Urban America’s Amazing Crime-Fighting Success

A story came out Friday about how Washington, D.C., is on pace for fewer than 100 homicides in 2012, which would be the first time in decades that the city achieves that milestone. Through November, the quantity of murders is down over 20 percent relative to where it was last year, and that’s part of a steady trend. Back in 2000, the city’s total population was about 10 percent lower, and there were 242 murders. In 1992 and 1993 there were over 400.

And it’s not an isolated trend:

The drop reflects a downward trend in violent crime nationwide and is in line with declining homicides in other big cities. Though killings have risen in Chicago, New York City officials say homicides dropped to 515 last year from 2,262 in 1990. Houston police reported 198 homicides last year, down from 457 in 1985, while Los Angeles ended last year with fewer than 300 after reporting 1,092 in 1992. Across the country, violent crime reported by police to the FBI fell by 3.8 percent last year from 2010.

I think this is a major unheralded success story, and it’s one of the reasons I’m skeptical about shared left/right narratives of social decline. But it’s also a success story that many of our key policies haven’t caught up with. For a long time, high crime was a key driver of “white flight” and urban depopulation. With the tide turning on crime, the tide has also turned on population trajectories in most of our major central cities. But it continues to be the case that the existence of pockets of high crime constitutes de facto affordable housing policies in much of the East Coast. We need to keep bringing crimes rates down and shift housing policies away from the idea that people can always just be warehoused in unsafe, undesirable neighborhoods with bad public services.