Why America’s Great Crime Decline Is OverBreaking News
tags: crime, urban history, sociology
Americans are experiencing a crime wave unlike anything we’ve seen this century. After decades of decline, shootings have surged in the past few years. In 2020, gun deaths reached their highest point in U.S. history in the midst of a pandemic. In 2021, although researchers can’t yet say anything definite about overall crime, shooting incidents appear to be on the rise in many places. We have also already witnessed several mass shootings, including the murder of spa and massage workers in the Atlanta area and a grocery-store massacre in Boulder, Colorado. Americans can no longer say, as we could 10 years ago, that we are living in the safest time in our nation’s history.
Why crime rises and falls is a devilishly complicated question. Few people have thought more deeply about it than Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton University. While others reach for easy solutions and simplistic slogans, Sharkey embraces complexity and uncertainty. In his 2018 book, Uneasy Peace, Sharkey argued that intensive and often aggressive policing and incarceration policies probably helped reduce crime in the past few decades, to the great benefit of low-income neighborhoods. But rather than glorify these policies, he argued that often they have involved brutal policing strategies that could provoke a backlash among the public—hence the “uneasy” nature of the peace.
This thesis has proved doubly prescient in the past year. Sharkey anticipated both the summer of anti-police protests and the possibility that souring police-civilian relations would contribute to an increase in violent crime.
This week I spoke with Sharkey about his thoughts on the 2020 crime surge. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity; statistical context from a follow-up email is in italics.
Derek Thompson: What happened last year?
Patrick Sharkey: It was a huge surge of violence, and the most violent year of the century. We went through a long period where violence was steadily falling. There was a sharp decline in the 1990s and a more gradual decline since then. But right now we are in a period of rising violence. Since 2014, there has been a gradual increase. And then last year was a really terrible year across the whole country.
Thompson: The subtitle of your book Uneasy Peace is The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. Is it safe to say that the “great crime decline” has come to an end?
Sharkey: I would say it is very clearly paused. What remains to be seen is just how anomalous last year was. There’s a possibility that this was just a year when social life was completely destabilized in so many ways, and that resulted in a huge surge of violence that was temporary. That’s the hope.
Thompson: Where is crime rising today?
Sharkey: This is the analysis I’m doing right now. It’s always been true that violence is concentrated in a small number of communities. The current increase in crime is not evenly distributed, either. Most of the increase in violence is highly concentrated in neighborhoods that are segregated with high poverty. Many of these neighborhoods have experienced disinvestment for generations, for decades, and it has made them more vulnerable to violence. Their public spaces have not been maintained. Their schools are underfunded. Their parks are not maintained. There aren’t functioning community centers or after-school programs for children.
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