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The good news is that major crime is down in Philadelphia.  Though the decline varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, there has been a nine percent drop overall in serious crimes in the past five years, as Casey Thomas and Isaiah Thompson have reported for AxisPhilly.

The even better news is that there has been a significant drop in crime in most big cities since the mid-1990s. In Philadelphia, we’ve seen a double-digit decrease. In 1995, for instance, Philadelphia police reported 108,000 Part One crimes (homicide, rape, serious assaults, robbery, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft.) In 2012, the number was down to 74,500.  This is a drop of 31 percent.

We know a lot about the “what” of crime — gradual, but persistent decreases here and in other big cities in the United States. We know less about the “why.”

Criminologists have been puzzling over the why, and have produced a mountain of studies, monographs and books on the topic.  It is not an idle question: if we can discover the reasons — what works, what doesn’t, what is really happening out there — perhaps we can push the numbers down even more.

I can boil down those thousands of words to just a few.  Why is crime declining? The experts aren’t sure.

They do know more than they did before.  For instance, it was once believed that crime was closely tied to the state of the economy.  It was supposed to go up when the economy worsened.  The theory makes sense, but it’s not true.  Crime has continued on the downward slope despite two economic downturns in the past 10 years.

They also know that the threat of long prison sentences doesn’t make a big difference.  It’s a political favorite — to pass mandatory sentence and three-strikes-you-are-out laws. It sounds good, but it isn’t much of a deterrent.  Criminals don’t worry about the length of a sentence.  They worry about the likelihood of getting caught. The truth is the odds are in their favor.  The average arrest rate in Philadelphia for all Part One crimes is about 24 percent.  For murder, it is much higher — 75 percent.

In short, it is hard to get away with murder.  But, if you are a perpetrator of other serious crimes the odds are against you getting arrested.

Has more and better policing resulted in less crime?  There is some evidence — in Philadelphia and elsewhere — that data-driven policing and putting more cops in high-crime zones does have an effect.  Obviously, having a cop on every corner increases the odds a perpetrator will be caught.  New York City has been successful in its strategy of “flooding the zone” with police. But, most cash-strapped cities find it hard to pay for mega-police forces.

Does “stop and frisk” work? The jury is still out on that controversial program, which is used here and in other cities.

My analysis of the numbers tell me that there are demographic forces at work in Philadelphia that also have contributed to a decline in crime.  Best to talk about it in the context of murder — because those are the most solid numbers we have.

The sad fact is that one group dominates homicide: African American males.

During the first decade of the new century, 76 percent of all homicide victims in the city were black males, as were 83 percent of those arrested for murder.

The problem is especially acute among young black men, those in the 15- to 29 year old age group. In the 1980s, they constituted about 30 percent of all homicide victims. Today, they constitute 40 percent of the victims.

If that one group constitutes such a large share of murder victims, why have the number of homicides gone down from an average of 400 a year in the 1990s to something closer to 300-320 a year now?

The answer lies partly in the size of the pool of young men.  The number of black 15-to-29 year old males has gone down 17 percent since the 1990s.  There were 89,000 in that age group in 1990; there were 74,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. There was also a slight decline in the homicide rate among these young men during the same period.

My research tells me that these two factors have combined to produce the downward drift in homicides. Criminologists, who tend to focus on national numbers, have not taken note of this local demographic trend.

Despite the decline, the casualty numbers for young black men who are victims of violent crimes are staggering.

The group of 15-29 year old black males constitutes just a sliver of the city’s population — about 5 percent.

Since 2000, about 1,200 young black men in their teens and 20s have been killed in Philadelphia, most of them by guns. During the same period, an estimated 11,000 have been shot and wounded.

These are the kind of casualty rates we usually see only in wars. In a way, there is a war going on the streets of Philadelphia — an internecine one waged by young men in this age group. It is a war without goals or purpose, an insidious form of self-destruction.

So let’s cheer the good news about declining crime, but we also have to be mindful of the continuing, unfolding tragedy involving another generation of young black men.


Tom Ferrick has joined AxisPhilly as a columnist.  Tom is an award-wining journalist with decades of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist, mostly at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is a Philadelphia native and most recently operated the news site Metropolis, which he recently shuttered.