Crime in perspective: Utah remains one of the safest states, crime nationwide not a growing problem

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 9:08 a.m. MDT

Roses that were placed on an anchor at an entrance of the Washington Navy Yard as security personnel stand watch, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. The Washington Navy Yard began returning to nearly normal operations three days after it was the scene of a mass shooting in which a gunman killed 12 people.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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No level of crime higher than zero is acceptable, of course, but FBI data released this week for crimes committed in 2012 helps put things in perspective. Utah remains one of the safest places in the United States, and crime nationwide is not a growing problem. That may come as a surprise to some.

This isn't to say all is well. Despite low crime rates statewide, Salt Lake City saw a 12 percent rise in property crimes, including a 15 percent increase in auto thefts. Even when the capital city's figures are included, however, such crimes decreased statewide. Nationally, violent crimes rose 0.7 percent, while property crimes declined by about as much.

The figures paint a different picture than the one portrayed by well-publicized random mass killings, such as the one last week at the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Those crimes, heinous though they are, represent a rare, unique and vexing sort of problem, the causes of which are difficult to assess or prevent. The chances of becoming a victim of such a crime are tiny, and the rate of such crimes has remained fairly steady for decades. The irony is that while those tragedies generate talk among politicians about stricter gun controls, existing laws have not prevented crime rates from dropping to near record low levels in parts of the country that used to be danger zones.

In Los Angeles, for instance, violent crime is at a level not seen since the mid-1950s, according to a statement Police Chief Charlie Beck made to the Daily News. Despite the bombing at the marathon finish line in Boston on Patriots Day this year (a crime not counted in these figures but that wouldn't change the overall rate much), that city's crime rate also is little changed after decades of steady decline. Americans should be grateful for these figures. If states had to deal with rising crime rates at a time of economic distress, that would further burden already stressed state budgets.

Why is the rate of crime so relatively low? That question is almost as difficult to answer as why people commit crimes. Demographics may have something to do with it. The nation is aging, and young people tend to be more disposed to committing crimes. Incarceration rates remain high, as well. Some people credit aggressive policing tactics. The answer may lie in bits and pieces of all of the above.

All is not well in every part of the nation. The cities of Detroit and Flint, Mich., have unusually high murder rates, and Chicago's murder rate rose precipitously.

But that leads us to the other perspective brought about by the FBI figures. Crime is a local problem. There is little people in Utah can do to help folks in Michigan make neighborhoods safer, but there is much people can do to help their own neighborhoods. Salt Lake City police spokeswoman Lara Jones told KSL.com that Utahns "tend to look out for each other."

"When something happens in a neighborhood, people get outraged," she said.

That sense of community is an important ingredient for making homes and families safe. Neighbors must look out for each other. Neighborhood watch programs, properly and safely administered, help people remain vigilant.

Salt Lake City must find a way to keep its crime levels under control. All Utahns have an interest in keeping their capital and flagship city safe. But Utah's overall rank as the sixth safest state, despite a healthy growth rate, is good news.

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