A Crime Wave All His Own

By Dara Lind

The FBI’s preliminary Uniform Crime Report for 2009 was released last week, and a few people are digging through the statistics for evidence of the alleged “illegal-alien crime wave” that Republicans have used to defend Arizona SB 1070. (Governor Jan Brewer has compared such crimes to “terrorist attacks.”) What they’re finding, as Chris Dickey writes for Newsweek, might surprise Brewer:

What the FBI chart actually shows is that the incidence of violent crime in Arizona declined dramatically in the last two years…The FBI numbers show that in the midst of the supposed crime wave, many other cities in the Southwest have had declines in crime similar to Phoenix. El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from a ferocious drug war in Juarez, where some 5,000 people have been murdered in recent years, saw almost no change in its own crime rate and remains one of the safest cities in the country, with only 12 murders last year. San Antonio saw violent crime drop from 9,699 incidents to 7,844; murders from 116 to 99.

(Bear in mind that these aren’t stats for the number of criminals who get arrested, charged or convicted; they’re the number of crimes that get reported to the police department.)

Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Public Safety released its (more detailed) Crime in Arizona 2009 report last week as well. So how has Arizona been holding up under those “terrorist attacks”?  So well, you wouldn’t even know there was a crime wave if you didn’t trust Arizona Republicans to give you the unvarnished truth about their state.

Violent crime — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — is down in Arizona for the third consecutive year. Not only has it plunged 15% from its peak in 2006, but it’s 12% lower than it was when the Department of Public Safety started putting crime reports online in 2002. So the current decline isn’t just a regression to the mean after a spike in crime, but evidence of a continuing trend of decreasing violent crime in the state. The trend even holds up along the border: sheriffs for three of Arizona’s four border counties reported less violent crime in 2009 than they did in 2002. (The sheriff’s office for the tiny county of Santa Cruz went from six violent crimes in 2002 to fifteen in 2009 — hardly a significant sample size.)

There is at least one high-profile exception to the long-term statewide trend: Maricopa County, or at least the area under the rule of self-proclaimed  “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio. For years, Arpaio has been earning notoriety for putting immigration enforcement ahead of other law-enforcement priorities — a policy which will become the law of the land for all Arizona police once SB 1070 goes into effect at the end of July. But toughness doesn’t always get results. Even the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office recorded less violent crime in 2009 than it did in 2008, but that’s the first time crime has fallen in five years. And since 2002, as violent crime has fallen 12% across Arizona, it’s risen under Arpaio by a staggering fifty-eight percent.

Not all of Maricopa County is doing so badly — just the parts under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office. The local police departments watching Maricopa’s cities and towns are doing just fine. Phoenix, as Dickey notes, is a veritable success story, with a 14% drop in violent crime since 2002; other municipalities in the county, like Scottsdale (15% drop) and Mesa (30% drop), have been even more effective. It’s just the unincorporated parts of the county — the region under Arpaio’s purportedly iron fist — where violent crime has spiked so alarmingly.

As far as I see it, there are two possibilities here. The first is that Arpaio really has been fighting a “crime wave” committed by a bunch of  “criminal aliens” who are deliberately avoiding the border region, hanging out in Maricopa County and taking care to commit their crimes outside city limits. Even if this were plausible, it wouldn’t speak terribly well to the effectiveness of Arpaio’s tactics.

Alternatively, of course, it could be the case that other law-enforcement officials in the state (from the chief of Tucson to the sheriffs of Pima and Santa Cruz Counties) are correct when they warn that Arpaio-like, 1070-like tactics cause crime to increase. Police officers who are forced to prioritize immigration enforcement have less time to investigate violent crime, and less help from immigrant and Latino victims and witnesses when they do. Indeed, as Conor Friedersdorf pointed out a few weeks ago, there’s plenty of evidence that Arpaio’s office has let its attention to public safety slip: the average wait time in Maricopa County for response to 911 calls is ten minutes, and arrest rates have fallen dramatically over the last decade and a half. To recap: more crimes, fewer arrests. What a role model!

It’s hard not to conclude that Arizona is engaging in “worst practices”-based governance, that the Crime in Arizona 2010 report will reverse the trends of the last few years and turn the much-hyped “crime wave” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I really hope I’m wrong.

Permadisclaimer: my opinions on immigration politics and policy are entirely my own and are in no way associated with my employer or any other organization.