A couch-potato factor

The drop in property crime may owe less to gates and alarms than to cable TV watching

BY WARREN COHEN

May 25, 1998 (1299 words)

Yes, someone is murdered in the United States every 27 minutes on average. But in the interval between killings, 70 cars will be stolen, 125 homes will be burglarized, and 405 items will be swiped from someone's office or back yard. Although murders and assaults capture the most national attention, property offenses such as burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft outnumber violent crimes by a 7 to 1 ratio, with annual losses conservatively estimated at $ 15 billion or more. And from 1960 through 1980, the property-crime rate tripled.

But starting in 1980, while violent crime was still rising, the property-crime rate began to fall. Since then, it has dropped by 21.2 percent, including a 5 percent drop in the preliminary FBI figures for 1997. In fact, the U.S. burglary and motor vehicle theft rates are now lower than they are in such safe-seeming countries as England, Denmark, and Sweden. What happened? The property-crime spurt of the 1960s is partially explained by subtle societal changes that increased criminal opportunities. For example, many city dwellers moved to the suburbs, where fewer nosy neighbors meant fewer watchful neighbors, making it easier for burglars to operate without detection. Women's participation in the labor force increased from 38 percent in 1960 to 52 percent in 1980, so more houses sat empty during the day, when at least a third of all burglaries occur. And small shops with observant counter help gradually gave way to giant shopping centers and malls, providing greater opportunities for shoplifting.

Youths, in particular, found ever wider opportunities for criminal mischief. With both parents often working and commute times lengthening, kids received less supervision. Busing led to larger schools with more students than teachers could adequately manage. And rising prosperity provided more teens with cars, enabling them to stray farther from watchful parents and neighbors. The resulting increases in crime basically caught off-guard a country that didn't lock its doors at night.

Happily, a number of more recent trends have conspired to make committing property crimes more difficult. The proliferation of VCRs and cable TV has made people more likely to stay home at night, which in turn deters burglars. Two-car garages, a feature of only 42 percent of new homes in 1972, now accompany 78 percent of new homes. These protect cars as well as other frequently targeted items like bicycles.

Supply and demand. The abundance of popular consumer items has also helped cut demand for stolen goods: 98 percent of all homes already have at least one TV and 77 percent have a VCR, so demand for these stolen goods has waned. Criminologists say the street prices for most stolen household goods have dropped by a fifth in the past two decades. (Ironically, the lower profitability of stealing household goods may have contributed to the rise in violent crime in the 1980s and early 1990s, by leading some thieves to turn to robbery and drug dealing, crimes more immediately rewarding than breaking and entering.)

Another factor in the decline of property crime has been the rise of credit cards. In 1990, Americans used credit and debit cards for retail purchases 191 million times; by 1996 that number had exploded to 1.1 billion. With people carrying less cash, pocket-picking and purse-snatching have dropped 53.2 percent over six years, the fastest declining categories among all larcenies.

In addition to these lifestyle and economic changes, the past several years have seen a wave of deliberate efforts by Americans to protect themselves against property crime. In most parts of the country, unlocked front doors are a thing of the past. Roughly a fifth of homes now have alarm systems, compared with less than 1 percent in the early 1970s. (By contrast, gun ownership, sometimes credited with reducing property crimes, probably has not increased, holding steady at an estimated 35 percent or more of households since the 1960s.) The number of gated communities with fences and guard stations restricting access has jumped from roughly 2,500 in the early 1970s to about 20,000 today. Car-alarm sales have climbed from tens of millions of dollars in the 1970s to $ 478 million in 1996. And since its 1986 introduction, consumers have purchased more than 35 million units of The Club, a device that locks steering wheels. Meanwhile, the percentage of retail businesses with closed-circuit-television security systems has soared to 73 percent since the devices started being deployed in the early 1980s. In all, private security spending has risen from $ 8 billion in 1975 to $ 80 billion last year, a figure that includes pay for 1.8 million private security employees.

Many of these precautions can protect individual car and home owners, but overall they have probably shifted the incidence of property crimes more than they have reduced them. Alarms and devices such as The Club primarily divert thieves to unprotected homes or cars. And, surprisingly, no studies demonstrate that gated communities are safer than other housing options, possibly because residents grow lax about security and leave gates open during the day or forget to close their garage doors. An alternative that has proved more successful is limiting traffic with measures such as one-way streets, cul-de-sacs, and speed bumps. In addition to hindering quick getaways, these precautions also prompt more people to spend time outside, where they act as informal watchmen.

The key to most crime prevention is simply ensuring that crooks know that someone is paying attention. A good example is the Huntsville, Ala., school system. During the 1980s, it averaged about eight burglaries each week, and its insurance company warned that its coverage would be stripped. Then the town invested $ 1.7 million in a closed-circuit-television system and installed 250 cameras in all 44 area schools. The first year the system was in use, security officers caught 250 thieves; since then, the burglary rate has dropped to about five per year. The now-above-average safety record has helped reduce the school district's insurance premiums by an estimated $ 3 million since the installation.

Similarly, following a rash of daytime burglaries in 1979, Rohnert Park, Calif., assigned police officers to patrol the streets looking for truants. Area businesses were asked to call police if they saw youths out and about during school hours. Students who were caught were returned to school; numerous infractions could delay a teen receiving his driver's license. Since the program was instituted, the city's daytime burglary rate has fallen 86 percent.

There are encouraging signs that property-crime rates will continue to drop nationally. Technological changes such as the spread of personal computers are creating more opportunities for stay-at-home workers, who can also act as neighborhood guardians. It's also possible that as burglars and petty crooks move to other activities, tricks of the trade such as how to identify an unoccupied house may not get passed along to another generation.

But after two decades of steady decline, the property-crime rate is still about five times greater today than it was in the 1950s, leaving plenty of room for improvement. If recent history is any guide, many of the developments that will determine future property-crime rates will be lifestyle changes (such as widespread use of VCRs or credit cards) that on the face of them have nothing to do with crime. But deliberate precautions against criminal opportunity will also play an important role, especially those that emphasize keeping a watch on the community. The truth is that paranoia often works.