SANCTUARY CITIES, SANCTUARY STATES (PART II)
Should states legalize recreational pot?
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. In Part I we explored what happens when local jurisdictions resist or impede the enforcement of Federal immigration laws. Here we’ll discuss the intensifying struggle between the Feds and the states over marijuana’s legal status, and particularly its recreational use.
Before we begin please note that we’ve argued against pot’s full legalization on three separate occasions, most recently four years ago (see links below). But with California taking that fateful step it seems appropriate to revisit the issue. What of consequence has been learned since our last put-down of the “evil weed”? Should the Feds be more flexible? Is the recreational use of marijuana really as harmless as its boosters claim?
Let’s start with chemistry. Marijuana’s active ingredient, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) alters the senses and creates a pleasurable “high” by overstimulating chemical receptors that help the brain function and develop. And yes, there are consequences. NIDA’s latest Drug Facts (August 2017 revision) warns that, among other things, THC interferes with thinking and problem solving and that high doses can bring on hallucinations and trigger psychotic reactions. Perhaps the most important concern is over pot’s consequences for the developing mind:
When people begin using marijuana as teenagers, the drug may impair thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions.
Could such effects prove permanent? Apparently the jury’s still out. But there is some unsettling research. According to a 2012 paper (footnote 5 in NIDA’s posting) heavy pot use by teens costs a staggering eight IQ points by middle age, and discontinuing doesn’t fully right the ship.
To marijuana enthusiasts NIDA’s warnings might ring a bit hollow. After all, it’s the National Institute of Drug Abuse, right? Well, if more “facts” are useful, the knowledge community has come to the rescue! In January 2017 the most authoritative scientific source in the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences released a massive report that summarizes and evaluates decades of marijuana research. Ten chapters are devoted to its reportedly problematic effects:
- Cardiac risk
- Respiratory diseases
- Impairment of the immune system
- Role in workplace and vehicle accidents
- Risks to infants and the unborn
- Psychosocial effects, including cognition and academic achievement
- Severe mental health problems, including schizophrenia, depression and suicide
- Problem marijuana use
- Links between marijuana and other substance abuse
Overall findings in each area are rated as to their certainty: conclusive, substantial, moderate, limited, none or insufficient. We’ll focus on pot’s role in vehicle accidents, its consequences on cognition and academic achievement, and its effects on mental health.
Vehicle accidents: A previous meta-analysis of 21 studies in thirteen countries found that vehicle crashes were twenty to thirty percent more likely for drivers who either self-reported marijuana use or had THC in their bodily fluids (p. 228). Driving simulators have also revealed that driving skills decrease as cannabis dosage increases (p. 230) NAS concludes that “there is substantial evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and increased risk of motor vehicle crashes” (p. 230).
Cognition: Prior studies found that marijuana use “acutely” interferes with memory, learning and attention. Whether such effects endure after pot use ends is uncertain (pp. 274-5). NAS concludes that “there is moderate evidence of a statistical association between acute cannabis use and impairment in the cognitive domains of learning, memory, and attention” but only “limited evidence” that impairment continues after a “sustained abstinence.”
Academic achievement: A prior “systematic review” of sixteen “high-quality” studies concluded that marijuana use “was consistently related to negative educational outcomes” (p. 276). Another study suggested that dosage was important. However, marijuana use is associated with a host of factors, including intelligence, use of other substances, parental education, socioeconomic status, and so on, each of which may also influence academic achievement. Absent a major study that “controls” for each important variable, parceling out marijuana’s unique contribution remains out of reach. NAS concludes that there is “limited evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and impaired academic achievement and education outcomes” (p. 279).
Mental health: A review of ten studies found a strong link between marijuana use, psychoses and schizophrenia; a “pooled analysis” of thirty-two studies found an increased likelihood of psychosis, with risk increasing along with frequency of use (pp. 291-3). Research involving psychiatric patients paints an equally gloomy picture. A study that compared first psychotic episode patients with non-patients revealed that the former “were more likely to have lifetime cannabis use, more likely to use cannabis every day, and to mostly use high-potency cannabis as compared to the controls” (p. 294). Reviewers concluded that there was “substantial evidence” that marijuana use could cause schizophrenia and lead to other psychoses, “with the highest risk among the most frequent users” (p. 295).
