One of the biggest stories of the year was not only not reported. It was misreported. Following the headlines, you would get the impression of rising terrorism in the US, police brutality and shootings, hate crimes on the rise and so on. But the big-picture data do not show this. Just the reverse. Large cities in the US today are recording the lowest-crime rates on record.
New York City is paradigmatic. In a news item that received few shares, because no one apparently cares about good news, the Times reports on a remarkable plunge in crime in the city. Killings in the city this year have fallen 86% from the number of killings in the city 25 years ago. In 1990, 2,245 people were killed; this year, it’s 286. Overall crimes in each felony category are at a historic low.
This is a serious and notable trend.
Crime has declined in the city steadily for 27 years and the trend is accelerating. The city as a whole is feeling safe, as safe as the 1950s. As someone who visits sporadically, I too sense this. I spent a week in the city last month and never once felt a sense of threat or fear. Nor did I observe a large police presence.
True, the traffic is unbearable, the streets are loud and confusing, prices for everything are too high, and I can never find my way around. But at least I never once worried about being assaulted, stolen from, harassed, or otherwise threatened. The city felt safe.
And it’s not just New York. The Brennan Center of New York University reports that “The overall crime rate in the 30 largest cities in 2017 is estimated to decline slightly from the previous year, falling by 2.7 percent. If this trend holds, crime rates will remain near historic lows.” And it’s not just in the US either: in most developed countries, crime has fallen by half in the last 20 years. Car theft, in particular, will soon be a thing of the past.
Why the Decline
It’s impossible to report on crime without asking the question why. And this invariably turns to questions of public policy and policing. It’s the natural association. The job of the police is to control crime. If crime falls, it surely has something to do with policing. Perhaps the police are just more vigilant and this is deterring crime?
In the case of New York, it has nothing to do with some Trump-like crackdown on bad guys that he called for in the campaign, complete with stop-and-frisk policies. Mayor Bill de Blasio has imposed a policy of less deadly force by police, making fewer arrests, and ending stop and frisk. There is just no evidence that the falling crime rate has anything to do with intensified policing; indeed, because of the many scandals over police brutality in recent years, police departments are more cautious than before, knowing that everything an officer does can be caught on camera and reviewed by public opinion later.
In all the stories on this topic, I’ve yet to see anyone raise what strikes me as the most obvious answer here. Technology has made us safer in every aspect of our lives. It’s made our homes safer, our property more secure, and made it much more difficult for bad guys to go about their business and sneak away.
In New York, for example, nearly every resident carries a walking movie camera in his or her pocket that can instantly reach the world with a video of what is going on in the immediate vicinity. This not only protects the individual. It means that everyone else has the incentive to keep a watch on events around us (who doesn’t want a viral video?). It takes only one second to turn on a video to record anything that happens, massively increasing the chance of discovery.
This, more than the penal system and aggressive policing, has surely made a gigantic difference.
And think of our homes today. We’ve never been safer indoors. Every apartment unit has highly controlled access with keypads, fobs, gates, and several layers of locked access. It’s true for businesses in large cities too. You are watched and access is permission only. Sneaking around with anonymity is ever harder. This can be inconvenient for people but the pay off for safety and security is high.
You Will Be Caught
So much technological development these days is about increasing security. You can cheaply get a seeing-eye speaker for the front door of your home that allows you to talk to anyone on the front porch, even if you happen to be away on vacation in some far-flung area. You can later watch a video of the Amazon delivery person or the UPS truck dropping off something. Our property too is protected with small tracers that make theft increasingly difficult.
I think, for example, of my new iPhone X with its facial recognition software. Maybe there is some high-level way around it, but I don’t see how. Only my face can unlock the phone, and, barring some Mission-Impossible-style rubber mask, I don’t see how it could be hacked. If I leave my phone somewhere, I can rest securely in the knowledge that my data can’t be accessed. I can even remotely delete the entire contents of the phone with a click or two.
A few weeks ago, I boarded a plane without my laptop. I had left it sitting at the gate. In the middle of the air on the flight, I had the sudden realization. When I landed, I immediately instructed the entire machine to self destruct as soon as it got online, thereby protecting everything. As it turns out, the laptop was picked up by a nice man from Iowa, who sent it back to me. I decided to try the technology. As soon as I opened the lid, the entire contents of the machine were deleted.
With Electronic Tracking Devices, highly affordable, you can secure all your property. They can go on laptops, passports, wallets, and purses, and constantly broadcast whereabouts. Nothing is perfect but these devices go a very long way to confounding criminal elements. As for cars, any model made in the last few years has become basically impossible to steal. Gone are the days of hard-wiring cars and taking off into the night.
As for personal protection, mace and tasers are widely carried and available everywhere, for the price of a fast-food meal. What matters is not that everyone carry one but rather the uncertainty that anyone might be carrying one. Despite all the attempts to control gun access, technology has made it possible for everyone to carry devices to subvert robberies. This is a gigantic change. And once perpetrators are caught – which is far easier today with communication technology – they face massive public exposure and pay a heavy price even without the justice system being involved.
Free Enterprise to the Rescue
Put it all together and these technologies have done more to deter and thereby reduce crime than all the police crackdowns you can imagine. They have made the world more peaceful and life more secure.
It’s true that people don’t often even consider the role of technology in crime reduction. One of the few criminologists who see this is Tom Gash, who writes at Wired:
“For decades, politicians have been perpetuating two big myths about crime. Those on the right have argued that only ever-tougher prison terms will deter would-be wrong-doers. Those on the left have argued that crime will only fall when we reform society and reduce poverty and inequality. In fact, crime has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, not due to reforms traditionally advocated by politicians, but due to the technological change which has made it harder to commit crime.”
Contemplate the implications. For centuries, for millennia, we’ve relied on government to stop invasions of person and property. We live more safely than ever before, thanks to market-based technological improvements, not reliance on government. It was once believed that only government could provide security; this debate dates back centuries. Now we learn otherwise. We get security from the same source that provides us food, clothing, and shelter: the matrix of voluntary exchange and free exercise of human creativity.