A tenet of criminology is that when times are tough, so are criminals. In the midst of the longest recession in an era, you expect crime rates to spike. (A D.C. policeman told a friend of mine who was mugged in late 2008: “You have to understand–this is like their bailout.”) It came as a surprise, then, when the FBI announced on Monday that violent crimes declined in 2009 for the third year running, a period roughly coinciding with the recession. And property crimes declined for the seventh straight year. Aggravated assault rates dropped over 4 percent; murder rates dropped over 7 percent; and motor vehicle thefts dropped a whopping 17 percent, to select just a few of the FBI’s more remarkable findings.
Criminologists have scrambled to account for the results. One of the most prominent voices in the media is Richard Rosenfeld, president of the American Society of Criminology, who confessed to the Christian Science Monitor that the FBI report “does place constructive pressures on those of us who study crime trends.” So what might be going on? Innovative policing techniques could be driving the decline in certain cities like New York, but can’t explain why crime rates have dropped in others cities where policing strategies have remained the same. Larger governmental safety nets like expanded unemployment benefits might also have played a role.
Criminal behavior is a dynamic thing. In 1982, the social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling advanced what came to be called “broken windows theory,” after their Atlantic Monthly article, “Broken Windows.” In it, they cited a 1969 experiment by the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who abandoned a car in Palo Alto, where it remained untouched by pedestrians for a week. Then Zimbardo took a sledgehammer to the car, damaging just one part of it. He left it alone again. This time, within hours, the car had been upturned and destroyed by passersby. “Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder,” Wilson and Kelling wrote. The theory became even more popular in 2002, when it was included in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller The Tipping Point.
The converse may also be true. Maybe, even in the midst of a recession, our cities remained, in a general sense, better tended than they have been in other times. Whatever the reason behind the FBI statistics, no one’s complaining. As Rosenfeld put it recently: “this is one of these welcome puzzles.”