Marijuana does have some medical benefits. NAS found “substantial evidence” that pot is effective for chronic pain (p. 90) and “conclusive evidence” that it can reduce or eliminate nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy (p. 94). NORML, the nation’s leading pro-marijuana organization, prominently touts pot’s beneficial aspects. In “Marijuana: A Primer” Paul Armentano, the organization’s deputy director, glows about THC’s safety, “particularly when compared to other therapeutically active substances.” Yet his discussion also cautions that “cannabis should not necessarily be viewed as a ‘harmless’ substance”:
Consuming cannabis will alter mood, influence emotions, and temporarily alter perception, so consumers are best advised to pay particular attention to their set (emotional state) and setting (environment) prior to using it. It should not be consumed immediately prior to driving or prior to engaging in tasks that require certain learning skills, such as the retention of new information. Further, there may be some populations that are susceptible to increased risks from the use of cannabis, such as adolescents, pregnant or nursing mothers, and patients with or who have a family history of mental illness.
Other than for Mr. Armentano’s paragraph, which is buried in a longer piece, NORML’s consistent position is that marijuana is harmless, even for youths. For example, a post on its website approvingly reports that, according to a new study, the substantial IQ decline noted for teen-age marijuana users is caused by “family background factors” (one of the confounding variables cited in the NAS report) rather than by pot. NORML also consistently rejects the notion that legalizing marijuana might increase its use by youths (for one such post click here).
Federal law (Title 21, United States Code, Section 812) places marijuana in Schedule I, reserved for substances that have a “high potential for abuse”, “no currently accepted medical use” and are deemed unsafe to use even under medical supervision. Manufacturing and possessing Schedule I drugs is illegal except when authorized for research purposes. In 1996, when California authorized medical marijuana, it became the first state to ignore the Feds and chart its own course. Other states have since joined in, and at present medical pot is legal in twenty-nine states plus D.C. and the territories (a handful of additional states allow the use of marijuana oil but not THC.)
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According to the NAS, marijuana has some medical use. So why is it stuck in Schedule I? Officially, it’s because there supposedly hasn’t been enough research to demonstrate that pot’s benefits outweigh its risks. Unofficially, we suspect that the Feds fear any endorsement could open the floodgates to diversion and ultimately lead to full legalization.
Are such concerns valid? To be sure, medical marijuana has probably encouraged the timid to partake, for both good reasons and bad. But showing ID, signing forms and forking over a lot of dough for a small dose has little appeal for the recreationally-minded, who can readily source cheap pot (admittedly, of varying quality) on the street. On the other hand, that feared “slippery slope” to full legalization has been partly realized. Recreational pot laws are now on the books in eight states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington – and have passed (but remain Congressionally unauthorized) in the District of Columbia. With capitalists scrambling to get in the mix, competitively-priced, certified “safe” marijuana may soon become as available and affordable as a bottle of beer.
Pot’s freshly scrubbed image has set off worries about an explosion of use, particularly by youths. While marijuana boosters are nonplussed – as we cited earlier, NORML claims that marijuana use by teens has declined – a recent report suggests abundant reason for alarm. “Association of State Recreational Marijuana Laws With Adolescent Marijuana Use” (JAMA Pediatrics, 2017) reports the findings of national surveys administered to high school students between 2010-2015 about their use of marijuana and perceptions of its risk. Researchers discovered that after Washington legalized recreational pot its teens became significantly more likely than peers in other states (whose self-reported use slightly declined) to use pot and downplay its harmfulness. No such differences were reported for youths in Colorado after that state legalized recreational pot. (However, there is evidence that pot use by Colorado teens had already increased, in 2009, when that state enacted highly permissive medical marijuana laws.)
Colorado’s Department of Public Health issues yearly reports about marijuana’s impact on health. While its 2016 version strives to reassure (e.g., marijuana use hasn’t changed since legalization; it’s also used less than alcohol) there are bombshells everywhere (e.g., “one in four adults age 18-25 reported past month marijuana use, and one in eight use daily or near-daily”). Its assessment of marijuana’s health consequences for “adolescents and young adults” seems particularly damning:
The committee reviewed the relationships between adolescent and young adult marijuana use and cognitive abilities, academic performance, mental health and future substance use. Weekly marijuana use by adolescents is associated with impaired learning, memory, math and reading, even 28 days after last use. Weekly use is also associated with failure to graduate from high school. Adolescents and young adults who use marijuana are more likely to experience psychotic symptoms as adults, such as hallucinations, paranoia, delusional beliefs and feeling emotionally unresponsive….
