Don't Fear the City: Urban America's Crime Drops to Lowest in 40 Years

A new FBI report reveals that big cities are the safest they've been in decades


Reuters/Richard Carson

The long-held image of violent, crime-filled cities permeates popular culture. Thanks to TV shows, rap music, and a deep-seated antipathy to cities that has been apparent in some political and cultural quarters since at least the nineteenth century, countless Americans continue to perceive big cities through the lens of 40-year-old movies like Taxi Driver and The Out of Towners -- as cauldrons of crime, filth, and corruption (and magnets for immigrants, gays, Jews, intellectuals, and other "disreputable" minorities).

The past couple of decades have seen a powerful back-to-the-city movement that has transformed many once-notorious districts into residential quarters and high-end shopping districts. Times Square, a byword for crime and urban decay, has become a Disney-like tourist magnet, and parts of Herald Square, the heart of NYC's feared Tenderloin district a century ago, have been closed to traffic and filled with tables and chairs. Clearly something must be happening with urban crime.

Crime -- both property crime and violent crime -- is down to its lowest level in 40 years, especially in America's biggest cities, according to newly released data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report. The data was collected from January through December 2010 and breaks out metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas as well as cities of various sizes. For the fourth year in a row, there has been yet another substantial decline in crime: 5.5 percent fewer murders, forcible rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults were reported in 2010 than in 2009; property crimes fell by 2.8 percent over the same period and reported arsons dropped by 8.3 percent. "In all regions, the country appears to be safer," reports the New York Times. "The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States."

The drop was seen as particularly striking, confounding criminologists, whose studies find that crime rates typically rise alongside rising unemployment and worsening economic conditions. My former Carnegie Mellon University colleague, Alfred Blumstein, the world's leading demographer of crime told the Times the trend was "striking" because "it came at a time when everyone anticipated it could be going up because of the recession."

But the biggest and most surprising drop came in the nation's biggest cities, especially those with more than 1 million people.


Big cities posted bigger declines than the national average for property crime, which fell 3.9 percent in cities with populations of a million or more compared to 2.8 percent nationally. Burglaries were down 2.8 percent in those largest cities versus a 1.1 percent national decline; larceny/thefts fell 3.8 percent compared to just 2.8 percent nationally and arson declined 15.2 percent, compared to 8.3 percent nationally. Car thefts were down 6.3 percent, just slightly less than the 7.2 percent national decline.

Even more striking is the trend in violent crime, which is also down substantially in big cities. These crimes against people, which include murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, fell 5.1 percent in big cities with more than 1 million people. That's better than the decline for the smallest communities, with populations under 10,000 (4.3 percent), and only slightly off the national average.

The report notes that law-enforcement agencies provide the figures voluntarily and cautions against making city-to-city or agency-to-agency comparisons, which could "lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents." Nor does the report venture any guesses as to the cause of the downward trend.

But one factor frequently cited by criminologists is demographics. Crimes are more likely to be committed by young people, so the crime rate drops when the cohort of young people shrinks, as it has in the past few years. Better policing surely helps too, as has urban revitalization, which is bringing relatively prosperous singles, couples, families, and empty nesters into neighborhoods that had been in decline in years past, improving neighborhood quality and safety. We'll be taking a closer look at the social, geographic, demographic, and economic factors associated with crime across America's cities in a future post.

Thus far -- and despite alarmist predictions -- economic hard times do not appear to have led to an increase in either property crimes or violence. America and its biggest cities are becoming unquestionably safer, even in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. That's news we can all celebrate.