Combine that with the seemingly tectonic shifts in social mores and public morals that came out of the sixties, the trauma of being a nation bitterly divided over war, challenges to the United States role and place in the world, poverty, race relations, the normalization of civil disobedience and protests opposing the old order, and the excesses of the counterculture (sharply increased drug use, sexual promiscuity, and, among some, militant reaction to standing authority). Since then we’ve only pulled farther away from the stability and safety of the idealized fifties, through decades marked by their own excess and challenges, to the headlines of today.
Obviously, crime has surely skyrocketed as more and more people are living practically on top of each other, right? According to the apparently fatalistic perspective of many in law enforcement – the men and women who protect, serve, and stand the wall between law and disorder – our society is well on its way to hell in a hand basket! At least if some of their comments to news stories, blogs, social media postings, etc are any indication. This is also reflected in conversations we sometime have with those who are sure crime and depravity have never been worse, the current generation more hopeless than any before, the social fabric is tattered past mending, etc, etc… This type of fatalism has consequences for those who subscribe to it, so shouldn’t we actually be sure it’s warranted in the first place?
Well, the answer, as they say, is “complicated.”
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If we look at UCR Crime Statistics from 1960 compared to the most recent reporting year (2011) we see that today’s stats are clearly much higher. The overall crime rate per 100,000 persons in 1960 was 1,887.2, and the violent crime rate was 160.9. In 2011, the rates were 3295.0 and 386.3 respectively. That is a huge jump, for sure. But something else jumps out that in contrast to the idea that 1960 was a more orderly and law abiding society than today’s. The murder rate in 1960 was 5.1/100K; In 2011 it was only 4.7. So, while the 1960 violent crime rate was less than half what it is today, the incidence of citizens killing one another was slightly higher. How could this be?
While this is only a hypothesis, I believe it is sound and reflects changes in policing derived, at least in part, from the social changes of the sixties: The crime rates of 1960 were not really so different from today but the way they were handled and reported to the FBI were. You can’t really not report a murder if you are a serious police department, whether in New York City or North Podunk, Nebraska. They tend to stick out. Property crimes, assaults - even rapes and robberies - may not have been reported as diligently, especially in an era when very different attitudes and beliefs might mean the complaints of women, minorities and the poor were viewed or investigated less seriously, or that certain victims were less likely to come forward, than today.
Interestingly, just a few years into the turbulent sixties, we see dramatic changes in crime reporting: Crime rates across the board begin to gradually tick upward until, by 1970, they rival or even exceed – and in some categories, very much exceed – those of 2011. In some ways Don McLean was right; the innocence of his youth was gone. But was it because America had really lost its innocence somewhere along the way, or because previously hidden truths were being revealed? Had the discord of the sixties opened cracks in the social fabric, or did the changes it drove expose them? It was probably a little of both.
Crime rates continued rising for roughly the next twenty years, with historic highs reached (for both violent and property crimes) in 1990 and 1991. Murder rates had been high since the early seventies, peaking at 10.2/100K in 1980, and remained consistent through 1991. And then the tide turned.
Since 1991 crimes rates have actually dropped to levels comparable to those of the late sixties, and with a murder rate lower than only those of 1962 and 1963. Even assaults on police officers and homicidal line of duty deaths, despite sharp increases in 2010 and 2011, have remained largely consistent over the years by most reports, and now appear to be declining.
Crime rates are empirical, even if the impetus behind how and why they change may be less so, and give a picture of the clear contrast between what we tend to believe or want to believe (crime is out-of-control, morals and values are crumbling, our society is in decline, etc) with reality (crime rates are dropping, we are safer as a whole than at any time in the past forty years, your efforts really are paying off, etc).