Lead, Crime, and New York City – Mother Jones

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A whole bunch of people have emailed to ask what I think of Adam Gopnik’s latest piece in the New Yorker, “The Great Crime Decline.” It’s a review of Patrick Sharkey’s new book, “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.” Sharkey’s basic point is that crime is bad, a view that I hardly need to be convinced of, but he seems to have an unfortunately conventional view of why it declined so much in the 90s and aughts:

What made the crime wave happen and what made it halt?…[Sharkey] is an enthusiast of the hypothesis that local community organizing was a key factor in the crime drop….He also finds that incarceration accounted for some of the crime decline, and so did more aggressive policing.

….Sharkey, as good as he is at explaining what happened—whom it helped, what it permitted—isn’t as good at explaining why it happened. The curious truth is that the decline in crime happened across the entire Western world, in East London just as it did in the South Bronx. At the same time, the relative decline in New York was significantly bigger than elsewhere. Sharkey’s guess that the crime decline can be attributed to the uncomfortable but potent intersection of community action and coercive policing seems about as good as any….With the crime wave, it would seem, small measures that pushed the numbers down by some noticeable amount engendered a virtuous circle that brought the numbers further and further down.

….We cured the crime wave without fixing “the broken black family,” that neocon bugaboo. For that matter, we cured it without greater income equality or even remotely solving the gun problem. The story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities.

In some sense I don’t blame Gopnik for this. He’s primarily an essayist and critic, not a social scientist or a reporter who specializes in urban policing. At the same time, reviewing a book in an unfamiliar field and then shrugging his shoulders and saying the book’s guess about crime “seems about as good as any”—well, even an essayist might think about spending an hour or two googling to get up to speed on alternate theories.

Sharkey, of course, is a different matter. For some reason he doesn’t explain, he dismisses the effect of lead as “vastly overstated” and says he finds it “difficult to believe” that the crime decline was caused by either lead or any other exogenous shock. Ten years ago that would have been fine. Today it’s journalistic malpractice. And the weird thing is that if Sharkey had spent any time with the lead-crime hypothesis, he would have found that it was practically made to order for him. Check this out:

A real problem, going forward, is the one identified by Black Lives Matter and associated groups: police violence. As the social cost of stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration has become, rightly, intolerable, we ask if the crime decline, with its unprecedented benefits for the marginalized populations, can survive. Sharkey emphatically thinks it can, and so far there’s no evidence to counter his view.

….Effects that we don’t normally track are surely related to the crime decline, not least the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement itself. Without a general understanding that crime was no longer the real problem but that the response to crime might be, the movement could not have caught a surprisingly large, sympathetic audience….Ironically, though the urban crime wave is over, it still persists as a kind of zombified general terror, particularly in places where it was never particularly acute.

Sharkey very much wants to persuade us that the crime decline is permanent, and that we should change our policing and incarceration strategies to recognize this. He’s absolutely right, but the best evidence for this is the lead-crime connection. It was lead that poisoned young brains and produced a generation of criminals. With the lead mostly gone, young people today are back to normal. They just aren’t as dangerous as they used to be, and that change is permanent. It’s really peculiar that Sharkey dismisses this, given how strongly it reinforces his point. It’s also peculiar since it explains otherwise mysterious things like the fact that crime declined throughout the world, not just in the United States.

But in another way, this isn’t surprising. I don’t understand why this is so, but for some reason New Yorkers seem to be especially resistant to recognizing lead as a prime cause of crime. Part of this, I suppose, is that New York was ground zero of the great crime wave and New Yorkers have been bombarded with theories about crime for decades now: Bill Bratton, CompStat, Rudy Giuliani, broken windows, community policing, stop-and-frisk, the breakdown of the black family, etc. etc. More than any other city, they’ve been told over and over and over that the great crime decline is due to various interventions by the great and good. But the truth is that although New York’s crime rate fell faster than the national average, it didn’t fall any faster than it did in other big cities, all of which have seen violent crime rates drop by 70-80 percent since 1991:

I don’t know why Sharkey so casually dismisses the effect of lead, since it explains so much: the overall decline in crime; the decline in different cities with different policing strategies; the international decline in crime; the fact that crime rose and fell more in big cities than in rural areas; and the fact that crime rose and fell more among blacks. No other theory comes close to explaining all this, or to explaining why crime rose in the first place. In the end, it’s hard not to conclude that Sharkey, like so many people, simply doesn’t want to believe in an exogenous explanation. He wants the answer to reside in the actions of human beings, and so that’s the explanation he chooses even though it doesn’t even come close to fitting the available evidence.

POSTSCRIPT: I do want to add a caveat to this. The lead era ended around 2010. By that time, every age cohort from 0-30 had been born in a low-lead environment, and further lead reductions had little role to play in crime rates. What that means is that for the past decade or so, human interventions really have been key to whatever declines or increases we see. Ironically, when the great crime wave was at its peak, we paid a ton of attention to the sociological determinants of crime even though it turns out they didn’t matter much. Now that it’s over, though, they do matter. All the stuff Sharkey talks about probably had little to do with the great crime decline, but they have plenty to do with the rate of crime going forward.

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