In fact, the report (from a pot-friendly state, no less) contains so much negative stuff that a Mother Jones contributor who admits he enjoys the occasional toke was openly dismayed.
Marijuana legalization is proving problematic for relations between the states and the new Administration. Since 2014 Congressional spending bills have prohibited the Feds from spending money to fight medical marijuana in states where it’s legal (for the 2017 bill click here and scroll to p. 231). Even so, in February Attorney General Jeff Sessions testily announced his firm opposition to pot’s broad use:
…I don’t think America is going to be a better place when more people of all ages and particularly young people start smoking pot. I believe it's an unhealthy practice and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago…States they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.
Sessions’ comments signal a dramatic shift from the permissive tone his agency adopted in 2013, when it announced that it would defer to state recreational use laws based on “assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system.” A detailed policy pronouncement limits Federal enforcers to tasks such as keeping pot away from minors and preventing its distribution to states where marijuana is completely illegal. To back up the A.G., then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer made clear that the President saw “a big difference” between medical marijuana and its recreational use. In Blue California, where smoking pot for fun becomes legal in January 2018, that “difference” has been characterized as a potential “flashpoint” in state-Federal relations. Meanwhile Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who vigorously (and successfully) backed recreational pot, urged the Feds to get over their pique and help the Golden State (no pun intended) “wipe out the black market in pot.”
Police Issues isn’t overly fond of analogies, but here we can’t resist. Americans can thank their ready access to a cornucopia of highly lethal guns, and the inevitable consequences, to the profit-driven firearms industry, a huge cadre of gun enthusiasts, and the efforts of gun-friendly politicians, many of the ideologically “Red” persuasion. For the coming young-stoner culture, and its inevitable consequences, we’ll one day thank the profit-driven marijuana industry, its ever-expanding cadre of tokers, and the efforts of pot-friendly politicians, many of the ideologically “Blue” persuasion.
A distinction? Maybe. A difference? You be the judge.
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UPDATE (4/13/18): Colorado Senator Cory Gardner said that despite a DOJ memo authorizing Federal prosecutors to move against recreational pot at their discretion (see 1/5/18 update), President Trump told him that he will leave it to States to decide whether to legalize marijuana.
UPDATE (1/17/18): “...I did it for the community.” So says the owner of a spanking-new recreational pot shop in Maywood, a low-income L.A. suburb that’s flirted with bankruptcy. Eager to surmount a reputation for corruption, town leaders are enthusiastic that pot’s riches will turn things around.
UPDATE (1/5/18): President Trump renounces an Obama-era rule that kept DEA from enforcing Federal marijuana laws in States where medical pot is legal. But California’s AG vows to keep at it.
UPDATE (9/9/17): As California prepares to roll out legal pot, illicit cultivation of marijuana soars, with supposedly illegal pot farms devastating the landscape and suffusing rural areas with powerful odors. Largely ignored by authorities, growers seem disinclined to legalize, and the assumption that marijuana taxes will enrichen State coffers comes into serious question.
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Sanctuary Cities, Sanctuary States (I) Is the Pot Debate Coming to a Head?
(Merrily) Slippin’ Down the Slope What’s the Guvernator Been Smoking?
SANCTUARY CITIES, SANCTUARY STATES (PART I)
What happens when communities turn their backs on immigration enforcement?
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. By now the term “sanctuary city” has become such a familiar part of the lexicon that defining it might seem superfluous. But for the record let’s recap what it means to the Feds. According to a May 2016 memorandum from the Department of Justice the label applies to jurisdictions that, due to law, regulation or policy, either refuse to accept detainers from ICE or don’t promptly inform ICE of aliens they arrest or intend to release.
Memoranda do not carry the force of law. A 1996 Federal law, 8 USC 1373, stipulates that “a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.” In plain language, neither Hizzoner the Mayor nor any other official can legally order police to keep quiet about the arrest (or simply the whereabouts) of an illegal immigrant.
