All five of these incidents are real. You may have heard about one or more of them, but probably not all five. Crime happens every day in the United States. Some of it is relatively minor, such as the laptop computer and guitar thefts in Eugene, Oregon. Some of it is major, such as the shooting deaths of Renisha McBride and Michael Brown, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the abuse and murder of children in Mohave Valley, Arizona.
Because we see and hear about crimes on televised news shows and read about them in our daily newspapers, we are all very much aware that crime exists. But you may have been the victim of a crime yourself, or you may know someone who has been a crime victim. And while you may be fortunate to simply have heard about what has happened to other people, you may still be very concerned about crime. You may even have voiced your opinion—in a conversation or on your own blog—about the “crime problem” in the United States.
In Chapter 2, we will discuss how much crime actually occurs in the United States, but in this chapter, we address this fundamental question: Is there a crime problem in this country?
Is There a Crime Problem in the United States?
This is a question that can be viewed from any one of several perspectives.
First, let’s start by quoting President Lyndon B. Johnson s opening remarks from his address to a meeting with a group of U.S. governors on the problems of crime and law enforcement:
The fact of crime and the fear of crime are common across our land. For it has an unrelenting pace. It exacts heavy costs in human suffering and in financial losses to both individuals and communities. It blocks the achievement of a good life for all our people.
(Johnson, 1966, n.p.)
It was President Johnson who appointed the Presidents Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice in 1965 to study the
American criminal justice system. Johnson assigned the group a task that was viewed then as a staggering challenge—of fighting crime and repairing the American criminal justice system. The commissions final report was issued in 1967 and has been described as “the most comprehensive evaluation of crime and crime control in the United States at the time” (Greene and Gabbidon, 2009, p. 644). It laid out reorganization plans for police departments and suggested a range of reforms. In the introduction to this report, the U.S. attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, wrote, “The existence of crime, the talk about crime, the reports of crime, and the fear of crime have eroded the basic quality of life of most Americans” (President s Commission on Law Enforcement, 1967, p. v).
That was the perspective of the president and the attorney general in the 1960s. It is evident that they were very concerned about the crime problem. President Obama and his first attorney general, Eric Holder, also indicated, about a half-century later, their own concerns about crime and the criminal justice system. In August 2013, the U.S. attorney general introduced the “Smart on Crime” initiative—a package of reforms to the criminal justice system to help ensure that federal laws are enforced more fairly and more efficiently. Among other reforms, the effort promotes diversion courts and other alternatives to incarceration for low-level drug offenders, and urges investment in reentry programs in order to reduce recidivism among formerly incarcerated individuals. President Obama expressed on several occasions concerns about drug addiction and its relationship to the cycle of crime. Drugs and crime are often linked, President Obama said, and this is why addressing serious drug-related crime and violence will always be a vital component of the president s and the attorney general’s plan to protect public health and safety in America.
Instead of talking about the crime problem, the Obama administration made frequent references to the “drug problem.” The Obama administration made it clear that we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem; rather, the focus should be on a drug policy that emphasizes the expansion of innovative “Smart on Crime” strategies proven to help break the cycle of drug use, crime, arrest, and incarceration (National Drug Control Policy, 2014).
While police chiefs and city officials in major cities may not provide reasons for falling crime rates, they frequently point to the decreases in crime. For instance, in Detroit, the Detroit Police Department reports that violent crimes saw significant drops in 2014, mirroring the decline in homicides, which likely fell to the lowest total in the city since 1967.The homicide rate continued to fall in the next two years as there was an almost 9% decrease from 2016 to 2017 (MacDonald and Hunter, 2018). Robbery had the sharpest decline, dropping from 2836 in 2013 to 1879 in 2014—representing a 34% drop. Carjacking, a subset of robbery, also saw a large drop, from 765 to 525, a 32% decline. However, Detroit police chiefjames Craig had this to say: “Robberies and carjackings—those are the crimes that strike fear into most citizens” (Hunter, 2015).
Crime reductions are noted in New York City as well. “The City has made incredible strides in reducing crime in the past few decades,” said New York City council member Corey Johnson, chair of the Health Committee. “However, there is much work to be done” (Press Office: City of New York, 2014, n.p.).
In New Orleans, Louisiana, it was a favorite talking point of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) superintendent Ronal Serpas when they were discussing crime in the Crescent City to say that, yes, New Orleans was the nations murder capital, but other than that, it was a reasonably safe place.
Landrieu and Serpas said that New Orleans was significantly less dangerous than Orlando, Florida, perhaps America’s most popular family destination (NOLA.com and Times-Picayune, 2013). Orlando had a 35% higher violent crime rate than New Orleans in 2011; and in 2018, Orlando had a higher violent crime rate than nearly 95% of American cities (City-Data, com, 2019).The city’s crime problem was murder, Serpas said candidly, and the Landrieu administration was building a public safety agenda around that fact (NOLA.com and Times-Picayune, 2013).
But what do ordinary citizens say?
A majority of Americans say there is more crime in the United States than there was a year ago. And it doesn’t matter what year you pick. Americans, as Gallup Inc., the national polling company, has found as a long-term trend, believe that crime is going up in their community.
For instance, in 2014,63% of Americans believed that crime was increasing (McCarthy, 2014). That percentage remained at 63% in 2016 (TribLive, 2016), although this percentage is well below the recent high of 74% in 2009. As the percentage of Americans who said crime was up hit one of its lowest points in the past 10 years, just about one in five Americans (21%) said crime was down. Another 9% of Americans said the level of crime had remained the same (McCarthy, 2014).
The Gallup pollsters have consistently found that people in the United States believe that crime is up in their area—despite the fact that statistics show that, with a handful of exceptions, serious crime has decreased nearly every year from 1994 through 2018. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall violent crime rate for rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault fell from 80 victimizations per 1000 persons in 1994 to 19 per 1000 in 2010 and 23 per 1000 in 2018. In the first decade of that trend, public opinion followed, withthe percentage perceiving crime was up falling from 87% in 1993 to 41% in 2001 (McCarthy, 2014). But this shot up to 62% in 2002 and has remained fairly high ever since (McCarthy, 2014).
So, what is the answer to the question? Who is right? Is there a crime problem in the United States?
Maybe the best—and simplest—answer is that it depends on your perspective. Maybe you will be in a better position to answer this question for yourself after you have read Chapter 2, in which you will be able to review the statistics and the most authoritative information available about the extent of crime in the United States. However, perhaps as most decent and rational people in our society would likely contend, you may be of the opinion that as long as there is one murder, one rape, one terrorist bombing, or one burglary, there is still too much crime. Furthermore, you might further argue that our goal should be the elimination of all crime.