Interactive graphic by Lisa Waananen and Sarah Butrymowicz
Ask Ruben Lopez about his neighborhood’s crime rate in recent years and he answers with confidence. “It went down,” he says, standing behind the counter of his hardware store on Broadway, marking a lock with a piece of masking tape. He explains with assurance that crime is falling across the board, from robberies to drug deals. And what makes him so sure? “I see it,” he says simply, gesturing out the window.
Lopez is right, but the average American seems to have a hard time figuring it out. While others might rely on the news or stories about what happened to a friend of a friend, Lopez and other uptowners gauge crime by what they see on the street every day, leading them to much more realistic perceptions of its prevalence.
Crime in Harlem, and all of uptown, has been declining for years. Murders, rapes, burglaries, felonious assaults, robberies, grand larcenies and auto thefts are all on track to be lower in 2009 than in 2008, according to year-to-date statistics from uptown precincts.
In the 30th Precinct, in Central Harlem, robberies and grand larcenies have both dropped by over 27 percent from 2008 to 209. And in East Harlem’s 23rd Precinct, auto thefts have dropped by nearly half.
Across the country, too, crime is dropping – and has been since the early 90s – according to both official statistics and reported victimization rates, said David Green, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. And while nationwide crime statistics for 2009 can’t be compiled yet, indications point to a stable crime rate, if not to further decreases.
Yet Gallup’s annual crime poll showed that 74 percent of Americans believe there’s more crime in the country than this time a year ago and 51 percent say crime has risen in their area. Last year, though crime dropped, 67 percent still thought crime had worsened since the previous year.
Perhaps that’s because most individuals take their cues about crime rates from media reports and politicians. “It’s not newsworthy to talk about nothing happened,” Green said, noting that media often focus on the most negative aspects of crime rates and have a tendency to refer to a “worsening problem” even when one doesn’t exist.
“How can we blame people for not knowing crime is falling?” he said. “People don’t really have a baseline to work with.”
But uptowners don’t necessarily turn to the news first. They seem to have a different baseline for assessments of crime rates: their own observations and experiences.
Felipe Xochimitl, who lives in Harlem and works at a deli in Washington Heights, says crime is much lower than it was four years ago. “It’s good. It’s safe,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong on the trains, the roads.”
For Lidia Aybar, evidence of declining crime comes from what happens every day inside the El Mundo department store she manages at 158th and Broadway. Her place used to get robbed often. A couple of men stole merchandise in September, but it’s been quiet since then and overall, robberies in the neighborhood have been less frequent this year, she said.
Anthony Meloni, director of the New York City Anti-Crime Agency, thinks that such perceptiveness occurs less often elsewhere in the city. For instance, those who attend a women’s crime prevention class his agency teaches consistently cite a rising crime rate as their reason for enrolling. “That happens a lot,” he said. “People are not crime experts.”
Part of the national perception of increasing crime may come from speculation that a poor economy leads to more law breaking – an idea that has sparked considerable debate among criminologists, Green said. Although some experts think the two are unrelated (crime fell during the Great Depression), others are bracing for an increase.
“We don’t really know what’s going on and why crime has declined so much,” Green said. “We don’t know why crime isn’t rising.”