The Unspoken Issue

As I mentioned earlier we are considering doing a subscription/contribution drive for a one-year project where we would hire one or two reporters and one editor to report exclusively on crime and policing. The two issues are umbilically connected to each other, which should go without saying. And through all this roiling public controversy about police community relations, the one critical factor that simply doesn’t get mentioned enough is the historic drop in crimes of all kinds over the last 20 years. It is nothing less than the end of the late 20th century crime wave which began in the early 1960s and lasted between 35 and 40 years, depending on where you’re talking about and just how you want to define it.

As I’ve written at some length, the late 20th century crime wave was probably one of the two or three biggest drivers or cultural and political change in the late 20th century. And, for something so important, we have only a very limited sense of why it started or why it ended.

When it comes to policing practices, this is also plays a critically important. Because the simple fact is that when murder rates are 3 or 4 or 5 times higher than they are today (with comparable multiples for other violent crimes) the public gives police a much, much wider berth – license to do almost anything to keep the threat at bay.

There is a similar connection with the public and political deference police grew accustomed to during the 60s to 90s era. A lot of the controversies we’re seeing with police unions is tied to public attitudes toward policing and police themselves in an era where there is dramatically reduced crime.

These trends correlate in ways that are really like clockwork. Look most clearly at the slow but seemingly inexorable decline in support for capital punishment that tracks tightly with the decline in the murder rate beginning in the early 90s. Same for support for mass incarceration. None of this can be understood out of the context of the falling crime rate, which is one of the handful of historic issues of our time.