Who Deserves Credit for the Decades-Long Drop in Violent Crime in the Twin Cities? among Others, Community Organizations

By Kaul, Greta | MinnPost.com, November 28, 2017 | Go to article overview

Who Deserves Credit for the Decades-Long Drop in Violent Crime in the Twin Cities? among Others, Community Organizations


Kaul, Greta, MinnPost.com


The 1990s were a bloody time for big cities in the United States, as nationally, violent crimes — a category that includes murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — on a steep increase for decades, hit levels not seen in modern times.

Here, too. Minneapolis made the international news in the '90s for high crime, with headlines like “From Hicksville to ‘Murderapolis’ — Minneapolis was known for its slow, polite people straight from Garrison Keillor stories. Now the murder rate is worse than New York’s” (this from the U.K.’s The Guardian). Things were also bad that decade for St. Paul.

But it didn’t last. Here as in many cities, as the new millennium approached, crime rates began to decline, a fact scholars attribute to things like tough-on-crime laws, which put many offenders behind bars; the end of the crack epidemic; the growth of police forces; the rise of medications for attention-deficit disorder; and tightened regulations on lead paint (studies have found lead exposure to cause aggressive and impulsive behavior, and its prevalence has been connected to crime).

While often cited as contributors to the drop in crime, these theories focus on external factors and ignore the role communities themselves played in tackling crime. From turning abandoned lots into parks and gardens to businesses helping to pay for security, and social programs that help decrease crime involvement among young people, the actions taken by organizations within communities should have, in theory at least, contributed to the drop in crime.

Last month, New York University associate professor Patrick Sharkey and doctoral students Gerard Torrats-Espinosa and Delaram Takyar put some numbers behind the theory, publishing research in the American Sociological Review that connects the boom in community-focused nonprofits during the 1990s and 2000s, in cities across the U.S., including in Minneapolis and St. Paul, to the crime decline.

What they found is pretty striking: In more than 20 years across 264 cities, for every 10 additional nonprofit organizations focused on things like reducing crime, mitigating violence and building community per 100,000 residents, murder rates went down by 9 percent. Violent crime went down by 6 percent, and property crime went down by 4 percent.

Crime drop, nonprofit spike

The study’s model accounts for other things that occurred around the time nonprofits boomed and crime declined, such as an increase in police force sizes and higher incarceration rates. It focuses on the addition of community nonprofits — those that work in preventing crime, neighborhood development, substance abuse prevention, job training and workforce development, and activities for young people — and not on nonprofits that work in areas including the arts, medical research and the environment that would be less likely to affect crime rates. The study also controls for the fact that nonprofits that have an effect on violent crime rates are more likely to spring up in more crime-ridden areas.

While the results varied across cities, in general, the cities with the largest increase in community nonprofits saw the largest drops in crime. New York City, for example, which added 25 community nonprofits for every 100,000 of its residents between 1990 and 2013, saw a larger than average crime rate drop. Since the most recent year of study in the research is 2013, it doesn't account for an uptick in violent crime nationally in the last two years.

In both Twin Cities, the number of community nonprofits per 100,000 people more than tripled in the 23 years between 1990 and 2013. Both cities saw bigger increases in number of nonprofits than the study-wide average across cities in that time period.

Minneapolis in 1990 had 29 community nonprofits per 100,000 population in 1990. In 2013, that count was up to 94 per 100,000 people.

That increase in nonprofits coincides with a crime drop: In Minneapolis, the murder rate peaked in 1995 at 26 per 100,000 residents, then began a gradual decline. …

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