WASHINGTON (NNPA) — For the past three decades, crime in the United States has been declining. The murder rate, for example, has fallen by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009. Robberies were down 10 percent in 2010 from the previous year. Yet, there is a steady drumbeat from liberals and conservatives alike for more cops on the street, even as cities and states are forced to slash public sector jobs.
Vice President Joe Biden’s record in the Senate is an example of how, for fear of being accused of being soft on crime, progressives have joined forces with right-wing Republicans in calling for more police officers as crime continues to dip.
“In the last 100 weeks, under this administration, the United States has undergone the worst crime epidemic in its entire history,” said then-Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) in June 20, 1991 as he argued against President George H.W. Bush’s Violent Crime Control Act. Fueled by the crack epidemic that infected inner cities across America, murder, robbery, and rape reached record levels. The United States was the most dangerous nation in the world, Senator Biden said.
That bill, which sought a three-year ban on assault weapons, tougher rules on death penalty cases and limits on federal appeals a criminal could use under state laws, passed the Senate, but crashed and burned in the House.
Three years later, Biden authored the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act. The 1994 crime bill called for 100,000 police officers on the streets, a campaign promise President Clinton pledged to keep. Local law enforcement agencies rushed in to claim grants issued by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
By the time the first wave of new officers funded by COPS landed on the streets in 1995, crime rates across the country were already receding. Property crime (burglary) began to decline as early as 1987 and violent crime fell 4.5 percent between 1993 and 1994.
In the September 2000 report “Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s ” released by the Sentencing Project economic opportunities, stabilization of drug markets, and innovative community policing were all listed as factors that contributed to the reduction in crime in the early 1990s.
Few experts credited COPS grants and hiring new police officers as the driving force behind falling crime rates and when the Justice Department reported that COPS had a significant impact on crime, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) questioned the veracity of the study.
In 2005, the GAO stated, “Factors other than COPS funds accounted for the majority of the decline in crime during this period.”
In the beginning, the idea of the COPS program was great, said Paul Ashton of the Justice Policy Institute. The grants were meant to bolster the efforts of local law enforcement agencies in building positive relationships in the neighborhoods that they served and increase community policing.
“Fundamentally that program has now become a jobs program,” said Paul Ashton.
Theoretically, crime usually increases during economic recessions. However, even with high unemployment, the crime rate has continued on its downward journey.
Between 1995 and 2004 the federal government spent $10 billion and hired nearly 90,000 police officers as violent crime continued to slide, decreasing 24 percent over that period.
According to a report issued last month by the Justice Policy Institute, federal, state, and local governments spent more than $100 billion combined for policing in 2010. Even though violent crime fell 47 percent and property crime was down 43 percent since 1991, when the United States was “the most dangerous nation in the world,” the federal government increased spending on law enforcement by 167 percent.
President Obama wants to hire even more cops. Four months ago, standing in an Arlington, Va. fire station, President Obama pushed a new conservation program to help veterans find work. He proposed $1 billion in firefighter grants and another $4 billion in COPS grants.
The reality is that there is no credible data linking the hiring of more police officers with a corresponding drop in crime.
So why is crime falling?
Criminologists offer four primary reasons for the drop in crime:
• The declining crack epidemic;
• Harsher prison sentences that keep more hardened criminals off the streets;
• A graying U,S. population led by baby boomers reaching senior citizen status;
• Improved technology, including advances in DNA testing and.
• Extended unemployment benefits.
Although crime is down, public opinion polls show that many believe crime is actually up. And to address that perceived fear, police often target poor, Black neighborhoods.
Although crime rates have dropped to a 30-year low, arrests for drug offenses rose 45 percent from 1993 to 2010.
“They have to find something to do with their time,” said Ashton of the Justice Policy Institute. “And one of the ways they’re doing it is looking at drug possession.”
Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 31 percent of the total arrests for drug offenses. According to JPI, in 2009 cops arrested Blacks for drug violations at three times the rate of Whites, but numerous studies, including a recent one conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, found that Blacks and Whites use illicit drugs at similar rates.
Vice President Joe Biden
According to a May 2008 Sentencing Project report, how and where drugs are sold may help to explain the disparity in arrests between Blacks and Whites. The report, “Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities,” found that drug sales in low-income African-American neighborhoods often occur in public spaces involving strangers that can leave dealers vulnerable to “buy and bust” quick-hit tactics of police. Drug markets in White neighborhoods are more exclusive and harder to infiltrate because buyers rely on word of mouth references.
So, police settled for the softer targets in the African-American community.
“It goes back to how the war on drugs unfolded, the idea that certain neighborhoods need to be [monitored] more than others,” Ashton said. “When you put more police in a certain area, the police contact rate with the public is going to increase.” And when police contact increases so do the arrests.
New York City’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” program illustrates the perils of over-policing in the Black community. The NYCLU reported that in 2011 “The number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406).”
New York City police made 685,724 stops in 2011. Blacks make up 26 percent of the population and accounted 53 percent of the stops. Whites account for 44 percent of the total population in New York City and only 9 percent of the stops. When they were stopped, Whites were twice as likely as Blacks to have guns, drugs or stolen property.
“That’s the primary reason we have so much conflict between communities of color and law enforcement,” said Major Neill Franklin a 34-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department and executive director of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). “Cops going in to occupy and search people illegally, search cars and homes illegally. People are fed up with it.”
At a time when both violent and property crimes are dropping, bulking up police forces will likely mean more people arrested for low level and ‘quality of life’ offenses, as police look to justify the additional funding,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “The administration needs to get on board with ‘smart on crime’ policies; and over-saturating communities with police isn’t one of them.”