City and Suburban Crime Trends in Metropolitan America

May 26, 2011

Much has been written about the precipitous overall declines in crime since the 1990s, but less is known about trends within the nation’s big cities and suburbs. Two-thirds of the nation’s population lives in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, but crime levels vary greatly across—and even within—these regions. To what extent have decreases in crime been shared across these communities? Moreover, crime fell over a period that coincided with considerable changes in the makeup and distribution of the country’s metropolitan population. Do those changes help explain the steep declines in community-level crime?

In this paper, we explore these questions by analyzing crime data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and data from the U.S. Census Bureau to provide a geographically-focused assessment of how crime rates have changed between 1990 and 2008. Specifically, we analyze data for the roughly 5,400 communities located within the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. We estimate changes in metropolitan crime, as well as city and suburban trends within these regions. We then consider the relationship between community-level demographic characteristics and crime, and analyze how those relationships may have changed over time.

Both violent and property crime declined significantly between 1990 and 2008 in the 100 largest metro areas, with the largest decreases occurring in cities. Violent crime rates dropped by almost 30 percent in cities, while property crime fell by 46 percent. Though city crime rates remain considerably above those in suburbs, smaller decreases in suburban violent and property crime rates over this time period (7 and 37 percent, respectively) narrowed the gap.

The gap between city and suburban violent crime rates declined in nearly two-thirds of metro areas. In 90 of the 100 largest metro areas, the gap between city and suburban property crime rates narrowed from 1990 to 2008. In most metro areas, city and suburban crime rates rose or fell together.

Among suburban communities, older high-density suburbs registered the largest declines in crime rates. All types of suburban communities saw property crime rates fall over this time period. Cities and high-density suburbs also saw violent crime rates decline, but low-density exurban communities experienced slight increases that are not explained by their changing demographics.

As crime rates fell and communities diversified, relationships between crime and community demographic characteristics weakened significantly. The association between crime and community characteristics—like the proportion of the population that is black, Hispanic, poor, or foreign-born—diminished considerably over time. For example, the strength of the relationship between share of black residents and property crime decreased by half between 1990 and 2008, while the association between the share of Hispanic residents and violent crime all but disappeared.

In general, the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are much safer today than they were in years past. Within metropolitan areas, older, more urbanized, poorer, and more minority communities have benefited the most from these trends, narrowing the disparities between cities and suburbs and underscoring that crime is not a uniquely urban issue, but a metropolitan one. As such, jurisdictions that lagged in reducing crime rates since 1990 may benefit from looking to neighboring communities and similar regions for lessons learned and successful policies that helped significantly reduce property and violent crime over the last two decades.