Of course, that doesn’t require that ICE be tipped off. Yet until recently such notifications were routine. Indeed, many police and sheriff’s departments used to have ICE train and deputize their officers under section 287-g of the Immigration and Nationality Act so they could enforce Federal immigration laws on the street. At one point the number of participating agencies exceeded seventy.
In time, a growing political divide and instances of excessive anti-immigrant zeal (see, for example, the saga of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio) led many communities to abandon the program. In 2016 ICE dropped the street enforcement aspect and now restricts cross-designated officers to making immigration checks only of persons detained for other crimes in local jails. After a recent drive ICE proudly reported that the number of jurisdictions participating in this modified program stands at sixty. However, nearly all are Sheriff’s offices in the South, with a large chunk in Texas.
At present neither Los Angeles, nor New York, Chicago or virtually any other city of size except Las Vegas participates in the 287-g program. In Blue America objections to immigration enforcement run so deep that many communities have taken affirmative steps to frustrate the Feds. Some don’t let ICE officers review jail records to gather information about arrestees (what jurisdictions participating in the 287-g program do with their own cops.) Others don’t inform ICE, or only do so selectively, when national criminal warrants checks reveal that an arrestee was previously deported or has an active criminal or civil warrant for an immigration offense. And many either ignore detainers (written requests that specific, named arrestees be held for up to 48 hours beyond their release time) or fail to provide timely notice about the impending release of persons wanted by ICE.
Why the resistance? Here’s how Montgomery County, Maryland police chief Tom Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, explained it to Congress in 2015:
To do our job we must have the trust and respect of the communities we serve. We fail if the public fears their police and will not come forward when we need them. Whether we seek to stop child predators, drug dealers, rapists or robbers – we need the full cooperation of victims and witness. Cooperation is not forthcoming from persons who see their police as immigration agents. When immigrants come to view their local police and sheriffs with distrust because they fear deportation, it creates conditions that encourage criminals to prey upon victims and witnesses alike.
Although Chief Manger’s agency does not participate in 287-g, it routinely informs ICE of all arrests so that the Feds can, if they wish, follow up. But Chief Manger refuses to accept so-called “civil” detainers, such as those issued when illegal immigrants fail to appear at an ICE hearing, because they are not based on probable cause that a crime was committed. (In contrast, re-entry after formal deportation is a Federal crime, and in Montgomery County such detainers are honored when accompanied by an arrest warrant.) Chief Manger’s position has been adopted as the official policy of his influential group.
Maps compiled by the Center for Immigration Studies and ICE Weekly Declined Detainer Reports (WDDR’s) indicate that most law enforcement agencies outside the South and Northwest ignore civil detainers. Section III of the WDDR’s identifies the agencies by name. (ICE recently pulled WDDR’s from the Internet. The three most recent are archived here, here and here.) For example, during the January 28-February 3 reporting period, Chief Manger’s Montgomery County domain released a person charged with assault because the detainer was only supported by a civil warrant.
According to ICE, many localities impose much stiffer conditions. Baltimore, whose 2015 violence rate was eight times worse than Montgomery County’s, supposedly refuses to honor all detainers (WDDR p. 8). (In defense, its chief insists they comply with “criminal arrest” warrants, however Baltimore might define them.) As crime-ridden metropolitan areas go, Baltimore’s approach is hardly unique:
- Newark (p. 31) and New York City (p. 32) reportedly refuse all detainers
- Boston (p. 25) and Los Angeles County (p. 13) only honor those accompanied by criminal arrest warrants
- Chicago (p. 32) requires either a criminal arrest warrant, identification as a “known gang member,” a felony conviction, or active felony charges
- Philadelphia PD (p. 23) refuses to honor detainers or notify ICE of impending releases unless “the alien has a prior conviction for a first or second degree felony offense involving violence and the detainer is accompanied by a judicial arrest warrant”
- Washington, D.C. (p. 32) requires a “written agreement from ICE reimbursing costs in honoring detainer” and that an immigrant was either released from prison within the past five years or convicted within the past ten years, in both cases of homicide or another “dangerous” or violent crime.
