A photo of a police officer guarding the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Violent crime is at historic lows in cities like New York. But the stark disparities that remain should be worrying. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The Troubling Limits of the ‘Great Crime Decline’

The fall of urban violence since the 1990s was a public health breakthrough, as NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey says in his book Uneasy Peace. But we must go further.

New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey opened his revelatory 2018 book Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence by calling the dramatic fall in violence in American cities since the early 1990s a “fundamental change in the nature of U.S. urban life,” one that “no one predicted and that many people still do not believe.”

The book amassed a pile of crime statistics to counter that disbelief—and to show how the efforts of community activists and urban redevelopment deserved to share more of the credit with law-enforcement strategies for the dramatic crime drop American cities experienced between 1991 and 2014. As Sharkey described his research to CityLab’s Richard Florida, “it wasn’t just the police. It was about the transformation of urban spaces.”

In a follow-up study, Sharkey now throws into sharper relief one set of numbers quantifying how much African-American men—the demographic most vulnerable to violence—benefited from cutting the nationwide homicide rate in half. These are numbers that drew little attention when they appeared in the book. So, in updating and expanding on them in the journal Demography, Sharkey and Michael Friedson, a former student of his now on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, are leaning into the mic to say it louder for the folks in the back.

The numbers are truly startling. Life expectancy has risen twice as much for African Americans as for whites since the early 1990s. By teasing out homicide from all the other health factors at play, they determined that the drop in homicides added nearly 10 months to the average black man’s life. Put another way: “If homicide had not declined, our estimates indicate that more than 1,100 years of potential life would be lost for every 100,000 African American males.”

This, they conclude, “represents a public health breakthrough for African American males,” one bigger than from the long-term drop in motor vehicle deaths and equal to the theoretical impact of eliminating obesity among black men. Sharkey summed it up in Uneasy Peace this way: “The decline in homicides has meant that thousands of young black men have lived into adulthood, avoiding having their lives cut short and being lost to their families, friends, and communities.”

Sharkey and his co-author do not calculate in real numbers how many black men’s lives are likely to have been spared as homicides dropped. Based on FBI crime figures showing nearly 5,500 fewer black male murder victims in a comparison of just the two years that bookend the 23-year period of the study, the number clearly reaches well into the tens of thousands.

But the figure more relevant to a policy discussion about what should happen next is this: In 2014—the most peaceful year in recent times—black men still comprised 44 percent of all homicide victims, even though they make up only 7 percent of the population.

That disproportionate risk—that stark inequality—is the idea behind the first word in Sharkey’s book title Uneasy Peace: the notion that the great gains made in reducing violence are fragile and perhaps unsustainable if we fail to appreciate how we got here and why we must go much further.

It’s a call for more ambitious and evidence-based violence-prevention efforts. Certainly the need for this is urgent in neighborhoods that still have unacceptably high levels of violence. But, unfortunately, the current state of crime-control politics suggests we’ll need more to reach that goal than just appeals to empathy and pragmatism.

The Demography paper repeats a familiar complaint by crime researchers—what we need is more crime research. Sharkey and Friedson report that National Institutes of Health funding in 2017 for obesity research totaled more than $900 million. The tab for homicide, youth violence, and violence prevention? About $65 million. “Violence has never received the same attention or resources as other major causes of mortality and morbidity,” the paper says, “and yet confronting violence is one of the few clear pathways by which public policy can address persistent gaps in life expectancy among African American males.”

Our neglect of the basics runs deeper than funding for research. Criminologists have long complained about giant gaps in the systems for tracking crime, the essential starting point for any definitive analysis of crime’s causes and solutions. One particularly outrageous example: We don’t even know how many people nationwide get shot every year, whether fatally or not. It’s a number that police and criminologists view as more meaningful than homicide trends, since the only factors distinguishing between a nonfatal firearm assault and a homicide are some combination of better aim, a more powerful weapon, and less effective medical help.

Would better data mean we’ll all suddenly wake up to what’s truly at stake? It’s a nice thought, but it ignores our messy politics of crime and race.

Old-school tough-on-crime conservatives don’t bother hiding the naked racism behind the moralizing about “black-on-black violence,” turning their backs on black male victims on the assumption they deserved what they got and characterizing the black-male homicide problem as a pathological condition rather than a set of circumstances that can be changed through effective interventions.

Liberals, for their part, are better at subtraction than addition—focusing on ridding the system of abusive policing and excessive incarceration without thinking hard enough about replacing them with fair violence-prevention strategies. They even go so far as to minimize alarming surges in urban violence to avoid triggering a tough-on-crime backlash—a position that Leon Neyfakh neatly summed up as seeking to “soft-pedal the suffering of minorities for the sake of a broader principle intended to help minorities.”

In his Pulitzer-winning 2017 book Locking Up Our Own, James Forman Jr. shows how passionate anti-crime advocacy in the black community, born of desperation, poured gasoline on the tough-on-crime conflagration. Sharkey’s work has focused on the upside to community activism, emphasizing community-building instead of bare-knuckle suppression—cleaning up parks and mentoring troubled youth, for example, rather than relying only on law enforcement and the deterrent effects of punishment.  

The most promising solutions likely lie in some combination of that approach and a kinder, gentler form of proactive policing that precisely targets problems and combines enforcement with social services. Either way, the enlightened thinking in violence intervention these days recognizes there are effective strategies that abandon the ways of the past without abandoning those with the most at stake.

What’s lacking, then, isn’t just disbelief in the wondrous but incomplete trend that has led to safer American cities. We’ve long known who benefits most from reductions in violence. We now know more about the precise extent of that benefit. Now all we need is to prove that those lives matter.

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