Property crimes in U.S. have fallen sharply since 1980 Burglary rate cut in half

violent offenses still high

New York outdoes London


SAN DIEGO -- With little public notice, property crime in the United States has fallen sharply since 1980, data from the FBI show, with burglary rates down by almost half. That gives New York a lower burglary rate than London, and Los Angeles fewer burglaries than Sydney, Australia.

The drop in property crime -- burglary, larceny and auto thefts -- has been obscured by the high level of violent crimes such as murder and robbery, which spurred demands for tougher sentencing laws.

The drop in property crime -- which outnumbers violent crime 7-to-1 -- has been so large that the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada now have overall crime rates as high as that in the United States, and as many criminals per capita, said Franklin Zimring, the director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.

In Baltimore, property crime has been dropping since last year.

City police reported an 11.5 percent decline in property crime for the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 1996 -- a year when authorities noted an overall decrease of about 5.4 percent.

Some reasons for decline

Some explanations for the fall in property crime are similar to those given by law-enforcement officials and criminologists for the drop in violent crime in the past several years -- improved police tactics, a decline in the teen-age population, greater community involvement and longer prison sentences.

A number of experts also cite the greater use of alarm systems and what many see as a crucial element, the switch from heroin to crack cocaine among street criminals. Crack, unlike heroin, produces a brief, intense high, creating an incessant need for cash, but burglary is time-consuming because stolen goods must be sold to get money.

"One of the most remarkable things about the decline in burglary is that it is so substantial that it is unprecedented in magnitude compared to any other fluctuation in crime rates over the last century," said Scott Decker, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and co-author of "Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture," to be published later this month by Northeastern University Press.

Problem of violence

Zimring said he thought the drop in property crime underscored a fundamental point about the crime problem in the United States that is widely misunderstood. "What we have is not a crime problem, but a problem of lethal violence, which is a special issue, utterly distinct from the processes that determine how much car theft or burglary we have," he said.

London and New York have nearly the same population, he said, but London has 66 percent more thefts and 57 percent more burglaries than New York. Yet London has a robbery rate only one-fifth that of New York and a murder rate only one-tenth of New York's.

"Many nations have high levels of crime without high homicide rates," Zimring wrote in a new book, "Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America."

Virtually all the industrial democracies besides the United States have had huge increases in property crime from 1960 to 1990, ranging from 177 percent in Germany to 600 percent in Italy, but in several countries the homicide rate fell during those three decades.

Among the reasons for the widespread upturn in property crime in those countries, Zimring said, are rising affluence, which has created more property to steal; better police reporting, and a larger number of women working, leaving fewer people at home to deter burglars.

U.S. still more violent

The United States still has four to 18 times more murders than any other industrial democracy, he found. The problem is not that the United States has more criminals, Zimring said. The problem is a combination of a highly violent illegal drug trade, large numbers of handguns and a tradition of male honor that "includes a willingness to use extreme violence."

Decker said he was skeptical of the explanations that the decline in burglary was attributable to improved police work or better home alarms.

In interviews with street criminals, Decker said, he noticed that crack addicts had given up on burglary because it required too much planning and involved the uncertainty of whether a resident might be home, perhaps with a gun. Robbery is faster, safer and more likely to produce immediate cash needed to buy crack, he said.

Frank Canson, a San Diego detective, offered an alternative explanation for the decline in property crime. "We don't see many professional burglars anymore," Canson said. "Now they seem to prefer to sell drugs where they can make $20,000 or $30,000." Most burglars, like pickpockets, seem to have lost their skills, he suggested.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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