrorist reality," says Alfred Blumstein, a noted criminologist from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "Other than that, I don't see much that should be contributing to this decline."

Professor Blumstein, like other criminologists, is quick to list the reasons why the crime rate should be going up. The economy has made it much more difficult for young people to get jobs, so more are out of work and hanging around on the streets. There's also a growing anxiety about the economy and threat of terrorism that could lead some people to resort to drug use. Then there's the diversion of police from walking the beat in the neighborhood to terror functions such as guarding bridges and airports. Add to all of that the fact that states and local governments have been forced to cut back on social services, and you have a prescription for trouble.

And in certain cities, like Minneapolis, Rochester, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., there have been recent spikes in crime, particularly homicides.

The NCVS did find increases in attempted rape and motor-vehicle theft. But overall, it found that in most of the country, the reduction in violent crime rates continue to defy expectations. "It's reason for celebration, yet not a reason to give up working on the problem," says James Fox, a criminologist at Boston's Northeastern University. "When you see very rosy pictures like this, there's a tendency to think crime isn't a problem any more."

That perception, along with the budget crunch facing most states, has prompted nationwide cuts in crime prevention and control programs, police forces, and after-school programs. "That could come back to haunt us," says Professor Fox. "Crime rates don't go down on their own."

The NCVS is one of two major indicators criminologist look at each year. It's based on an ongoing survey of households and tracks how many rapes, sexual assaults, robberies, assaults, and thefts (including motor vehicles and household burglaries) are experienced by residents each year. Over the past decade, it's continued on a steady downward trend.

The other major study is the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) released by the FBI. They're based on data collected from police departments each year and track seven offenses: homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. The UCR flattened out in 2000 and showed a slight uptick in crime in 2001. "It is striking that we're seeing two different stories for the last two years," says Blumstein.

Criminologists note weaknesses in each survey. Over the past decade, fewer police departments have reported crime statistics to the FBI, forcing researchers to extrapolate national numbers for the UCR from a smaller sample. The NCVS also works from a smaller sample size than it once did. And now more interviews are done over the phone rather than face to face. That, too, could have an impact on overall crime numbers, Blumstein notes: "To the extent that people are more forthcoming in face-to-face interviews with their victimization experience, and less so in a telephone interview, then that could be a factor."

But even with the discrepancies, Blumstein and other criminologists believe there's a reason for "a degree of encouragement" in both reports - as well as a reason to analyze what's actually happening in America. "It opens the question about what's going right," he says.

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