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Crime in U.S., Az continues to fall, but why?

Arizona ranks 18th highest in crimes among states

Who knew that crime news could be so … pleasant?

Once again, the FBI has come out with its annual collection of national crime statistics, and once again the news is good. On Monday the bureau announced that the estimated number of violent crimes reported to police in 2010 dropped by 6 percent over 2009, its fourth consecutive year of decline. Reported property crimes decreased, for the eighth straight year, by 2.7 percent. 

Not only the raw numbers of crimes declined, so did the rates. The violent crime rate (per 100,000 people) saw a 6.5 percent decrease from the 2009 rate; the property crime rate had a 3.3 percent decrease from the 2009 figure.

Arizona’s violent crime rate dropped by 4.3 percent between 2009 and 2010, while its property crime rate declined by 1.5 percent. 

These data come from the FBI’s annual report, Crime in the United States, which compiles voluntary reports from more than 18,000 police agencies across the country. The reported crimes measured are the violent crimes of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, and the property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft (arson reports are also collected, but not included in totals). Each of the seven violent and property crimes decreased in number between 2009 and 2010. 

More good news: The FBI numbers generally confirm the findings of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), announced last week. The NCVS, a separate measurement process, found that the rates of both violent and property crime dropped between 2009 and 2010. It reported a larger drop, with the violent crime rate down 13 percent from 2009 and the property crime rate down 6 percent.

The FBI cautions against using their figures to compare cities and states, but everybody does anyway. This year’s numbers give Arizona the 18th-highest rate of violent crime among states, below Illinois and above Georgia. Among our neighbors, Nevada earned the dubious distinction of first place, while New Mexico ranked sixth. In terms of property crime rates, Arizona ranked ninth, below Florida and above Alabama; Texas ranked second.

The Phoenix metropolitan area ranked 12th among top metros in its rates of both violent crime and property crime, below Dallas and above Riverside. Detroit took first place in both crime categories.

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Now come the usual annoying qualifications:

  • As the FBI itself warns, comparing crime rates in different locations is of only limited value. A whole host of factors —different police reporting procedures, income and educational levels, age-group differences, etc. — all can influence crime levels.
  • Overall levels of reported crime are driven largely by the number of property crimes, which are far more numerous than violent crimes.
  • The FBI numbers report only on seven major crimes; they say nothing about the numbers of, say, drug crimes, frauds, DUIs, weapons offenses, vandalism, minor assaults, or other less serious but very common offenses.
  • The FBI report provides data only on reported crimes; the U.S. Justice Department estimates that around half of crimes are never reported to authorities.
  • The numbers provide only a general view of crime in an area. The level of actual violent and property crime varies widely within the same state, metro, city or town.

Now comes the usual burning question: How come? 

Why have Americans been assaulting and robbing each less often year after year even during the Great Recession? 

The FBI’s numbers peg the drop in both the violent and property crimes rates at about 20 percent since 2001. The usual explanations are 1) an aging population; 2) improvements in police tactics and technology; and 3) prison policies that have locked up hundreds of thousands of offenders. 

Have your own theory? Let’s hear it. Meanwhile, we can all hope the numbers keep going in the same direction.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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