The corrective vision we need now to focus on what truly matters
Policy debates about crime in the United States are limited and have remained so for decades. The same dynamic appears whether crime is falling or rising. Americans are perpetually concerned about crime and demand aggressive measures to control it, even as major crime indicators began to decline after the surges of 2020 and 2021. In New York City, for example, police officials reported that burglaries were down 15% citywide in February 2023 compared with February 2022. Similarly, felony assaults dropped by 5%, robberies fell by 11%, and murders dipped by 28%. Of course, falling crime numbers always benefit some neighborhoods more than others. Robberies declined in just 42 of 77 police precincts in New York City.
Whether violence is increasing or not, the consistency of public opinion attracts lawmakers' attention at all levels of government and across the political spectrum. On the right, candidates and elected officials typically advocate for more funding and broader support for police, prisons, and other forms of suppression and control. On the left, they typically argue for deeper investments in social services, housing, education, health care, drug treatment and various therapeutic programs. Both sides claim research evidence for their position, but neither side carefully investigates the accuracy and reliability of evidence. Their favorite claim is what researchers call a pre-post design: A new program started, and now crime is down, therefore A caused B. But this is not evidence of effectiveness. Crime policy debates are passionate but largely rhetorical and ideological.
Debates are most intense after interpersonal violence captures the public's attention, especially if photographs and, increasingly, videos document the violence. When stories of violence are backed by even amateurish data analysis showing increases in any crime type and by any amount, the public demands even stronger policies, and lawmakers endeavor to capitalize on voters' attention.
Despite their ongoing political competition, the left and the right share two basic assumptions. First, they imply that violence is a city problem. The adjective "urban" often precedes the words crime and violence. Second, they focus on individuals rather than communities. Crime policies try to reduce violence not by enhancing the health and safety of communities but by identifying violent individuals and then either controlling them or healing them.
The first assumption is largely incorrect and likely rooted in racial bias. The second assumption is practical but tragically shortsighted.
According to the CDC, deaths due to various types of assault (gunshots, stabbings, bludgeoning, etc.) are sometimes nearly as common in rural and urban areas.
Cities account for most of the violent crime in the United States because most people live in cities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Characterizing violent crime as an urban problem is akin to saying male pattern baldness is an urban problem. Many politicians use the label "urban violence" because it implies a causal relationship that motivates their constituents and syncs cleverly with America's racial issues. Voters on the left are inspired to organize, while voters on the right are free to blame.
Violence, however, is not a uniquely urban issue. Information from the Centers for Disease Control makes it easy to compare violence in communities across the country. According to the CDC, deaths due to various types of assault (gunshots, stabbings, bludgeoning, etc.) are sometimes nearly as common in rural and urban areas.
Public officials know they benefit from their constituents' fear of crime and violence, so they feed the fear with disinformation.
Between 2018 and 2020, the average per capita rate of deaths due to assault among the 1.4 million residents of the Bronx was about 7 per 100,000. In Georgia's Bibb County, with 150,000 residents, the rate was 22 per 100,000, or three times higher than in the Bronx. In Queens, with a population of 2.2 million, the death rate was under 3 per 100,000. The rate in Robeson County, N.C., population 130,000, was 24 per 100,000. In Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, the death rate was 14 per 100,000. Yet, in tiny Jefferson County, Ark., with a population of 65,000, the average rate of intentional deaths between 2018 and 2020 was 38 per 100,000.
Public officials know they benefit from their constituents' fear of crime and violence, so they feed the fear with disinformation. Violence, especially gun violence, is portrayed as an "urban" issue because it has the added political benefit of allowing rural and suburban Americans to blame cities for a problem shared by all communities.
Crime policy debates focus on cities partly due to anti-urban bias but also because local governments operate crime data systems. Police departments in large jurisdictions are more capable of collecting, analyzing and disseminating crime data. For years, the FBI's national crime statistics came from local jurisdictions representing just three-quarters of the U.S. population, and larger jurisdictions were over-represented. Researchers created national figures by imputation, using data from jurisdictions in the sample to estimate numbers from non-sampled areas.
Politicians and journalists learned to avoid the sampling problem by focusing on large jurisdictions and creating lists of the most violent cities or America's murder capitals. Voters became accustomed to hearing about crime trends in cities, and politicians were more than willing to portray crime and violence as endemic to urban areas.
The national crime data picture was further complicated in 2021 when the FBI ended the nearly century-old Summary Reporting System (SRS) underlying its Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), replacing it with the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The new system is a definite improvement, but more than a third of local jurisdictions across the country cannot yet report data to NIBRS. As a result, recent stories about national crime trends are even more likely to focus on the largest cities, which distorts the nation's understanding of violence.
Another common assumption among lawmakers is that crime policy should focus on individuals instead of communities. Two long-standing traditions in violence prevention are to punish the behavior of individuals and to treat their disorders. The public understands punishment, so it is many lawmakers' go-to option. "Law enforcement" and "public safety" are often treated as synonyms.
Lawmakers also often believe that people who commit violent crimes are defective. They need to be healed by professionals, including counselors, therapists and social workers. Many crime policies follow the individual deficit model. Programs identify people likely to be involved in violence and then try to repair their pathologies one person at a time.
Individual interventions are certainly an important component of violence prevention. Social services and behavioral therapies are what some people need to avoid violence. For community safety in general, however, they are far from adequate. Restricting violence prevention to individual interventions is like depending exclusively on face masks to stop a viral pandemic. Masks are important, but vaccines are more valuable and more sustainable.
By following a public health approach to public safety, officials can help stem the flow of what causes violence at the community level rather than addressing the expressions of violence after the fact and at the individual level.
Social science teaches us that, given the right circumstances, all people are capable of criminal behavior. The impulse to take advantage of others, even to hurt others, is universal. The critical question is not, "why are some people violent?" The critical question is, "why are most people not violent?"
Researchers answer the question by identifying the protective assets that reduce a person's inclination to engage in crime and violence. People with personal safety and security, adequate material resources, supportive relationships, a sense of purpose and feelings of attachment and belonging are less likely to offend. Essentially, people respect and value those around them when they are also respected and valued.
Inspired by this approach, some violence prevention programs focus on changing the character and context of neighborhoods and communities rather than waiting to fix individuals after problems emerge. The most innovative of these approaches are community-centered and community-resourced grassroots strategies organized by neighborhoods and residents. Programs such as Cure Violence and Advance Peace are well-known examples.
The essential question is, can communities count on such strategies to improve safety? Research evidence is not yet consistent, but the community-resourced approach to violence prevention is promising. By following a public health approach to public safety, officials can help stem the flow of what causes violence at the community level rather than addressing the expressions of violence after the fact and at the individual level.
Violence in the United States, especially gun violence, is a shameful example of the country's refusal to protect the well-being of its citizens. It is a national problem, not confined to urban areas, and it cannot be understood merely as the aggregation of individual acts. It persists because lawmakers and the voters who support them do not care to use the tools and resources of public policy to invest equitably in all communities at levels sufficient to ensure health and safety.