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Is There a Tipping Point with Crime? A Tipping Point for Crime Prevention?

In Chicago, 225 people were shot in July, and 42 of them died from their wounds.  In one night alone, a dozen people were shot; on another night, six men were murdered.

In Baltimore, last Sunday, 18 people were shot in five different incidents.  In the Baltimore Sun, Peter Hermann and Arthur Hirsch profiled an emergency room nurse on duty throughout the carnage:

After she’d helped a man who had been shot three times into a wheelchair, after an SUV had delivered another shooting victim and two more men had walked past with bloodied T-shirts covering their wounds, nurse Cindy Barber began to wonder just what was unfolding in the Johns Hopkins emergency room.  “Are there more coming?” she asked herself. “Is someone still after them, and are they going to come here?”

Even as the New York Times insists that crime isn’t a problem, that crime statistics are down (a phenomenon they predictably attribute to everything under the sun except locking people up), several cities are seeing explosions of violence rivaling, or exceeding, previous years’ records.

Or the casualty rates of war zones.

Yet, it is true, the highest crime rate spikes seem to burn themselves out.  Not that crime ever really drops to the point of not being a problem, but extremely violent neighborhoods do get pulled back from the brink.  Given the summer that’s shaping up in Baltimore, Chicago, and, to a lesser degree, Atlanta, it’s worth asking what works when the crime rate spikes from endemic to epidemic.

Thirteen years ago, Malcolm Gladwell (of “Tipping Point” fame) published an interesting article about crime epidemics and broken windows policing in the New Yorker:

In 1993, there were a hundred and twenty-six homicides in the [Seventy-Fifth Precinct]. Last year, there were forty-four. There is probably no other place in the country where violent crime has declined so far, so fast. Once the symbol of urban violence, New York City is in the midst of a strange and unprecedented transformation. According to the preliminary crime statistics released by the F.B.I. earlier this month [1996], New York has a citywide violent-crime rate that now ranks it a hundred and thirty-sixth among major American cities, on a par with Boise, Idaho.

Atlanta has already done one of the things New York City did back in the 90’s: it shut down its high-density, high-crime public housing projects.  Closing the doors on Grady Homes and Techwood Homes (a move that drove many problem residents outside city limits) probably accounts for most of the reduction in the city’s crime rate during the last decade.  Maybe the question criminologists should be asking is this: “If we control for the demolition of previous high-crime zones, should crime actually be lower than it is right now?”

I also suspect that severe outbursts of violent crime do “burn themselves out” because certain neighborhoods literally self-destruct, with offenders killing each other off or finally going to prison for substantial sentences.

However, “waiting until the last guy goes out in a cavalcade of bullets, hopefully without taking too many innocent eight-year olds with him” is not public policy.  Nor is clicking the red shoes and insisting: “But things were so much worse in 1993!”

Isn’t it better to throw the book at young gang-bangers the very first time they get caught stealing a television set, rather than burying them, or their victims, two or three years down the line?

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