Last year, for the first time since 2006, violent crime increased in the United States. This probably won't surprise Chicagoans, who saw murder rates spike last year. And it's not easy to explain, since there nothing obvious happened that would account for the national trend. But the uptick is not great cause for concern. Judged against recent history, things are pretty good on the crime front.
The national murder rate is now about half what it was in 1991. That puts it at the same level as it was in 1961, which most baby boomers and their parents regard as the Age of Tranquility. Violent crime in general is down by nearly half from where it stood two decades ago.
In Chicago, last year's surge in killings has been followed by a decline. So far this year, homicides and general violence are down significantly from last year and the year before.
No one really knows exactly what accounts for these ups and downs. I called criminologist Franklin Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, who said that while experts are good at constructing after-the-fact explanations, they are not very good at predicting things in advance. "We don't have a recipe to reduce murder by 20 percent," he says.
One interpretation of Chicago's pattern is that Mayor Emanuel reduced the size of the police force last year and then pulled cops off desk duty to increase their presence on the street this year. "If everything else is equal and more police are used effectively, more police will sooner or later have a significant positive impact," says Zimring. But he says the changes in police numbers here aren't big enough to have much effect.
The crucial thing to keep in mind is how much less dangerous the streets are than they used to be. Even with last year's increase, says Zimring, "levels of life-threatening crime in most big and small cities are much closer to their modern historic low points than to the periods of greatest public fear." It may not seem like it, but when it comes to public safety, we are in a new golden age. Still.