The FBI released its preliminary crime figures for 2007 last week, and as is sometimes the case there was both good and bad news to be found in the report. Violent crime in the U.S. fell by 1.4 percent last year, a modest decline to be sure but a decline nonetheless after increases of 1.9 percent in 2006 and 2.3 percent in 2005. This nationwide trend is largely attributable to the even more dramatic drop in crime seen in America’s largest cities: there was a 9.8 percent drop in murders in cities with populations of greater than one million. New York, for example, saw a 17 percent drop, Houston was down 6.6 percent, and even Philadelphia, where in some neighborhoods homicide is seen as a municipal pastime, saw a decrease of 3.4 percent.
But the news was not so encouraging elsewhere. Murders increased by 7.1 percent in Washington, DC, and by 12.6 percent in Cleveland. And those wondering if New Orleans will ever return to pre-Katrina conditions will probably not be heartened by one indicator that things are indeed getting back to normal: murders were up by 29 percent in the Crescent City in 2007.
And the picture is also alarming in America’s less-populous cities. In cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, murders were up 3.7 percent last year. Smaller towns, i.e., those between 10,000 and 25,000, saw murders rise by 1.9 percent, and in what the FBI calls “non-metropolitan counties,” murders were up by 1.8 percent.
This is an expectation-defying trend, one that has sent sociologists, criminologists, and demographers to their drawing boards in search for an explanation. And in one city the picture that emerged, oddly, was that of a bunny rabbit.
Writing in this month’s Atlantic, Hanna Rosin describes how two researchers stumbled upon a pattern that surely will cause much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the halls of government and academia. In “American Murder Mystery,” Rosin recounts the discovery made by Richard Janikowski, a criminologist at the University of Memphis, who was trying to explain the shifts seen in that city’s crime patterns since the mid-1990s. Violent crime, Janikowski observed, was on the decline in Memphis’s inner city but rising along two corridors north and west of the city (the rabbit’s ears) and another to the southeast (the tail).
As luck would have it, Janikowski is married to Phyllis Betts, a housing expert at the University of Memphis. Betts had been measuring the impact made by the razing of Memphis’s public housing projects, which began in 1997, and part of her research entailed keeping track of where the projects’ former residents, supplied with “Section 8” government housing vouchers, had gone. When she and Janikowski merged their data maps, what followed was what one suspects was an “ah ha” moment: the dots represented by Betts’s transplanted project dwellers corresponded perfectly with the crime spikes on Janikowski’s map.
But “ah ha” soon gave way to “uh oh.” Rosin writes:
Betts remembers her discomfort as she looked at the map. The couple had been musing about the connection for months, but they were amazed — and deflated — to see how perfectly the two data sets fit together. She knew right away that this would be a “hard thing to say or write.” Nobody in the antipoverty community and nobody in city leadership was going to welcome the news that the noble experiment that they’d been engaged in for the past decade had been bringing the city down, in ways they’d never expected. But the connection was too obvious to ignore.
Alas, where government is concerned, when it comes to issues of race and crime there is nothing too obvious to ignore. When Betts presented her findings to city officials in Memphis, the reception she got was a cool one. Rosin describes the meeting:
Earlier this year, Betts presented her findings to city leaders, including Robert Lipscomb, the head of the Memphis Housing Authority. From what Lipscomb said to me, he’s still not moved. “You’ve already marginalized people and told them they have to move out,” he told me irritably, just as he’s told Betts. “Now you’re saying they moved somewhere else and created all these problems? That’s a really, really unfair assessment. You’re putting a big burden on people who have been too burdened already, and to me that’s, quote-unquote, criminal.” To Lipscomb, what matters is sending people who lived in public housing the message that “they can be successful, they can go to work and have kids who go to school. They can be self-sufficient and reach for the middle class.”
And there you have it: The truth, even when it’s measured in dead bodies, must not obscure the all-important “message.”
Here in Los Angeles, a similar war of words has broken out over a similarly volatile issue. The city’s two top cops, LAPD Chief William Bratton and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, are offering divergent assessments on the extent to which tensions between black and Latino residents are affecting crime. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed piece by Baca with the provocative headline “In L.A., Race Kills.” And the piece itself was no less provocative. “So let me be very clear about one thing,” Baca wrote, “we have a serious interracial violence problem in this county involving blacks and Latinos.”
Do we really? As Bratton and other LAPD leaders have pointed out, the raw statistics do not bear out the sheriff’s stark appraisal. The L.A. Times analyzed 562 Los Angeles County homicides from last year in which a black or a Latino was killed and the race of the suspect was known. In nine out of ten of those murders the victim and suspect were of the same race, which would seem to undercut Sheriff Baca’s assertion. But the city has seen a handful of high-profile killings in which race was surely a factor, including the murders of a 14-year-old black girl last year and a 17-year-old black boy this year. Both of their alleged killers were Latino gang members, and the crimes reinforced a belief held by many in Los Angeles that some Latino gangs were out to “racially cleanse” whole neighborhoods in the city.
So who is right, Baca or Bratton?
Each is right in his own way, says L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten. Writing in Saturday’s edition, Rutten says Bratton is underplaying the race angle while Baca is overplaying it. Bratton’s initial denial — to the point of publicly upbraiding a reporter who dared raise the question — of any racial component in the city’s violent crime problem was “politically tone deaf,” Rutten says, but he adds that it is reckless for Baca to suggest that incidents of interracial violence are more numerous than they really are.
In one sense, Baca enjoys more credibility on the matter than does Bratton. For his part, Baca says he has learned of the racial tensions through conversations with, among others, cops on the beat, which immediately sets him apart from his LAPD counterpart. I’m guessing Bratton hasn’t had an honest dialog with a street cop in years. There certainly weren’t any with him as he dined at Le Cirque in Manhattan on Friday night. Indeed, one of the many criticisms LAPD rank-and-file officers have of Bratton is that he spends too much time hobnobbing with the swells in New York and not enough time talking with his own cops here in Los Angeles.
But like the city officials who turned a blind eye to the demographic reality of crime in Memphis, what neither Bratton nor Baca — nor almost anyone else, for that matter — seems willing to recognize is that violent crime in Los Angeles is largely confined to blacks and Latinos. Of the 352 homicide victims in Los Angeles County reported as of June 9, 199 were Latino and 104 were black. The Times has been criticized in some quarters for publicizing these figures, but facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things.
As long as the two groups keep their disputes — and their bullets — among themselves, very little attention, either from the media or from government, will be focused on the problem. As Atlantic writer Hanna Rosin discovered in Memphis, one must be careful of sending the wrong message.