Never in history has there been less violent crime in our big cities.
Rates in Canada are around the lowest in the country’s history, and lowest in the biggest cities: Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto are now the 114th, 72nd and 59th most violent cities in Canada, respectively. (Can you even name 58 other Canadian cities?) In the United States, serious-crime rates in cities are, by one measure, about a quarter what they were in the early nineties; national rates hit their lowest level in U.S history in 2014, rose slightly in 2015 and 2016, and then fell sharply again in 2017.
Yet this has not brought about an era of urban peace and harmony. These same years have seen explosions of fear, anger, mass protest and distrust expressed by urban residents, especially those of minority backgrounds.
We now have a well-documented explanation. The sociologist Patrick Sharkey, whose work focuses on highly data-driven analyses of life in urban neighbourhoods, has conducted dozens of large-scale studies to assemble his book Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. It challenges the two leading theories.
One theory credits policing methods. At the peak of the postsixties crime wave in the early nineties, cities in the United States (and later in Canada) put more officers on the street and adopted more intensive, community-focused policing techniques – most famously the “broken windows” model of New York, in which police spend more time on petty criminality, and on searching and checking the IDs of young men, in order to deter larger crimes.
The other theory credits the crime drop to extraneous factors: An aging population, higher education rates, more immigrants, better-off families moving back into big cities – those things are all known to reduce crime rates. Besides, every kind of violence has been declining continuously, around the world, for most of the past century.
Demographics don’t explain enough of it. Crime fell far faster in big cities than elsewhere. It didn’t fall because better-off people moved in; they started to move in after it fell. It didn’t fall everywhere – places such as Milwaukee and North Battleford, Sask., have high and rising rates. Some crimes, such as gang crimes in Canada, have risen, without affecting overall rates. And rates fell furthest in the most crime-ridden neighbourhoods.
What his researchers did find was that having police on the streets does make the crime rate go down. But the type of policing doesn’t matter. Not “broken windows” policing, or community-based policing or old-school headbanging policing – any kind of policing works. Or no active policing at all: Even if they do nothing (such as during terrorist alerts), police on the street reduce crime by the same amount.
In fact, it doesn’t need to be police. Surveillance cameras drop the crime rate almost as much. Security guards and rent-a-cops have a similar effect. And community groups that send volunteer patrols out walking in alleys and sidewalks to keep an eye on their neighbourhood are just as effective as police in sending the crime rate plummeting – without the expense or controversy.
That is Dr. Sharkey’s grand conclusion: Having an eye on the street, a conscious and concerned presence, causes the crime rate to go down.
“It was the hard work of community groups, combined with the enhanced presence of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and private security forces that helped bring about the drop in violence across urban America,” Dr. Sharkey concludes. “The most fundamental change that took place in U.S. cities was the transformation of public places. Streets that had been abandoned for decades were taken over by police officers, security guards, and community groups. Opportunities for criminal activity began to shrink, and violence began to fall.”
The greatest beneficiaries of this have been low-income and minority communities whose lives are no longer shaped by crime. Yet much of this new policing, which tends to focus inordinately and unfairly on young visible-minority men, has divided communities, increased segregation and inequality, and caused an explosion of injustices; it has ended violence, but destroyed civic harmony. Indigenous Canadians, African-Americans and other urban visible-minority communities quite rightfully feel they are collateral damage in the war on violence.
As Dr. Sharkey shows, it doesn’t have to be that way. He concludes that the eyes-on-the-street role is vital, but it doesn’t need to be played by police. When neighbourhoods take on that role themselves − he looks at the highly successful Aboriginal street patrols in Australia as an example − they gain both safety and trust. That recipe is one we urgently need to learn.