Experts on Camera

Dr. Richard Rosenfeld: Violent crime

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Cities and states across the country are reporting rising rates of violent crime.

SciLine interviewed: Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where his research focuses on explaining U.S. crime trends. He discussed topics including: what we can make of reports that carjackings, murders, and other violent crimes are on the rise in many places; the reliability of the data documenting those trends; and factors driving these trends, and solutions that might be able to address them.

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What do you make of reports that carjackings, murders and other violent crimes are on the rise in many places?


[0:00:28]

RICHARD ROSENFELD: What I make of those reports is that they are correct. In fact, I’ve written reports myself that have been picked up by news media. And it is certainly true that during the year 2020 and into the first few months of the current year, we have seen in, indeed, most of the big cities we’ve been able to look at significant rises in homicide rates, aggravated assault rates, gun assault rates. We were not able to look at carjacking, but there are multiple reports from local jurisdictions that carjackings are up as well. I will say that motor vehicle theft, unlike other property crimes, which are down, motor vehicle theft rates have been going up.


How reliable are the data documenting those trends?


[0:01:29]

RICHARD ROSENFELD: So the data are as reliable as they are accurately reported by the local police departments. What we do not have are data that have been submitted to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports Program and checked for accuracy by officials at the UCR. The Uniform Crime Reports Program generally reports only year-end crime statistics, and the year-end crime statistics for 2020 won’t be available until sometime this fall, that is the fall of ’21. The Uniform Crime Reports – or I should say the FBI – did break that tradition last year during which they did publish quarterly reports for the year 2020 for a number of large – a large number of jurisdictions, although some large cities were missing. And the data were not sufficiently granular for our purposes.


You have been speaking about trends in large cities. Is it known what’s happening in smaller cities?


[0:02:48]

RICHARD ROSENFELD: It is known to some degree. Some researchers have looked at data for smaller cities, and it looks like in a number of smaller cities, violent crime rates are also up. But we don’t have the kind of systematic information we do for the bigger cities. And even in the bigger cities, as I mentioned, the information could be quite a bit more systematic.


What factors are driving these trends?


[0:03:28]

RICHARD ROSENFELD: The increase was so large last year, you know, well over 30% increase in homicides in the big cities. So we’re not talking about, you know, a doubling of homicides from two to four. We’re talking about homicides going – in the hundreds – going up 50%, 30% or more from that substantial base. It’s – I think it’s implausible that police pullback alone – short of all of the police remaining at home every day – could have resulted in such a large and sharp increase in violence. And if the issue were simply a pullback by the police, we should probably have seen increases in other types of street crime – right? – in burglaries, in larcenies. And we didn’t. As I mentioned, they’re down. So this other pole of the debate suggests we have to look out into the communities; in particular, those that – where violent crime has traditionally been heavily concentrated and where police violence and the controversy over police violence has been focused. And those tend to be disadvantaged communities of color in our cities. And they are – the idea here is that those communities have traditionally had a fraught relationship with the local police department. And last year, that relationship in many cities soured even further in the midst of widespread and quite intense protests against police violence.

What happens as communities are pulling back from the police? Persons are less willing to report crimes to the police, even crimes in which they’ve been the victim. Persons are less willing to cooperate with the police who need that kind of cooperation in their investigation of crime. And the idea is people are more likely to take matters into their own hands, producing an increase in crime. So we do not know just how much these two factors or others, such as the shear stress and strain of the pandemic, may have generated an increase in violence. But I do think the answer, when it comes, is going to lie somewhere in the relationship and changes in the relationship between the police and the communities they serve, and in particular, disadvantaged communities of color.


What solutions might be able to reverse rising rates of violent crime?


[0:06:23]

RICHARD ROSENFELD: Well, I think we have to move along two paths simultaneously. We have to improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve, and we also have to bring down levels of serious violent crime. And – but as I said, I think those two pathways intersect. The best way we know of, based on the research, to bring down levels of crime in our cities is to engage in so-called smart – sometimes it’s called targeted – policing – right? – policing that is focused on those areas of the city, of often quite small areas, in which violent crime is heavily concentrated or where it’s recently risen. Now, targeting particular communities invites criticism and has invited criticism because – especially insofar as those communities tend to be predominantly African American or Hispanic.

So police reform has to proceed right along with this renewed focus on so-called crime hotspots. And I think the calls for police reform need to be taken seriously by cities and their police departments. And to some degree, they have. We now know conversations are widespread about what exactly the population should expect from its local police department and how might certain activities like dealing with the day-to-day problems of the homeless be moved to other agencies whose personnel may be better trained to deal with those kinds of emotional crises. So those conversations are ongoing. To the degree that police-community relations improve, then I think some of the criticism that we’ve heard about so-called targeted policing will diminish somewhat. These will not be easy objectives in either case, but I think for each one to be successful, they have to be tied together.


Can you say more about trends in violent crimes versus property crimes?


[0:08:55]

RICHARD ROSENFELD: It is important to emphasize that while violent crime has increased, property crimes, and I should also say drug offenses, have not, with the exception of motor vehicle theft. And we can talk about that exception. But burglaries and larcenies, which are thefts not accompanied by force or breaking and entering, they’ve been going down. So any explanation of the increase in violence has to be squared with the decrease we’ve seen in these far more numerous types of offending, though clearly not as serious as violent crime.


What trends have you seen in the thefts of motor vehicles?


[0:09:42]

RICHARD ROSENFELD: Unlike larceny, unlike burglary, indeed, unlike drug offending, motor vehicle thefts have trended up beginning last year and, indeed, persisting into the first quarter of this year. Now, why might that be? We don’t know for sure, but it’s certainly possible that as more people were out of work and in the – remaining at home, they left their cars unattended at home on the street or in the driveway perhaps as opposed to in a secured parking lot at work. And that could have increased the opportunities for motor vehicle theft. It’s also been argued – and I think this is an important argument – that motor vehicle theft is a kind of what’s been called gateway or keystone crime. People steal a car in order to facilitate the commission of another crime, including violent crime. That’s where drive-by shootings, for example, come from. And so to the degree that violent crime is going up, we might also expect motor vehicle to go up as a facilitator of the commission of violent crime.


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