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The Real Crime Fighters: Conservatives or Liberals?

A new study finds that both more police officers and more community building are essential in reducing crime.
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From the early 1960s to the early 1990s, the crime rate in the U.S. rose year after year, sparking a heated debate about what should be done.

Conservatives argued that what was needed was more “social control” — that is, more cops, more and tougher punishment and more law and order. They argued that there were simply bad people out there who needed to be kept off the streets and that the best way to deter crime was to make it loud and clear to those bad people that crime doesn’t pay.

Liberals, meanwhile, argued that the rise in crime was a result of the breakdown of social support systems. In the face of fraying communities, rising inequality, growing poverty and racial tensions, criminal activity was bound to rise. They argued that sustained investments in rebuilding communities — “social support” — could help would-be criminals feel more invested in the places where they live, feel more hopeful about their future and thus be less likely to turn to a life of crime.

But as long as crime rates continued to rise, the arguments were purely academic — neither approach was working, though both were being tried.

But in the early 1990s, something happened. Across the country, crime began to decline. And suddenly, there was, at long last, an opportunity to see who was right. Did crime decline because of more law enforcement? Or did it decline because of more community investment?

Ling Ren got interested in this question a few years ago while she was working on her Ph.D. dissertation in criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. “Starting in 1993, the crime rate dropped, and during that 10 or 11 years, that gives us a good opportunity to test which side of the policy is more effective,” said Ren, now a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

So she got together with her adviser, Jihong Zhao, now also a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University, and Nicholas P. Lovrich of the department of political science division of governmental studies and services at Washington State University. All saw an opening to answer a very important question that nobody had really bothered to approach comprehensively and neutrally.

“There are a lot of studies on the liberal side on what should be done and a substantial (number of studies) on the Republican side on what they want to do,” Zhao said, “but those two camps don’t talk to each other. They just work on their own stuff, and everyone just wants to jump on the neck of the other side.”

So they gathered extensive panel data on crime rates, crime policies and demographics for 85 U.S. cities of 150,000 residents or more for the years of 1991 to 2000. In order to measure the different approaches, the researchers used data on two control policies — police expenditure per resident and court expenditure per resident — and two support policies — community development expenditure per resident and parks and recreation expenditure per resident. They also controlled for unemployment rate, minority population and other socioeconomic and demographic factors that are sometimes correlated with crime. And with the use of pooled time-series panel data, they were able to control for time trends and other geographical factors.

The result? They found that both liberals and conservatives were right.

Investing in community building reduced crime. But so did putting more cops on the street.

Ren, Zhao and Lovrich estimated that every additional dollar spent on police led to a reduction in two violent crime incidents per 100,000 and that, for every additional dollar spent on community development, violent crime incidents per 100,000 dropped by 0.58. The findings are reported in the Journal of Criminal Justice.

Though the researchers did not know exactly what to expect when they did their analysis, they were not overly surprised. As Zhao noted, “The literature has been pretty consistent over the last 10 years that more police officers leads to less crime.” The scholars’ article cites several studies, including a Government Accountability Office report that found that a $7.6 billion federal grant to put 100,000 new cops on the street reduced crime rates by 1.3 percent.

There has also been some support for community investment policies having an effect. “But very little research has tried to bring the aspects together in some way,” Ren said.

The professors said they are currently exploring potential interaction effects of the different policies, trying to see whether there are multiplier effects when there are high levels of investment in both strategies. But they do note that, already, many communities are working to combine both liberal and conservative approaches. One example of this, they note in their article, is the popular “weed and seed” program, which begins with an aggressive arrest strategy and follows up with an emphasis on community rebuilding and economic revitalization.

“Liberals and conservatives are now coming together, and their policies now look very similar,” said Zhao, noting how both sides have now embraced “weed and seed” policies. “Nowadays policy is not like it was in the 1960s or the 1970s, when it was so clear-cut (between the two approaches).”

Lovrich, who has also studied community policing, said that “there are an increasing number (of police) dedicated to partnerships with communities and reaching out to areas with public safety issues. That’s a liberal-conservative thing to do. So maybe this article is pointing toward the need for this kind of mixed approach, as opposed to putting all your eggs in either prevention or apprehension and deterrence.”

Though this was not a central aspect of the study, Lovrich said he was surprised at how much one of the control variables — unemployment — seemed to affect the rate of crime. For every 1 percent increase in city unemployment in a year, there were about 37 more violent crime incidents per 100,000.

With the U.S. unemployment rate now at a five-year high of 6.1 percent, we should expect a rise in crime (in 2007, it was up 2 percent, according to FBI statistics). “As economic dislocation occurs, it may be a tough time for crime again,” Lovrich said.

Meanwhile, in hard economic times, cities may be tempted to cut back on expensive crime reduction strategies, particularly the community building. But Zhao warned against this: “Without a combination of both, I don’t think one side alone will work.”

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