What were the criminal backgrounds of those named in ICE detainers? A hand tally of 206 detainers declined between January 28 and February 3, 2017 reveals that twenty-six of the named immigrants had been convicted of domestic violence. Twenty-three others had convictions for DUI, fourteen for assault, eight for burglary, robbery or arson, seven for a drug offense, six for a sex crime, four for resisting or weapons offenses, and four for forgery or fraud. Dozens more had been charged with but not convicted of crimes, including twenty for assault, seventeen for burglary and robbery, sixteen for sex crimes, eleven for domestic violence, and one each for kidnapping and murder.
ICE can, of course, track down subjects itself. However, serving civil and criminal process in the field carries risks for both officers and immigrants. But why should the Feds even bother? After all, as we reported in “Ideology Trumps Reason,” research demonstrates that, overall, immigrants are substantially more law-abiding than ordinary folks.
But there’s a catch. Unlike ethnicity, immigration status isn’t systematically captured by criminal history repositories. So whether illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than those legally in the U.S. is unknown. (One might think so after reviewing the above list, but these examples may not fairly represent illegal immigrants in general.) Still, the list of troubling anecdotes keeps growing. In December 2016 Denver ignored a detainer and let go a known gang member who had been jailed for multiple offenses, including weapons, auto theft and eluding police. Within two months Ever Valles, 19 was back in jail after he and an associate allegedly committed a brutal robbery-murder. Criminal misconduct by illegal immigrants has even caught the attention of the liberally-inclined New York Times. (For a running compendium in an anti-illegal immigration website click here.)
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There’s another important “if.” As our table in “Ideology Trumps Reason” suggests, legal status aside, the advantage of being foreign-born doesn’t necessarily carry over to subsequent generations. Imprisonment data reveals that third-generation Hispanic males are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic whites. Why is that? Many illegal immigrants are unskilled, poorly educated and reside in poverty-stricken, crime-ridden areas. This might expose their descendants to role models and behaviors that the grandchildren of legal migrants can’t begin to imagine. (For an example see 4/7/18 update, below.)
It’s clear that competing ideologies and selectively interpreted “facts” have complicated the relationship between police and the Feds. During his career as an ATF agent your blogger worked closely with local police and detectives, and he suspects that most ICE officers and street cops still get along. Even so, policies have consequences. While it seems petty and self-defeating to kick out law-abiding, hard-working persons, refusing to honor detainers can obviously imperil the law-abiding.
On the other hand, concerns that police involvement in immigration matters can erode trust with the Hispanic community are not easily dismissed. A somewhat dated study provides ammunition for both sides of the debate. In 2008 Prince William County, Maryland mandated that police “investigate the citizenship or immigration status of all persons who are arrested for a violation of a state law or county ordinance.” Two years later university scholars and the Police Executive Research Forum produced a detailed report assessing the policy’s effects. As one might expect, illegal immigration decreased. So did aggravated assault, hit-and-run accidents and some forms of public disorder. However, “a palpable chill” fell over relations between Hispanics and police. Fortunately, in time the wound mostly healed, and within two years goodwill was largely (but not completely) restored.
So was the policy a good idea? Here is what the study’s authors think: “Despite our mixed findings, the current version of the policy, which mandates immigration checks only for arrestees, appears to be a reasonable way of targeting illegal immigrants who commit criminal violations. There is fairly broad agreement on this as a goal for law enforcement.”
Whatever the “facts,” both sides remain dug in. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, whose agency typically refuses to honor detainers, concedes that illegal immigrants who have been convicted of violent felonies should be deported once they’ve done their time. But he’s in favor of granting illegal immigrants driver licenses and insists that helping ICE deport them “is not out job, nor will I make it our job.” Angrily rejecting such views, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that DOJ will withhold “Byrne” grants unless jurisdictions “comply with federal law, allow federal immigration access to detention facilities, and provide 48 hours notice before they release an illegal alien wanted by federal authorities.”
Take that, L.A., New York, Chicago...
Well, that’s enough for now. In Part II we’ll discuss the possible consequences of the Federal-state split in marijuana enforcement. And as always, stay tuned!
UPDATE (4/13/18): New York City public defenders object that ICE arrests their clients when they appear in court on local charges, which discourages them and witnesses from showing up. ICE argues that 2014 city laws that generally prohibit jails from complying with detainers has forced agents to make more hazardous arrests in the community.
UPDATE (4/12/18): Ruling on a lawsuit filed by Los Angeles, a U.S. District judge ruled that Federal law enforcement grants cannot be conditioned on whether police assist in immigration enforcement.
