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Crime Rates Down, But Not Everywhere

Magnus Lofstrom November 11, 2014
Hands In Cuffs

Most of California’s counties saw lower crime rates in 2013, according to the latest data. Violent crime dropped in 41 out of the 58 counties, and property crime dropped in 37 counties. In some counties the decreases are substantial. For example, property and violent crime rates in Merced County dropped by 20.4% and 15.8%, respectively, while Napa experienced declines of 10.8% and 14.7%.

While news of improved public safety is unquestionably good, crime experts will point out that understanding year-to-year changes is difficult. That’s particularly true for small counties, where just a few criminal incidents can dramatically affect crime rates. Larger counties are less sensitive to this, by virtue of their size alone, so looking at changes in crime rates in the state’s largest counties provides a meaningful focus.

Here, too, the news is mostly good—most of the state’s large counties saw drops in crime rates in 2013. This appears to be part of a longer trend (2012 was an exception). Violent crime dropped in 14 out of the state’s 15 largest counties, which include more than four-fifths of California’s total population. The property crime rate decreased in 11 out of the 15 largest counties. Again, some of the drops are substantial. For example, Orange and Sacramento Counties saw decreases of 10% and 9.4% in property crime, and their violent crime rates dropped by 11.9% and 7%.

However, not all large counties saw improvements in 2013. One county’s recent trend differs noticeably: San Francisco. Even as property and violent crime rates reached 10-year lows in Los Angeles, Orange, and Sacramento Counties, San Francisco’s reached 10-year highs. The recent increase is surprising. The county appeared to be in good shape to handle the new responsibilities—most centrally, managing lower-level felons—given to all counties under California’s public safety realignment. San Francisco is often regarded as innovative in its strategies to prevent re-offending. It is also a county that does not face jail capacity constraints. More broadly, San Francisco has seen a shift toward a wealthier population and has a strong and growing economy—indicators that usually point to less crime.

Right now, it is difficult to say what is behind San Francisco’s troubling crime trend, but it is possible that some features unique to the county are contributing factors. One of these features is the relatively high proportion of non-residents in San Francisco at any point in time. For example, if there is an increase in the number of tourists and commuting workers, then the number of potential crime victims (which may attract more offenders) also increases. But crime rates are based only on the number of county residents—they do not take into account changes in non-residential population. So an increase in the number of reported crimes could partially be driven by an increase in the number of visitors, including tourists and commuting workers. Estimates based on Census data show that commuting workers add about 162,000 to the daytime population of San Francisco. That’s more commuters than any other county in California—including Los Angeles County, which is roughly 12 times larger.

It’s still not clear if changes in the non-resident population are driving up San Francisco’s crime rates—the recent increase in residential burglary suggests other crime-related factors could be involved. Changes in the number of cops, policing strategies, sentencing and incarceration decisions, jail capacity, and approaches to reduce re-offending are all factors that may affect county crime rates and trends.

This brief mini-analysis of San Francisco’s crime trends is admittedly speculative, and it points toward the difficulty of interpreting these trends—as well as the need for more research, which would allow us to better understand the underlying factors of crime and crime trends in California. PPIC is committed to continuing such efforts.

(TOP CHART) Source: Author calculations based on the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center, California Crimes and Clearances Files, 2004–2013. Note: Violent crime includes homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

(BOTTOM CHART) Source: Author calculations based on the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center, California Crimes and Clearances Files, 2004–2013. Note: Property crime includes burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny theft (including non-felonious larceny theft).

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