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Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Criminality In The Twentieth Century

police crime nineteenth decline

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, criminality in Western societies, particularly property crime, fluctuated in response to changing economic conditions. Although wars had an impact on crime rates, reducing them during hostilities and raising them afterward, their effects were not long-lasting in America. Periods of economic distress usually resulted in higher levels of property crime, especially burglaries, whereas prosperity typically produced lower levels. Oddly enough, juvenile delinquency rates followed a very different path during the 1930s and 1940s (Glaser and Rice). They rose during prosperity and fell during depression. Throughout this period juveniles consisted of a small but growing part of the crime problem with the spreading influence of peer groups and youth culture. Overall, the trend in property crime was downward, at least through World War II.

The Western decline in criminality during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has triggered a controversy among historians and criminologists. Some believe that the decline represents a gradual adaptation of nineteenth-century immigrants to urban living (Lane, 1997, p. 186). Others argue that the decline reflects a growing effectiveness of urban police departments (Gatrell). On the whole, however, there are glaring difficulties with the thesis that declining urban crime rates between 1830 and 1950 resulted primarily from growing police efficiency. The earliest police departments were organized during the first half of the nineteenth century. The first was the London Metropolitan Police, in 1829, followed in the United States by police departments in Philadelphia (1833), Boston (1838), New York (1844), and Baltimore (1857). Their primary responsibility was to contain the civil disturbances that swept English and American cities during the early decades of the nineteenth century. During this period the middle class was growing rapidly, and they feared the mobs that gathered in cities during the summer months. Constables had checked crime in American cities during the early nineteenth century, but they were unable to cope with the riots that broke out with increasing frequency. Political support for an effective, centralized police force grew in these cities during the antebellum period.

If the decline in criminality after 1830 was an outgrowth of growing police effectiveness, why was the sharpest drop in violent personal crime and not in property crime? To be sure, property crimes are difficult to police because witnesses are rare, but why would the police concentrate mainly on violent crime? Moreover, why did violent crime continue to fall long after the appearance of well-organized police departments in the cities? In Boston, as reported, violent crime declined from 1824 (long before a modern police force was even proposed) to a level in 1928–1930 just 28 percent of that prevailing a century earlier. Those who see the police as an important factor in this decline must explain why a decline in violence preceded the establishment of a police force and why the benefits continued long after its introduction. Further, conviction rates improved during the nineteenth century in London, which might suggest greater police effectiveness, but more probably it reflects a tendency by the police to reject minor cases. By the end of the twentieth century, the clearance rates in most Western police departments, including those in London, had gradually declined.

The close relationship between declining crime rates and a growing bureaucratization of the police in the twentieth century also undermines the thesis of greater police effectiveness as a reason for lower crime rates. A sharp decline in arrests followed closely a shift from foot patrols to motorized patrols in Salem, Massachusetts, and in Rockford, Illinois (see Ferdinand, 1972 and 1976). Further, in Boston several officers made more than 1,000 arrests in the 1850s, and in Salem the mean number of arrests per officer per year rarely fell below 30 during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Ferdinand, 1992, p. 45; 1972). But when the Salem police force began to patrol in cars, annual arrests per officer dropped sharply, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s the rate never rose above 21. By the 1950s and early 1960s the rate had slipped below 10 arrests per officer per year. The decline in criminality noted in the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century probably stems more from broad changes in police organization than improvements in their ability to suppress crime.

Other shifts in police organization may also have contributed to a decline in crime rates between 1830 and 1950. Early police departments in American cities were often headed by men of reputation and integrity. Benjamin Pollard, who became Boston's first city marshal in 1823, was a Harvard graduate, a lawyer, and a man of distinction. His immediate successors, Daniel Parkman and Ezra Weston, served as Boston's police chiefs when the department was formed in 1838, and they were Harvard graduates and lawyers as well. In the beginning the Boston department was served by a cadre of officers who understood the purpose of police in a democratic society. But after the Civil War the department declined under the impact of fierce ethnic rivalries, intense political struggles, and organized vice. Other urban departments, most notably in New York and Philadelphia, suffered similar burdens, and in general the quality of several major police departments, particularly in the old cities of the Northeast, dipped in the decades after the Civil War. The decline in crime in late nineteenth-century American cities can probably be attributed to a growing ineffectiveness in major urban police departments. Was an increasing efficiency of police departments a major factor in the decline in crime rates in the past 150 years? Probably not.

Another explanation is that urban immigrants, who had recently arrived from rural societies, were becoming better adapted to their communities as they gained experience with urban life (see Lane, 1997, p. 186). After settling into urban occupations and the city's established neighborhoods, they were drawn to a more stable, relatively crime-free life by churches, ethnic clubs, labor unions, political groups, informal social groups, family, and relatives. For the most part it was the rootless poor who fell into crime. As growing numbers of newcomers were absorbed into the mainstream, tramps and hoboes of the nineteenth century began to disappear.

During the 1930s a mobile army of rootless men reappeared, but all through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries their ranks had been shrinking in favor of a stable working class that increasingly established itself in neighborhoods throughout the cities of America. It is probably no coincidence that drunkenness and prostitution also declined steadily during the 1920s. As the working classes assumed a settled, stable pattern of life, criminality bespeaking a disorganized lifestyle also shrank.

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about 11 years ago

This page came up as I was searching for answers or data on the question of whether vandalism has become much more prevalent in the last few decades. Did it exist to any substantial extent in the 19th century and earlier for instance? My gut feeling is that it has become a major societal problem in the past 40 or 50 years, but it would be interesting to see if there is anything to support or refute that notion.