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Crime has not only increased, it has changed

As the midterm elections near, Americans have gotten an ear about both crime itself and how the other side is distorting the news about it for political gain.

“Cherry Picking!”


“Gas Lights!”

To which we (a former NYPD crime analyst and historical criminologist) can only add, “Oh my God!” Using crime as political football may be a time-honored tradition, but the intensity of the game has increased recently amid reform efforts and changing crime patterns.

Compared to before the pandemic, we still have a sharp rise in crime — just not your grandfather’s from the 1970s: It’s more rural, more geographically and demographically concentrated, and affects more of the mentally ill. If we consider these often-overlooked crime patterns of the last decade, we can now see the new American criminal history – one that is often at odds with piety and pronouncements on both the political left and right.

Since crime gets so much attention in New York City, let’s start there.

“It was worse in the 1970s (or 1990s)” has become progressives’ knee-jerk response to growing New Yorkers’ fears for safety. This is not proving to be a winning policy, any more than “Don’t worry, mortgages were higher in the 1970s,” reassuring homebuyers facing a doubling in interest rates this year.

Picked up by prison guards
Lee Zeldin, Republican gubernatorial candidate for New York, receives confirmation from the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association at the gate to Rikers Island in Queens, New York on October 24, 2022.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

But it’s also true. Violence of all kinds — particularly the most feared violent crimes — is much lower today than it was in 1976, for example, when 75 New Yorkers were victims of violence every hour. Murder rates then were four times what they are today; reported rape three and a half times (and much more likely to have been committed by strangers than today).

We would like to point out that police violence is also very diverse; it is much lower now. In 1972, the NYPD shot suspects 2,510 times. For comparison, in 2018 NYPD officers responded to 6.1 million calls and shot suspects in just 17 incidents, firing just 35 rounds.

The recent explosion in criminal violence is real – and unprecedented. In 2020 NYC shootings doubled to 1,531 – the largest relative increase in Gotham history. Even with the most recent year-to-date decline (down 13.5 percent), shootings are at a quarter-century high.

In the decade since 2008, there have never been more than two homicides a year on the subways; this year there were already nine. New Yorkers understandably accustomed to Gotham’s famous crime decline — one that started earlier, fell deeper, lasted longer, and spread further than any other city’s — are right that something has fundamentally changed for the worse.

But unlike the 1970s, when much of crime was interracial, crime in New York today is highly demographically concentrated. Nine out of 10 shooting victims last year were people of color — but so were the suspects (as identified by victims, not the NYPD). The rapes and assaults in the city show similar patterns.

Crime has also become more geographically concentrated: Between 2011 and 2020, no more than 6 percent of city blocks had a shooting incident — a far cry from 1970s New York, when perhaps more than 30 percent of blocks were victims of violent crime. And those who commit crime are now far more likely to suffer from mental illness; about half of those awaiting trial for violent crimes in New York City, compared to just 12 percent in 2019. Likewise, about a quarter of those arrested for serious crimes like murder and rape have a documented history of mental illness.

Broadening our focus by country, violent crime exploded in 2020, with homicides increasing by a quarter – the largest such increase since 1960 – only to increase another 10 percent the following year. But just as all politics is local, so is crime. Homicide, for example, is up 90 percent in Colorado Springs but down 16 percent in Chicago.

Unlike the 1970s, rural America is now sharing in the suffering, with homicide rates rising 25 percent in 2020 — almost as big as metropolitan areas’ 30 percent increase. In fact, violent crime in rural counties has exceeded the national average over the past five years. This trend is mirrored in the decades-long national trend that fewer big city dwellers go to prison, even when far more small-town Americans do, including in blue states like New York and Massachusetts. Remarkably, little of this violence (or subsequent incarceration) can be blamed on the war on drugs; In fact, since 2009, drug arrests have gone down for all but white women.

With the easing of Covid restrictions and the economy recovering, our national crime surge has likely moderated somewhat over the last year – we just don’t know exactly by how much. The FBI changed the way it collects data in 2021 as many local police departments struggled to meet the new reporting requirements, including large cities like New York. FBI data now only covers about 66 percent of the population, down from 90 percent previously. The limited homicide data we have suggests good news: Homicides in major cities could be down 5 percent from 2021.

Amid this year’s political demagogy, we must remember that we will only find viable solutions if we understand our new criminal reality, regardless of ideology.

Chris Herrmann, a former crime analysis supervisor for the NYPD, is an associate professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY). Fritz Umbach is Associate Professor of History; Umbach’s forthcoming third book, Modern New York in 50 Crimeshas been investigating crime in the city since 1965. Both are currently advising the New York government on gun violence and its costs.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own. Crime has not only increased, it has changed

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