Monday, Dec. 6, 2010 | 2 a.m.
THE DRUG EFFECTIn the 1920s, 1960s and 1980s, crime rates in the United States jumped as alcohol was banned during Prohibition, heroin was introduced to American society and crack cocaine swept the nation.
PROGRAM WORKINGThe Safe Village Initiative in West Las Vegas, which combined police resources with intense community outreach to churches, schools, UNLV and health care providers, is credited with helping reduce violent crime in the area by 40 percent.
When the Las Vegas economy began tanking three years ago, some in the community made a foreboding prediction. Crime would spike, with more broke bettors rifling through cars for stereos, and laid-off workers looting stalled construction sites for copper wire.
Clark County, ranked the eighth most dangerous metro region in the country in a recent study by CQ Press, a Washington policy magazine, would become even more crime-ridden. Or so the thinking went.
But it hasn’t happened. In fact, consistent with national trends, crime here has drifted downward, even as rates of unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies have skyrocketed to worst-in-the-nation status.
What explains this seeming paradox?
Both criminologists and Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie say the prognosticators had it wrong from the start, noting that there’s never been a clear causal link between economic downturns and crime — especially violent crime. Crime waves hit communities for reasons having nothing to do with the ups and downs of the economy, experts say.
But crime scholars also note the link between sustained, persistent poverty and high crime rates, evidenced by the hollowed-out industrial cities of the Rust Belt, such as Baltimore and Detroit. Those cities have suffered long-term economic declines, which coincided with, and in turn, led to violent chaos. To avoid that long-term fate, Las Vegas will need to get its economy moving again while using effective policing tools to prevent a hardened, permanent criminal class from staking ownership of neighborhoods, criminologists say.
First, the good news: A bad economy does not equal more crime, here or elsewhere. In 2009, as the Great Recession pummeled Las Vegas, violent crimes were down 5.3 percent, and property crime declined 4.6 percent, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.
“There’s simply no correlation between crime rates and economic indicators such as unemployment,” says Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.
David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, puts it this way: “Crime going up in recessions is one of those things everyone knows is true, but in fact isn’t true.”
The easiest example is the contrast between the roaring 1920s, during which rapid economic growth was paired with rising crime rates, and the 1930s, a time of economic depression and lower crime rates.
What was happening in the 1920s that might have caused a spike in crime? Prohibition drove the booze trade underground, which led, paradoxically, to an increase in alcohol consumption, but also a sharp increase in violent crime as rival gangs fought over turf and distribution.
Prohibition ended in 1933, and crime began falling.
“The 1920s is a story about Prohibition, and that’s the point,” Kennedy says. What he means is that crime seems to ebb and flow according to cultural change, drug epidemics and policy failures, among other trends, some of which are seemingly unknowable.
During the 1960s economic boom, heroin hit American cities. During the 1980s economic expansion, the crack epidemic swept the country. And in both cases, crime rose rapidly.
Southern Nevada provides a case in point: When Gillespie was elected sheriff in 2006, Nevada was thought to have the worst methamphetamine problem in the country. This crisis has since abated somewhat, which has likely contributed to the recent crime reduction. Again, crime driven not by economic cycles, but by drug cycles.
As Kennedy notes, “The idea that if people lose their jobs, they’ll start stealing or committing armed robberies — it doesn’t pass the laugh test. This is not how people run their family life.” This would seem to be especially true given today’s sharply punitive incarceration policies after decades of get-tough-on-crime politics. For a middle- or working-class person, who can turn to unemployment assistance or family help, the potential costs of crime far outweigh any potential benefits.
In fact, some criminologists hypothesize that although a recession would seem to create more motivation to commit crimes, it also creates fewer opportunities.
As Kennedy posits, people tend to drink less if they have less money or are temporarily out of work. Alcohol often plays a role in crime. Less alcohol, less crime.
William Sousa, a UNLV criminologist, notes that people whose hours are cut or are unemployed are home more hours of the day. That means their house or car is a less attractive target of burglars. Also, if home more, they’re paying more attention to their children. Or, if they’ve lost their home and moved in with relatives, that means more adults supervising the children.
Gillespie says the most important factor in continued crime reduction has been his ability to prevent layoffs of uniformed officers, which would have degraded Metro Police’s ability to prevent, rather than just react to crime. He credits the 2005 sales tax increase, which dedicated money to more police officers, as well as careful budgeting. Indeed, despite deep budget cuts to other public agencies, the number of police officers per 1,000 residents actually increased 6 percent this fiscal year.
By now, Metro’s strategies to cut crime in recent years are fairly well known. A special task force has cut auto thefts nearly in half since 2006, when Las Vegas became known as the nation’s worst city for auto thefts.
Sousa notes another effort: The Safe Village Initiative in West Las Vegas, which combined police resources with intense community outreach to churches, schools, UNLV and health care providers. The effort reduced violent crime 40 percent.
Despite the good news about crime falling here, criminologists say Southern Nevada must be wary of what could wind up being the long-term effect of this recession: The kind of structural poverty that moves from one generation to the next and pushes its denizens into crime, enveloping neighborhoods like a poisonous mist.
“There is a correlation between crime and sustained poverty,” Kleiman says.
As Kennedy notes, we’re not talking about laid off construction or casino workers.
Rather, think of the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, stricken with manufacturing decline, political inaction and corruption, and the flight of middle-class families — both white and black.
It was a process that took decades, but once it happened, it crippled those cities, only a few of which are making halting comebacks.
“Over time, is it something to worry about?” Kennedy says. “Yes.”
Kleiman, however, thinks the transience of Las Vegas will work to its advantage: “My sense is that people don’t have the same generational commitment to living in Las Vegas as they did to living in Baltimore. So I suspect people would be more likely to leave.”
Gillespie sounds as if he’s planning for the worst by continuing to conserve resources. He says he is asking himself, “If the economy stays the way it is, what does that mean for us?” His concerns range from potential cuts in both police and social services, as well as unemployed and underemployed residents who begin to “cut corners.”
Sousa says the long-range challenges are manageable. He sees the rampant crime of other cities as failures of policing that Las Vegas can avoid. He asserts those police departments were essentially reactive and too tolerant of minor, quality-of-life crimes. In policing circles, it’s known as the “Broken Window” — the idea that if you let minor violations, like, say, vandalism, go unpunished, a neighborhood will descend incrementally into chaos, by which time it is nearly impossible to take back.
Yes, there will always be criminals, but, Sousa says, “The opportunity for crime has to be there. Police can do things to limit that.” And so can the community, he adds.
“Las Vegas is still a young city,” he says. “We can borrow from the successes of other cities, as well as from their mistakes.”