UPDATE (4/7/18): In San Francisco Federal authorities aided by local police arrested ten members of a Hispanic gang for running a criminal drug sales enterprise in which they shot and killed seven rival gangsters. All were reportedly born in the U.S. but have roots in Los Angeles and Latin America.
UPDATE (4/7/18): In a move that parallels deployments under presidents Obama and G.W. Bush, up to 4,000 National Guard members will be sent to support DHS efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border. So far Guard units in Arizona, Texas and Nevada are expected to participate.
UPDATE (3/27/18): Orange County, Calif. “revolted” against state law that restricts police from cooperating with ICE (see 9/5/17) by making inmate release dates public and placing them online.
UPDATE (3/18/18): Turning away challenges from the state’s major cities, a Federal appeals court upheld Texas state law that requires honoring ICE detainers and allows police to ask about immigration status of those whom they lawfully stop.
UPDATE (3/7/18): DOJ filed a Federal lawsuit that would nullify new California laws which prohibit businesses from voluntarily helping ICE, forbid jails from alerting ICE about impending releases, and require that the State inspect and approve immigration detention centers.
UPDATE (2/2/18): The “Crime and Justice Research Alliance,” a new joint venture of ASC & ACJS, publishes a monthly newsletter. Its January 2018 edition features an “Expert Q & A” with a proponent of sanctuary cities who disparages critics for, among other things, focusing on “high profile and isolated incidents of violent crime committed by deportable noncitizens.”
UPDATE (1/18/18): Upping the “sanctuary State” ante, California’s Attorney General threatened to prosecute businesses for violating a recently enacted State law that bars them from voluntarily sharing employee records with ICE (Government Code, sec. 7285.2).
UPDATE (11/26/17): Georgia takes immigration enforcement seriously. State law lets local police inquire into immigration status, and many illegal immigrants get caught when driving without a license. Atlanta jails participate in the 287-g program and check immigration status of arrestees. ICE agents actively seek out illegal immigrants with serious criminal records, arresting them at home and at work.
UPDATE (9/5/17): California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 54, “The California Values Act,” which forbids law enforcement agencies from cooperating with ICE unless illegal immigrants have been convicted of a violent or serious felony or are the subject of a Federal felony warrant. It enlarges upon the 2013 “Trust Act,” which forbid holding illegal immigrants not convicted of a “serious” or “violent” felony past their release date.
UPDATE (8/26/17): In July 2017 a Federal judge found ex-Sheriff Arpaio guilty of contempt for ignoring orders to keep deputies from racially profiling Hispanics. Arpaio faced up to six months in jail. That is, until August 25, when he was pardoned by President Trump.
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IS CRIME UP OR DOWN? WELL, IT DEPENDS…
It depends on where one sits, when we compare, and on who counts
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. While browsing The Crime Report’s February 15 newsletter, its Top Story, “New Crime Stats Run Counter to Trump's Dystopian View,” caught our attention. So we clicked on it. As promised, or perhaps over-promised, the brief, two-paragraph account pointed to falling crime rates in San Diego, Rocky Mount, N.C., Lowell, Mass. and Battle Creek, Michigan as proof positive that it’s not crime but President Trump’s evident obsession with it that’s really out of control.
The Crime Report is not alone. Reassuring comments about crime pervade the media. San Diego police chief Shelley Zimmerman boasted to the local paper that the city’s near five-percent drop in violent crime during 2015-2016 (actually, 4.5 percent) “isn’t just a statistic or a random number” but “represents real people.” Her boss, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, bragged that “our city is safe because of the incredible partnerships forged between our community and our San Diego Police Department.” Natch, there’s always a fly in the ointment. Later on the article mentioned that yes, some forms of violence did increase, with twelve more homicides, six more rapes and nine more robberies in 2016 (each victim was presumably a “real” person as well.) Here’s the data from the SFPD website:
San Diego’s decline in violence was driven by a 7.7 percent reduction in the number of aggravated assault reports – 278 fewer, to be exact. Without that, there would have been little to crow about. (We’ll have more to say about counting issues later.)
