I've been seeing a lot of talk in the comments about crime in New Haven, fueled by news stories about a rash of shootings in that city. Aldon claims that overall crime in New Haven has gone down during John DeStefano's tenure, and that the city is generally a safer place than it was in the mid-1990s. This is true. Check for yourself here. It's also true for Dan Malloy's Stamford.
What's also true is that crime statewide and nationwide (see here) has dropped since 1996, although it looks like it may be ticking up slowly again. Mayors, governors and law enforcement officials across the country have been taking credit for this massive turnaround of what seemed like an unstoppable crime epidemic. Rudy Giuliani was especially sucessful at taking advantage of lower crime rates, especially in light of his new, tough policies. It could be that this is one of the reasons Republicans have stayed in power nationally for so long: they are associated with the drop in crime that happened on their watch. They get the credit.
Should they? It's hard to say. Innovative initiatives like better community policing, more police officers and programs aimed at the roots of crime may, in fact, be working.
There could be other factors at work. The economy improved dramatically in the late 1990s, and still isn't in the sort of crisis we saw in the early part of that decade, when crime was at its worst. Stephen Levitt's weirdly fascinating bookFreakonomics suggests the abortion rate is partly to blame (note: don't sic the Connecticut Family Council on me, I just think it's a unique theory). Perhaps crime goes in cycles. Maybe something else is going on. We just don't know.
Law and order is such a fundamental issue for voters that a perception of weakness in that area could lead to disaster. Alex Knopp lost in Norwalk partly because of a crime scare in that city. Michael Dukakis lost the presidency partly because of Willie Horton and a bizarre debate question about what he would do if someone killed his wife (although looking silly in a tank didn't help, either). So yes, crime and the perception of crime matters a great deal in elections.
So what about DeStefano and New Haven? New Haven is safer now than when DeStefano took over. True. The statistics bear that out. Did it have anything to do with what DeStefano did as mayor? Probably, although other factors may have been at work, too.
Even if the crime rate is lower, the perception by people living in the suburbs and the country of cities like Hartford and New Haven as crime-ridden is very real. The news media is full of stories about shootings and violence in our cities, as it has been for decades. This perception is driven by media hype, sensationalism, fear of the unknown, racist and classist preconceptions... and the fact that crime actually is higher in cities. New London and Newington have roughly the same number of people, but New London has a higher crime rate.
Both DeStefano and Malloy can point to lower crime in their cities as marks of progress. Their opponents can point to high-profile crimes and suggest that they haven't done such a good job, after all. Which is the truth? Does it matter?
I've said before that John DeStefano will have to work against the suburban and media perception of New Haven as unsafe, whether that perception is justified or not. His success may be directly tied to the marketing of New Haven as safe and livable.