Lots of media reports this week discussed a surge in auto theft in the Seattle area and statewide. The number of reported auto thefts in the Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma metro area increased 18.8% in 2010 over 2009; the statewide increase was 9.8%. This story in Tuesday's Seattle Times has the details, along with a ranking of the 10 Washington cities with the highest auto theft rate per capita. (Seattle's not number one!)
What about crime in general? Seattle, along with the entire country, has experienced a long, downward trend in reported crime. In fact, today's rate of crime in Seattle is the lowest it has been since the late 1960s. Of course, the big question is why? Why has crime declined so dramatically in Seattle and across the country?
There are many theories being thrown around by people who debate these things: policy makers, academics, police officers, criminologists, criminal justice advocates, and many others. While the debaters do not agree, one thing is clear: crime rates do not necessarily increase during tough economic times.
The noted criminologist, James Q. Wilson, wrote a recent piece about crime in The Wall Street Journal. Wilson summarizes many of the leading crime reduction theories, including some highly controversial ones that he rejects, such as the proposition that abortions have reduced the size of the crime-prone population. But Wilson's main point was that the continued reduction in reported crime has criminologists perplexed. "The standard view in the field, echoed for decades by the media, is that unemployment and poverty are strongly linked to crime. The argument is straightforward: When less legal work is available, more illegal 'work' takes place." Wilson rejects this linkage and compares the unemployment rate to the crime rate over the past decade. The Journal illustrated his oberservation with the following chart.
But what about here in Seattle? Do we see these same trend lines—high unemployment and low crime—here?
In short, yes. The decline in reported crime in Seattle since 1990 has been dramatic, to say the least. The rate of property crime on a per capita basis has dropped by half. Violent crimes against persons are down over half. These trends have continued into 2011, with a few notable exceptions.
Through April 2011, compared to the same period last year, homicides have declined 25%, rape is down 19%, robbery is down 9%, aggravated assault is up 13% and property crimes are down 15%. The increase in assault is caused primarily by an increase in domestic violence assaults. The aggravated assault with a firearm subcategory has soared 66%, increasing to 83 incidents compared to 50 in the first four months of last year.
Our perceptions about crime are almost always influenced by the latest and the closest criminal activity, and we all agree that even one murder a year is one too many. These charts remind us though that it can be encouraging every once in a while to look at the big picture. Yes, auto theft and other crimes can spike up and down, but the long-term trend is very positive. Now, if we could just reach some agreement about why.