So is crime up or down? Just below the “Dystopian” piece a “READ NEXT” prompt directs readers to “More Big-City Murders: A Blip or an Ominous Trend?”. Although this brief article concedes that murder is going up in some places, it prominently features the reassuring comment of noted criminologist Alfred Blumstein, that “the national homicide rate is way below what it was in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.” That view is reinforced with a link to “Another Fact-Check of Crime Rates Find Trump is Wrong”, a summary of a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article that soft-pedals recent jumps in Chicago and elsewhere with graphs that display a multi-decade national downtrend in violent crime.
So far so good. But the same page in The Crime Report also featured a link to “Chicago Police Boss: ‘Enough is Enough’ After 3 Kids Killed,” a heart-rending piece that recapped a Chicago Tribune account about the shooting deaths of three Chicago children in four days. Indeed, even the most “liberal” media outlets are conceding that violent crime seems to be creeping up: “Though mostly far below their record levels in the 1980s and 1990s, homicides have jumped dramatically in some U.S. cities over the last two years, breaking from America’s decades-long decline in violent crime….” (Los Angeles Times, 1/4/17). While that story focuses on the usual suspects – Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, etc. – it eventually allows that things aren’t perfect even at home: “Homicides also rose in Los Angeles in 2016, but by a much smaller amount: 5%. The city is still far less deadly than it was even a decade ago.”
Fast-forward six weeks. Here’s a sidebar from the February 19 Los Angeles Times website, just as it appeared at 4:38 pm:
Here’s the following day’s lead story:
No “yes, but’s” there. After taking in the disturbing events of these successive and, believe it or not, randomly plucked days, would Times readers be more likely to agree that President Trump is “dystopian” or that the honorable Dr. Blumstein is a bit “Pollyannaish”?
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Police report four categories of violent crime to the FBI: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. These comprise the “violent crime index,” or number of offenses per 100,000 population. Below are graphs depicting two trends since 1980, one for violent crime, and the other for its murder and non-negligent manslaughter component. Each was built using the FBI’s online tools (click here and here).
Both trends follow essentially the same pattern. If the data is correct, and excepting an uptick in the late 80’s and early 90’s that is often attributed to the crack cocaine epidemic, all forms of violence have been dropping since at least the eighties (1985 is often used as a start date since that’s as far back as the FBI reports crime trends for cities and counties).
If that’s as far back as we go – and most media accounts venture no earlier – the “Great Crime Drop” seems very real. But here’s the trend line going back to 1960:
At present, the U.S. murder rate is comparable to the sixties, while violent crime is substantially higher. Really, when compared with other supposedly modern societies, America’s always been in dire straits. England and Wales (joint pop. about 58.2 million) had a combined 695 homicides during the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Their murder rate, 1.2, is less than one-quarter the 2015 U.S. rate (15,696 murders and non-negligent manslaughters, pop. 321,418,820, rate 4.9.) Meanwhile, neighborly Canada had 604 homicides country-wide in 2015, yielding a murder rate of 1.7. America’s ten most murderous cities in 2016 had murder rates ranging from Atlanta’s merely deplorable 23.9 to St. Louis’ jaw-dropping 59.3. As for sheer number of killings, England and Wales and Canada are easily outpaced by the City of Chicago alone, which closed out 2016 with a record 762 murders.
Let’s recap. Current violence rates seem a lot better when compared against 1980 than against 1960. Clearly, when is crucial. Where one sits is also important (and we don’t just mean which country.) A measly twenty miles separate the Los Angeles-area communities of Westwood (pop. 51,485, one murder in 2015) and Florence (pop. 49,001, 18 murders in 2015). Where would you rather live?
Who counts is also crucial. Prior posts - “Cooking the Books”, “The Numbers Game,” “Liars Figure” and “Is the UCR Being Mugged?” - described alleged schemes by police in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Dallas, Miami, Baltimore, Nashville, New Orleans, St. Louis and elsewhere to exaggerate their effectiveness against crime by discouraging victims from filing reports and by furtively downgrading what went on the books. Aggravated assault, normally the most substantial contributor to the violent crime index, was a principal target, but not even homicides were spared. Suffice it to say that in these halcyon days of Compstat, there has indeed been “a whole lot of cheatin’ going on.” So when San Diego reports that aggravated assaults are down while other forms of violence, including murder, are up, we say...“really?”.
And when asked whether crime is up or down all we dare say is “well, it depends...”
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Why the Drop?