Fighting devils we know

According to a just-released study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a major shift has occurred in national violent crime trends. Based on data collected through the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the BJS report concludes: “Strangers committed about 1.8 million nonfatal violent crimes in 2010, or about 38 percent of all nonfatal violent victimizations during the year… This represents a 77 percent decline from 7.9 million nonfatal violent crimes committed by strangers in 1993.”

The NCVS codes rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault as nonfatal violent crimes. As the BJS report further concludes: “Simple assault (assault not involving an injury or a weapon) made up 60 percent of violent victimizations committed by strangers in 2010, followed by aggravated assault (20 percent), robbery (17 percent) and rape or sexual assault (2 percent).”

The report also notes that 52 percent of all robberies (a theft or attempted theft involving the threat or use of physical force) during the period, 2005 – 2010 were committed by strangers. This total is down from 64 percent during 1993 – 1998.

The decline in aggravated assaults and simple assaults was likewise observed, but the change was not as dramatic. The percentage of rapes and sexual assaults remained consistent.

In findings based on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Report, similar trends were noted. In those incidents where the relationship status of the offender and victim could be determined, the BJS report states that “strangers committed between 21 percent and 27 percent of homicides from 1993 to 2008, compared to between 73 percent and 79 percent of homicides committed by offenders known to the victims.”

The agency also notes that men are twice as likely to experience violence at the hands of strangers than are women.

These trends speak to a fundamental shift in criminal victimization in the U. S. It also tells the law enforcement community that their paradigm of crime prevention must adapt to meet new demands. The old saw, “the butler did it,” may be more relevant than ever — not that many of us have butlers, just that our true risk of victimization may come from a source closer than we would like to imagine.

Of course, this isn’t to say that some member of your family is more likely to harm you while your back is turned. Rather, it says that random street crime is being displaced by violence of a more intimate nature. Drug deals gone bad, individuals dealing with occupational stress in destructive ways, drug- and alcohol-influenced behavior… are each situations in which people known to us might harm us.

These scenarios alone suggest the need for several different courses of action. Domestic violence prevention, identification and enforcement become more important. Employee assistance programs and better supervisor-subordinate communication deserve higher priority.

The last item, drug- or alcohol-influenced behavior, presents what is perhaps the greatest challenge. The American public has begun to understand that the so-called War on Drugs has failed. Old modalities of threating severe punishment for drug-related crimes is ineffectual and expensive. Given that those yoked to addiction are not rational actors, an enforcement policy predicated on rational evaluation of potential consequences is doomed to failure.

With these things as a given, supply-side reduction is not the answer. Demand reduction is. Knowing that we cannot incarcerate the addiction out of people, the only alternative course must be treatment-based.

As to alcohol-influenced violence, this is part of the bargain we made when we decided that alcohol should flow freely through the streets. Most domestic violence is committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both. Here too, treatment is the more efficacious approach.

That said, people who hurt others must be punished and punished with great speed, certainty and severity. What we must now face is the knowledge that punishment alone is insufficient.