Crime in American cities has fallen significantly over the past two decades. Patrick Sharkey, the chair of NYU’s sociology department and the scientific director of Crime Lab New York, examines the factors that contributed to that decline. He spoke with Small Forces about his new book, Uneasy Peace, the fall in the crime rate, and how community organizations contributed to that fall. Listen to the whole conversation and read excerpts below.
Small Forces: From the study you did, Community and the Crime Decline, the statistic was “Every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9% reduction in the murder rate, a 6% reduction ins the violent crime rate, and a 4% reduction in the property crime rate,” which feels significant.
Patrick Sharkey: It’s a strong impact. It means these organizations did not account for the full drop in violence, it wasn’t just the emergence of these organizations that mattered, but it’s a big part of the story and that’s our best way to package the results so that people can have a sense for what they mean, but essentially if you try and think about it in a small city with 100,000 every nonprofit that forms specifically to build a stronger neighborhood, to confront violence, you can expect that that organization, on average, will reduce violence by about 1%. That’s not a mind- blowing number. It doesn’t mean that you have 1 organization and the whole city changes, but when you have a proliferation of these organizations, when they expand on a large scale, when they start to emerge in different neighborhoods that have never had that institutional base, that’s how neighborhoods are stabilized and that’s how cities start to confront violence crime.
Small Forces: What mechanisms lead nonprofits to success in reducing crime?
Patrick Sharkey: There are several types of mechanisms. One is that many nonprofits confront violence directly. They specifically worked to take back city streets. Cure Violence is an example. It’s programs are specifically trying to intervene within a network of violent incidents or individuals who are heavily engaged with violence and interrupt that network. Then there’s a broader set of functions. They connect people to each other. One of the things we know from a long tradition of research in urban sociology is when residents are connected together, when there’s a tight network that links representatives of the state – meaning police officers, city government representatives, department of sanitation, the city council member, members of local law enforcement – when they are linked up with members of social service agencies, members of a nonprofit sector, leaders of core institutions like religious congregations, when they are all linked up with residents, that is a recipe for building a strong neighborhood and controlling violence. So what these organizations do is they link people together. They not only provide direct services to people but they look out over the community, they link people together, and they create this tight network that has been shown over and over to build strong neighborhoods and reduce violence. The interesting thing is this idea is really well developed in urban sociology and has strong evidence behind it, but it just hasn’t been brought into discussions about why violence fell, and that’s why I started on that line of work because I wanted to see whether this proliferation of nonprofit organizations played a role, and so we generated as rigorous evidence as we could, and we put that evidence to the test and did as much as we could to make sure that it was conclusive and the evidence is really strong. The emergence of the nonprofit sector in the 1990s played a very strong causal role in contributing to the crime drop.
Small Forces: One of the most interesting concepts presented in your book was that of the “community quarterback” – in other words a community leader who takes care of the community. This person is often under-resourced. That’s something that we’ve seen time and time again. There’s a man named Robert Torres that we have started working with in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood in Chicago, where violence is rising, and he’s out there. His organization is called Parents for Peace and Justice. He’s trying to help parents get justice for their kids, but also establish peace through programming for kids, whether that be sports, music, etc. And he’s out there making connections, making it happen, pounding the pavement, as he’s also just a small business owner, who lives in that neighborhood, and wants it to be safer for his kids. So my question is, do you envision a future where local governments, state governments are allocating more funds for these community groups, these quarterbacks? How should these external factors be investing in these quarterbacks?
Patrick Sharkey: That’s a good example. I think there are a bunch of neighborhoods across the country that have these organizations, but they are struggling to survive. They are struggling to get funding. They are struggling to make sure that they are on stable footing so that they’ll be there for the long term. And that’s essential challenge for the nonprofit sector in general. What I argue at the end of the book is that, the real fundamental challenge is the challenge of urban poverty and urban inequality. That said, the short term challenge is to make sure that every neighborhood is on a stable foundation and has these kinds of organizations and there’s a much better change that neighborhoods will not go downhill if they have this strong institutional base, if they have an organization like Parents for Peace and Justice, looking out across the entire community, and making sure that they know every kid, they are looking out to make sure those kids know that they have a mentor, that they have somebody there they can go to if they have a problem. They have a safe space they can go to if they are in trouble. Those organizations are fundamental. How do you do it? That’s a much harder question. At certain points, both the federal and state governments have made major contributions to the nonprofit sector and have made it possible for these kinds of organizations to plan for the long term, to have some consistent source of funding to know they’ll be there in 10 years. I think more and more, this is unfortunate, but I do think it is the reality, a lot of organizations are relying on other sources of funding, so one of the by products of rising inequality is there is a new class of philanthropists who have the potential to really create transformative change, on a scale that is at least at this moment very unlikely with the government, so I come to this uncomfortable conclusion that in the short term, we have to do everything we can to create a network of actors within cities who are dedicated to confronting violence, and this means city government, local philanthropists, this means universities, it means core institutions, hospitals, schools, need to come together and make sure there is that community quarterback.
Listen to more of the conversation with Patrick Sharkey above. To learn more about the concepts we discuss, and more about his research into urban crime, read his new book, Uneasy Peace.