Declines in crime lull Americans into complacency

James Alan Fox

December 5 , 2007


In honor of Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins star who was fatally shot last week, the NFL had fans stand for a collective moment of silence. The grief-filled response stands in sharp contrast to the collective silence around the USA over the growing numbers of murders by and against blacks, tragedies that occur in relative obscurity.

Murder statistics can be misleading. Despite a modest 1.8% increase in homicides nationally in 2006 from 2005, the situation in many cities is more dire. Police chiefs report escalating street violence, particularly involving youngsters and gangs with guns.

Some startling trends can be seen in the latest national homicide data. From 2002 to 2006, the rate of murder committed by black male teens rose 52%, with a smaller but significant increase among black male young adults and black women. In contrast, there was no increase among whites of any age.

Gang-related homicides have crept upward in recent years, virtually returning to the peak of the early 1990s. Since 2002, gun killings have climbed 13% overall -- but 42% among teens and 71% among black teenage males -- while non-gun homicides have essentially remained unchanged.

Complacency on crime

Lulled into complacency by the sharp decline in crime during the 1990s, priorities appear to have moved away from fighting street crime. A triple whammy at the federal level -- related to cops, guns and kids -- has hampered proven strategies for crime control:

*Drastic funding cuts have led to a 10% reduction in police among cities with populations of more than 250,000 since 2000. Priorities have shifted to homeland security, although many more Americans are murdered each year by gunfire than were killed on 9/11. It's not that resources shouldn't be devoted to fighting terrorism, but are we losing sight of another war taking place on our city streets?

*Congress has retreated in efforts to control the flow of illegal weapons, particularly by limiting use of a gun-tracing program by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Congress has passed amendments in recent years making it harder to identify the common market sources of crime guns through ATF data.

Lack of funding

*Deep cuts in federal youth programs have been blamed for the rise in juvenile violence. Such prevention programs can work, but they're often undercut by tiny budgets or too-brief windows in which to show results.

Prevention should take a multifaceted approach. Though the inclination is to target gang activity, several proven strategies focus on at-risk families with young children. Rather than assail struggling underage mothers for their lack of parenting skills, for example, programs assist them in raising children, who are then less likely to become juvenile offenders.

In addition, school- and community-based initiatives enhance the well-being of large numbers of children. Life skills training at the elementary school level, anti-bullying strategies for middle-school students, mentoring/peer-mediation programs in high school, and enrichment activities after school (such as the Boys and Girls Clubs) all carry wide-ranging payoffs.

The latest surge in youth violence was anticipated years ago, exacerbated by an upward trend in the at-risk youth population and a downward trend in spending on social and educational youth programs. Today we are seeing the early signs.

The good news is that the crime problem is not out of control, as it was in the early 1990s when the nation's murder rate was almost twice what it is today. But let this small upturn serve as a thunderous wake-up call that crime prevention, police funding and gun control need to be a priority once again.

As we recall the struggles that Sean Taylor faced on his way to stardom, let his legacy be a lasting one. The choice is ours: We must pay for the programs now or else we'll pray for the victims later

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Law, Policy and Society at Northeastern University in Boston.