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Why is fear up when crime is down in America?

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In the wake of the Newtown tragedy and the contentious push for new gun laws in both Washington and Albany, it's often easy to forget that we've been experiencing a major decline in crime in America.

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Reported by

David Chanatry
Reporter, New York Reporting Project at Utica College

Each year, Utica College Professor Shanna Van Slyke begins her criminology class by asking students what they know about the crime rate. She says she gets the same answers every time: That her students feel crime is going up – that it's always going up – and that they're very likely to become victims of violent crimes.

What gets most publicized are the least common, and most frightening, crimes.
It turns out Van Slyke's students are pretty typical. The most recent Gallup poll on perceptions of crime showed that more than two thirds of Americans think violent crime has gotten worse, about what polls have shown for the past decade. Half the respondents say there's more crime where they live than there was the year before.

She says everything she's seen seems to indicate people are getting more and more fearful: "things like sales in home security systems, gated communities and things like that, watchdogs…"

Van Slyke says the public is misled by the news media and television shows: "What they show about crime, and what the movies show about crime, are the most atypical crimes you could possibly have. We call those the "celebrity crimes"…what gets most publicized are the least common, and most frightening, crimes."

An explosion of crime, and then a crash

The crime rate started to rise in the 1960s before exploding with the crack epidemic in the eighties. But though much of the public hasn't seemed to notice, since 1992 there has been an equally staggering drop in crime. The rates for murder and robbery are half what they were 20 years ago.

In New York State, the total number of violent crimes has fallen by 18 percent in the past decade, driven in part by a historic drop in murders in New York City, and criminologist Shawn Bushway of the University at Albany School of Criminal Justics says violent and property crimes are at their lowest rates since the early '70s.

Bushway and other criminologists can't say for sure what's caused the decline. But most agree that an increase in incarceration has played a role, as more criminals spent more time behind bars. Demographics, too: As the population has aged, there's fewer young people, the group most likely to commit crimes. Bushway says some of the falling crime rate is due to fundamental changes in the market for illegal drugs.

"Crack cocaine is just not that big a deal anymore. It's no longer a fad, it's a well-established market. There's less violence associated with the market, and there's fewer users."

Policing the hot spots

There's more police on the streets now, too, and Bushway says one thing that may be a big deal in reducing crime is the way those cops do their job. Policing now, Bushway says, "is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Twenty years ago people thought police [could] have no impact on crime. I don't think anyone thinks that anymore."

Many departments have embraced a strategy called hotspot policing. It turns out most crime is clustered in certain small areas conducive to it. Police can use data maps to identify those locations, then if they ratchet up the pressure, they can prevent crime there, as well as in other, nearby areas.

Bushway says that's very effective: "There's been very good research that shows experimentally when you do this very targeted policing…you can actually reduce crime without displacing it to other places."

Upstate, that's the goal of Project Impact. The state police are working closely with local forces in 17 metropolitan areas outside of New York City.

Captain Francis Coots sends some of the 100 troopers he supervises to help patrol parts of the city of Utica: We're not just riding around looking for traffic tickets. We actually have directed patrols, sometimes we're looking at prostitution, sometimes we're looking at known drug locations."

Coots says smarter use of technology allows him to move quickly, unlike his early days as a trooper when he had to tabulate crime reports by hand and send them to Albany to be collated with all the others: "Now it's in real time. Departments like the Utica Police Department, they're getting their information immediately, they're pushing it out into the field."

A survey from Department of Justice shows assaults did increase recently, and there's some question whether that was just a reporting blip or if the long decline in crime may be coming to an end. But the number of murders and robberies continues to fall, whether the public is aware of it or not.

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