A lot of time has passed since the mid-1990s national debate about "getting tough on crime." I’m wondering whether crime might resurface as an issue soon, either due to a lull in news about the economy or foreign misadventures, a fit of Republican opportunism, or an actual increase in crime. With crime still prominent in a lot of urban news coverage, the issue might well be poised for a comeback.

Statistics versus Coverage

One reason politicians might find the issue attractive is that perception and reality often diverse when it comes to crime. According to the Bureau of Justice, violent and property crimes have been declining since the late 1990s (17.7% and 19.5%, respectively. Yet turning to the local section of major city newspapers, I find heavy coverage of violent crime. The LA Times notes that violent crime is down in South LA but goes on to profile crime in a neighborhood called Pueblo del Rio, saying:

The community reflects what lies ahead for South L.A.: an unlikely sense of quiet and optimism most days, tempered by startling episodes that threaten to plunge the neighborhood back into the more familiar narrative of violence.

The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, reports on how recurring violence in Englewood disrupts community life.

I don’t want to minimize the pain of violence for residents of these communities, and I don’t want to go so far as to say these stories sensationalize the issue, but I must ask: why the contrast between a falling national crime rate and these high-profile stories of violence? (I found both prominently displayed in the local sections of the Tribune and the Times.) Are urban crime rates increasing while the national average falls? For LA (.pdf) and Chicago, that doesn’t appear to be the case – violent crime there is dropping or holding steady just as it is elsewhere in the US.

It’s possible that neighborhood statistics would give us a better picture – perhaps crime is concentrating in some areas while decreasing in others? – but it’s also possible that these stories are a harbinger of rising crime rates to come. If crime rises during bad economic times, a crime wave of some size may be on the way.

Political Consequences

As I hinted at the beginning, whether crime becomes a larger political issue may not have that much to do with whether crime is actually increasing. As we’ve seen in the past, Republicans can get a lot of mileage out of "law-and-order" themes, and it’s a favorite tactic for bludgeoning Democrats with. And as we can see from some of the coverage, if it bleeds, it still leads, which keeps the table set in case politicians decide to dig in.

Alex Thurston

Alex Thurston