(The Bloomberg View) -- When I lived in London in the early 2000s, violent crime was on the rise, the Underground was plagued by breakdowns and delays, much of the city looked dirty and run-down, and my neighborhood playground always seemed to be covered with broken glass.
“It feels a little like New York in the 1970s,” I said to a local once at a dinner party. He looked at me strangely for a while. “Without the guns, of course,” he finally replied.
The guy had a point. It’s a lot easier to kill somebody with a gun than with a knife, the main murder weapon in London. In 1979, there were 1,733 homicides in New York City (the all-time high of 2,245 came later, in 1990). In much-safer 2001, there were 649. In the London of 2001, there were 196 homicides.
Even in 2017, with violent crime continuing to decline in New York and on the rise again in London after declining for about a decade through 2014, there were still more than twice as many homicides in the former city as in the latter (the two are quite close in population, with New York at an estimated 8.6 million people as of mid-2017 and London at 8.9 million):
Things got worse in the first few months of this year in London, though, which led to this shocker of a Sunday Times headline in April: “London murder rate beats New York as stabbings surge.” It turns out that after revisions, London only topped New York for one month, February; year to date (through the end of May), it was trailing New York City 114 murders to 70. Plus, murder rates tend to go up in the summer in New York City while exhibiting less of a seasonal pattern in England and Wales. So it remains quite unlikely that London will top New York in murders for the full year. On the other hand, when you expand the view to property crimes and violent crimes other than murder, it is arguably true that, as the Telegraph put it in a headline last fall: “London now more dangerous than New York, crime stats suggest."
This goes so counter to long-held views of England as a genteel land of well-trimmed hedges and unarmed bobbies and the U.S. as a lawless territory of gun-toting cowboys that some have grasped for explanations. President Donald Trump last fall linked rising U.K. crime rates to the "spread of radical Islamic terror," and depictions of a dangerous "Londonistan" ruled by Islamist extremists are common on the alt-right. The city was in fact a target for four seemingly Islamic State-inspired terror attacks last year, although things have been quiet on that front since September. Terror victims are not counted in the crime data cited above, in any case, and there does not seem to be much of a link between terror and run-of-the-mill crime. There also does not seem to be much of a link between immigration and crime in London, which has about the same percentage of foreign-born residents (a bit more than one-third) as New York City. In fact, immigrants in the U.K. — as is the case in the U.S., but not some continental European countries — appear to be less likely to commit crimes than native-born residents are.
So what is going on in London? Violent crime is actually up in lots of places around the world since 2014, including in the U.S. outside of New York City. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Therese Raphael addressed the recent U.K. crime increase in April and I don’t have a lot to add other than that there’s no entirely satisfactory explanation for it. But I do have two observations about the London-New York crime comparisons:
- They say more about New York and how much it has changed since the early 1990s than about London.
- Apart from murder, crime has actually been moderately worse in England and Wales than in the U.S. for quite a while.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime is the keeper of comparative national crime statistics. When it comes to murder rates, these statistics show the U.S. — despite big declines since the early 1990s — continuing to be an outlier among affluent nations.
In property crimes, though, the U.S. comes off pretty well.
The UN goes to some effort to make these national numbers comparable, but differences in definitions, police practices and people’s proclivity to report crimes to the police remain. In the case of murder, the differences are not big. With burglary, they’re a bit bigger. With assault, they’re so big that I’m not going to make a chart.
According to the UN data, the England and Wales assault rate is nearly three times higher than that of the U.S. and 88 times higher than that of Switzerland. But while that is probably an exaggeration, it is also probably directionally correct. In a pair of studies conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, University of Cambridge criminologist David Farrington and researchers from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics went to great lengths to render crime measures consistent and found that, murder excepted, U.S. rates had by the early 1990s already fallen below those in England and Wales and were toward the middle or bottom of the pack among affluent nations in most categories. They also found that crimes were more likely to be prosecuted in the U.S. than in other countries, and criminals were more likely to spend time in jail.
My reading of this evidence is that murder is more common in the U.S. because there are so many guns here, while other crimes are less common because law enforcement is tougher. Some might argue that other crimes are less common in the U.S. because would-be criminals are afraid their would-be victims are packing heat, but that doesn’t really fit the data, given that crime rates and the percentage of U.S. households with guns have fallen in tandem since the early 1990s. As for tougher law enforcement, on a cost-benefit basis, it may have been too tough — the incarceration rate in the U.S. is almost five times that of England and Wales, and it is likely one reason labor-force participation is now much lower in the U.S. than the U.K. — but it does seem to have played a role in reducing crime.
In his book "Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence," which I wrote about in February, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey gave tougher law enforcement some of the credit for that great crime decline but cited more law enforcement as an even bigger factor. Rising numbers of police officers and new (or revived) community policing techniques in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s brought “capable guardians” to streets that had been lacking them.
In the early 2000s, London tried that, too, raising local taxes to expand Metropolitan Police ranks with “safer neighbourhood teams” devoted to community policing. But since the financial crisis, the national government has cut police funding by 25 percent, resulting in “not only a dramatic reduction in the number of police officers but the near-eradication of police community support officers, because the latter can be made redundant whereas the former cannot,” former Met officer Brian Paddick said in a speech to the House of Lords last week. “My view is that the police have surrendered public space to the criminals,” Paddick, a member of the U.K. upper house for the Liberal Democrats, told me a few days later. “It’s not the severity of punishment that deters people. It’s that they don’t think they’re going to get caught.”
With a slightly larger population than New York and about twice the land area, London has 12 percent fewer police officers and 56 percent fewer civilian police employees. I spent all of last week there, and I only recall seeing one police officer. I’d already seen a couple on Monday morning in New York.
That said, I did not feel unsafe during my visit. Despite the recent increases, London crime rates are still lower now than when I lived there in 2000 and 2001. Also, the Underground has improved a lot since then — which can’t be said for the New York City subway — and the parts of the city I saw looked great. London is not a deadly dystopia. It could probably use some more cops, though.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.