Falling crime despite scare tactics

JULY 4, 2010

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary,” observed the journalist, critic and satirist H.L. Mencken.

Mencken perhaps would not have envisioned the absurd hobgoblins the California Legislature would invent in 2010 to keep voters alarmed, but that is more of an insult to fellow voters than to the politicians themselves. Pols are, after all, entrepreneurs of a sort. If they can stay in office by scaring people about the dangers of plastic grocery bags and the evils of the state rock (it contains asbestos), then why bother being more creative?

There is one area, however, that has understandably frightened California voters over the years – crime. No one wants to be victimized by criminals, and the state performs legitimate functions in public protection. Nevertheless, even when fears are real, and the government’s role is legitimate, the public needs to keep Mencken’s axiom in mind. Government will always try to scare us more than it has to as a way to keep its power and resources.

Hence, in these times of scarce revenue, various governmental interest groups are scrambling to protect their own piece of the pie. In the private sector, the pie is often expanding thanks to the wonders of the marketplace. For government, it’s always a zero-sum game, as groups vie for taxpayer loot. The tax-users will always join forces when it comes to extracting more cash from our wallets. At the Capitol, the Service Employees International Union staged a rally Wednesday protesting the governor’s budget. SEIU’s preferred course of action is to raise taxes to prop up their pay and benefit levels. But the public isn’t too scared by most threats of lost state “services.”

Meanwhile, police and deputies unions are trying to scare the public into lobbying city councils and county boards to spare those groups from budget cutbacks. The Sacramento County deputies union has been running ads that seek to frighten the public. As the Sacramento Bee reported, “One of the mobile billboards shows a frightened child with a hand over her mouth. The sign reads ‘Your child’s safety is at risk! By cutting deputies, county supervisors are putting your children’s safety at risk!'”

Drive around Stockton, and one finds horrific billboards – showing splattered blood and crime-scene tape – erected by the police union and screaming, “People are being killed in Stockton … Stop police layoffs.”

Don’t expect the police to argue that creation of an overly generous level of pension and other benefits is to blame for tight budgets. In their view, give them more or there will be blood in the streets.

Throughout the country, politicians and police chiefs have been sounding the alarms, warning that the nation’s economic downturn will stress police budgets not just because of reduced city revenue but because of burgeoning crime rates. It has long been a mainstay of liberal thinking that people commit crimes mainly because of bad economic times (rather than for individual reasons, such as a poor upbringing or a lack of impulse control). It’s yet another reason that the Obama administration believes in spending more on programs and police.

Yet it’s best not to get too worried about all this fear-mongering. The state Office of the Attorney General released a new report June 25 that finds statewide crime rates to be plummeting for the third year in a row. The data for 2009 encompasses the worst part of the latest recession, yet, statewide, homicide is down 8.9 percent, robbery is down 8.6 percent, motor vehicle theft is down 15.8 percent, and arson is down 14.3 percent. In Orange County, violent crime is down 3.6 percent, and property crime is down 10.5 percent.

“Overall, since statewide crime peaked in 1992, crime rates in all three categories [of violent crime, property crime, and larceny and theft] have been cut in half,” according to the AG’s office. (At the rate the Legislature is creating new crimes – such as plastic-bag violations – I’m guessing the state is spending more of its law enforcement resources on less-serious matters.)

Given that this is an election year, and AG Jerry Brown is the Democratic candidate for governor, the crime study will be used for crass and misleading political purposes, such as to burnish Brown’s anti-crime credentials. Brown – ever mindful of the public employee unions that are spending wildly on his behalf – credited the “dedicated and courageous efforts” of local law enforcement officials for the crime drops, which is another canard.

The causes of crime are not altogether clear. The murder rate hit a high point in 1991 and has been heading downward ever since – regardless of how many police are in place and what anti-crime policies have been implemented. I recall discussing the topic with a local police chief who complained that he has the same number of officers now as he had in the 1980s even though the city’s population had increased dramatically. “What is crime like now compared to then?” I asked him. It is lower, he replied.

Fewer cops per capita and lower crime – that works for me. I’m not arguing that policing issues have no effect on crime rates, but it’s far from clear that hiring more police (or passing more tough-on-crime laws) reduces crime.

Crime is not a pure hobgoblin, but the latest data suggests that it continues its long downward descent. Californians aren’t moving out of the foreclosed minimansion and heading down to the gun store in preparation for a new life of armed robbery. There is no recession-driven crime wave. It’s OK to ignore the self-interested emotional arguments made by cops and politicians and debate each new anti-crime proposal and budget plan on its merits.

–Steven Greenhut

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