By Ben Singleton
I served for 10 years as a police officer in North Texas. During that time, I became interested in the grand scope of crime and common criminal profiles.
Plenty of studies have investigated the people who commit the most atrocious crimes. But what about the person who chooses to burglarize a home for $200? What motivates him, I wondered. Eventually, I started to see the common denominator among the majority of offenders I dealt with: poverty.
America is engaged in an overdue discussion about race, crime and law enforcement, but until we dig past skin color and ethnic origin to the underlying problem of poverty, we will not make sustainable progress.
Of the 8.7 million crimes committed nationwide in 2014, the perpetrator was white or Hispanic (the Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics do not differentiate between them) in 69 percent of cases, and black in 28 percent. Yet African-Americans represent only 13 percent of the total population. Per capita, then, crimes are more likely to have been committed by black people.
This is the elephant in the room. To bigots, it justifies more bigotry. To apologists, it is prima fascia evidence of racism in our police forces. Those sorts of simplistic analyses perpetuate widespread misunderstanding about crime and the impact of socio-economic factors.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 47 million people lived below the poverty level in 2014. About 70 percent were white or Hispanic and 30 percent were black or other. Do those numbers look familiar?
While not all Americans who live in poverty commit crime, it is interesting that if only the demography of impoverished Americans (70 percent white, 30 percent black) is compared to the demography of criminals (69 percent white, 28 percent black), there is little disparity. Such data lends credence to a hypothesis that poverty leads to crime.
An analysis of the five most crime-ridden cities in the Unites States further supports this assertion. Camden, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; Detroit; Oakland, California and St. Louis all have median incomes below their respective state average and all have a disproportionately high percentage of black residents compared to the national average.
At the other end of the scale, the five safest cities (Irvine, California; Gilbert, Arizona; Plano, Texas; Fremont, California; Scottsdale, Arizona) all have median incomes greater than their state average and have a disproportionately high percentage of white residents compared to the national average.
These disparities are not small.
The median income of the five most dangerous cities is $31,775. The median income of the five safest cities is $84,879. In the five most dangerous cities, blacks average 50 percent of the population. In the five safest, they are 3 percent.
Professions that tend to have high income levels also have exceedingly low rates of crime. Doctors and lawyers don’t turn to burglary and violence because they don’t need to.
The link with wages is strong. An Ohio State University study looked at crime rates from 1979 to 1997. The researchers concluded declining wages and increasing unemployment among men without college education could explain an increase in crime during the same period. Common sense alone is a fair guide in this case. Where legitimate employment opportunities are insufficient, crime is more prevalent.
These statistics are the driving force behind the frustration and anger held by many in black communities across our country. Terrible incidences of violence have sparked a movement, but the underlying poverty and lack of upward mobility are the real culprits.
Americans must view these statistics as an unacceptable reality, one that must change if we intend to improve the relationship between police and community and ensure a prosperous future for all. We must forget about the preconceptions that we have regarding race and crime in order to look at this problem with fresh eyes and objective reason.
Ben Singleton is a veteran police detective and coauthor of “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians.” He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.