Scott MacKay Commentary: Violent Crime Plunges, Locally and Nationally

Sep 9, 2016

If you watch too much television news or listen to too many politicians, you may have the impression that crime is on the rise. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on why perceptions have not caught up with the drop in crime.

Click the television remote and you’ll be treated to a smorgasbord of crime scenes on  local TV news. The national news mirrors and even inflates the prevalence of violent crime. Since the summer of 2014, Americans have been treated to a drumbeat of protests against police shootings of blacks and the murders of police officers.

The global village of social media and news outlets flash images of terrorism around the world as they happen. Some politicians, notably Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pump up the crime issue. At the Republican National Convention and in speeches since, Trump has vowed to crack down on crime.

``When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,’’ Trump  told delegates and millions watching on television.

No politician ever harvested a vote by being pro-crime, but Trump’s overheated rhetoric echoes the 1968 `law and order’  campaign of Richard Nixon, who at least was casting his net in a sea of rising crime and such national convulsions as the murders  of Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy.

That’s no longer true. Violent crime rates have plunged, both nationally and in Rhode Island. Less than half as many police officers are killed now while on duty as in the mid 1970s. FBI data shows that violent crime has dropped by about half since the early 1990s. In Providence, there were 26 homicides in 1999 and 30 in 2000. So far this year, there have been eight.

Reported violent and property

crimes in our capital city have declined from more than 15,000 in 1993 to less than 8,000 in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. The city’s police chief, Col. Hugh Clements, has been on the force since the 1980s. Both he and outgoing state police Supt. Steven O’Donnell  say it is difficult to underscore  any overarching reason for this good news.

But they point to changes in policing strategy and tactics, which reflects a nationwide trend in the way cops enforce the law. Police are more involved with the communities they police, focused on solving problems before they erupt into violence and arrests. This means more involvement with social service agencies and improving relations with minority residents in heavily policed neighborhoods.

In Providence, Clements says, that means doing more with less. There are about 100 fewer cops in Providence than there were a dozen years ago. It also means building a force that more reflects the changing population of the city.

Clements is proud of increasing diversity so that the police look more like people in the neighborhoods they oversee. He also cautions that it takes time. The older members of the city’s police force mirror the demographics of 1980s and 1990s Providence. ``You just can’t force people to retire,’’ says Clements.

The Providence chief doesn’t fault media crime reports, saying they are rooted in social media and the new technologies for delivering information, such as the ubiquitous mobile phone. There is also the change in too many local television news reports, which are increasingly based on `if it bleeds it leads’ coverage that lacks context. It’s cheap and easy to hire young, green reporters to chase cops to yellow-taped crime scenes. It’s more expensive and time-consuming to provide viewers with analysis and the more nuanced crime reporting of seasoned journalists. Don't hold your breath waiting for such coverage on local TeeVee.

The anxiety over crime may also be a reflection of the increasing presence of homeless people and panhandlers in such visible spots in Providence as Kennedy Plaza, outside City Hall. The police are working on solutions, but they aren’t easy and will likely cost money – such as establishing day shelters for the homeless.

Crime, like poverty, will always be with us. Yet, this we know –when it comes to violent crime, the good old days really weren’t. We  are safer than we were two decades ago.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:5 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org