TCS Daily

Oh, To Be In England

By Iain Murray - January 20, 2003 12:00 AM

We often hear that the U.S. murder rate, which is so much greater than anywhere else in the Western World, proves that America is a very dangerous place to live. Yet there are many indications that the murder rate in America is anomalous and does not provide a good argument that America is more dangerous than anywhere else. This can perhaps be illustrated best by looking at the crime figures recorded last year by the police forces of New York City and London, England. The two cities are about the same size, and both racially mixed, providing a good basis for direct comparison.

  London New York  
Number of Crimes Rate / 100,000 Population
Number of Crimes Rate / 100,000 Population
London : NYC
189 2.5
584 7.3
2,762 37
2,018 25
40,630 549
27,116 339
42,513 574
20,686 259
116,048 1,568
31,226 390
Auto Theft
60,389 816
26,364 330

Source: Metropolitan Police monthly crime figures by borough; NYPD annual Compstat figures

There are some comparability issues. The figures for assault represent the sum of Grievous Bodily Harm and Actual Bodily Harm in London, and Felonious Assault in New York which includes threats with a weapon that do not result in harm to the victim. The figure for Auto Theft represents "Taking/Theft of a Motor Vehicle" in London and Grand Larceny Auto in New York (I am unsure whether all categories of motor vehicle are included in the New York figure). Nevertheless, the figures are comparable enough for us to draw certain conclusions.

The first relates to property crime. It is clear that a Londoner is much more likely to be a victim of serious property crime than a New Yorker. It was not always this way. In the '80s, the English burglary rate was considerably lower than the American. At that time, both countries locked up burglars at about the same rate. Since then, however, the English incarceration rate has quartered, while the American rate has increased slightly. There seems to be a significant correlation between the two trends.

It has now reached the stage where the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who is responsible for setting judicial sentencing policy, has ordered that first-time burglars should not be sentenced to custody as long as they are low-risk. This has led, in the first few weeks of the new policy, to some odd decisions. Two examples are a burglar who had been arrested in connection with seven burglaries <I>not</I> being sentenced to jail and another multiple-time offender being released back into the community on the grounds that he had recently taken up writing poetry (although doggerel would be a better description, to judge from published examples of his work).

Moreover, even as judges reduce the value to the community of catching a burglar, the Metropolitan Police in London have announced that they will no longer bother investigating crimes that are unlikely to be "solvable." In other words, as long as a burglar wears gloves and a ski mask to avoid leaving fingerprints or hair samples behind, he can be confident that the police will not bother to try to catch him. It is no wonder that the London burglary rate is four times that of New York.

As for violent crime, this seems again to be a result of different judicial and policing choices. Incarceration for violent crimes in Britain has declined since the '80s even as the violent crime rate rose (it has since stabilized). In New York, the "broken windows" approach instituted by former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton demands constant personal attention by police officers to happenings in the community. In London, the decision was taken to withdraw police officers and rely instead on Closed Circuit Television cameras (CCTV) to provide constant surveillance. Unfortunately for the London approach, studies have shown that CCTV does little to deter crime (in some areas, it has even increased) and that even better street lighting has more effect.

The result is that, despite having similar budgets, the Met Police has some 12,000 fewer active police officers than the NYPD. A few years ago, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority estimated that London was about 3,000 officers below the minimum necessary to police the city effectively. The Met also suffers from a significant shortage of officers from ethnic minorities, leading in many areas to an alienation of the force from the community it is supposed to be serving. The description of the force by a senior judge investigating a bungled investigation into a racist murder as "institutionally racist," a description the force enthusiastically accepted, has also not helped community relations.

So London is left with an undermanned police force, distrusted by the people and an ineffective deterrent to street crime. It is quite possible that London's robbery and assault figures would have been much worse had it not been for a central government-ordered crackdown on such crimes, the Street Crimes Initiative, which began in mid-year. The level of resources devoted to that initiative are not sustainable in the long run.

So that brings us back to the headline figure, the murder rate, which is indeed still much worse in New York City than in London. Many suggest guns as the reason that the American murder rate is so much greater than the UK's. The difference in murder rates has held true for over a hundred years, going back to when the gun laws in both countries were virtually identical. Americans have always been more likely to murder each other than the British, whatever the state of weapons availability.

It is probable that the difference truly lies in the nature of the criminal subcultures. As Eli Lehrer, a crime expert at the American Enterprise Institute said after he investigated the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports, "the most likely person to kill you is your fellow drug dealer." The cutthroat nature of the American criminal underworld and the relatively less competitive nature of the British equivalent is probably to blame for much of the difference between the two countries' murder rates. There seems, however, to be evidence that the difference is narrowing.

For the average non-criminal, the evidence is clear. You are much more likely to be raped, robbed, assaulted, burglarized or have your vehicle stolen in London than in New York City. Trumpeting the murder rate in headlines masks this simple truth.

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