STOCKTON, Calif. –- Last year, Pablo Cano put to rest 12 murder victims, the most he's handled in four decades as an undertaker in this troubled city. Many of the dead were still in their teens.
No homicides have come his way so far this year, but in late February he buried a 16-year-old shot in the head, this time in an apparent accident. The job, he says, wears on him.
"I'm so tired of burying these young kids who barely have a chance to start their lives," says Cano, 70.
Some people grimly joke that the wave of Stockton murders -- which hit an all-time high of 58 in 2011 -- must be good for Cano's bottom line. That's hardly the case. Often the families of victims can scrape together only a few hundred dollars even after turning to friends and neighbors for help. He sometimes offers steep discounts so he doesn’t have to turn them away.
"In the last year, I've had to help a lot more people. They just don't have the money," he says. "They have tamale sales. I've had some pay for the balance with two car washes."
Stockton, a city of nearly 300,000 with a heavily agricultural economy, saw home construction soar during the housing frenzy that swept through here and the rest of the country several years ago, and became a foreclosure epicenter when the boom turned to bust. The pain of the housing and economic meltdown feels more apparent here, if only because Stockton has long been home to deep pockets of poverty and rampant street crime.
It is hardly alone in its struggles.
Despite clear success reining in crime nationally in recent decades, pockets of extremely high crime rates can still be found in almost every American city. These areas, virtually without exception, are populated by people at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
"You're not going to find a lot of homicide in high-income or even middle-income neighborhoods," says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University. "The bulk of the action is in these poor neighborhoods."
With a median income just two-thirds of the California average, Stockton has struggled for decades with some of the state’s highest crime rates. Public safety improved during the flush years of the housing boom, and in 2008, homicides fell to just 24, the lowest level in nearly 30 years. But those gains quickly slipped away with the collapse of the housing market and the recession.
To plug gaping deficits, the city council slashed the police department budget, shrinking the size of the force and cutting the pay and benefits of officers who remained. Stockton dismantled a narcotics force, scaled back community policing efforts -- and killings soared. Eight murders in January and February in 2012 put Stockton on pace to break the 2011 homicide record.
The causes of crime trends are notoriously difficult to measure, but criminologists say the police cuts almost certainly played a role. “When you make those kinds of drastic cuts, you have to believe that there’s an effect,” says Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. “It’s unimaginable that something like that couldn’t make a difference.”
Relief is nowhere in sight. Late last month, the city council voted to suspend millions in debt payments and enter mediation with its creditors, a last-ditch attempt to save Stockton from becoming the largest city to file for bankruptcy in U.S. history. Projected deficits over the next several years mean more cuts are likely in all services, including policing.
"We've got one of the highest crime rates in the nation and yet we laid off 99 or more police officers," says Elbert Holman, a city councilman. "We cannot lay off more police officers and declare our city safe. There's just no way."
THE THIN BLUE LINE
Violent crime fell dramatically in the U.S. during the past two decades, after a record-breaking spike in the 1980s and early 1990s, when drug-fueled bloodshed engulfed inner-city neighborhoods. The most striking gains can be seen in the U.S. homicide rate, down by more than 50 percent since peaking in the 1980s.
But violence in the U.S. remains highly concentrated in the country’s poorest urban neighborhoods, and it's deeply enmeshed with other hallmarks of poverty such as unemployment, substandard education and housing, and splintered families.
Experts emphasize that crime rates in many poor and working-class neighborhoods are no higher than the national average, and that poverty alone does not predict danger. Yet where high crime does persist, it is invariably in areas in deep economic distress.
For residents of these impoverished areas, the crime epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s is not a fading memory, but an all-too-present reality. “There are certain neighborhoods that feel like war zones,” says Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
FBI statistics show that national violent crime rates resumed their decline during the past four years, after stagnating several years ago. The drop is not nearly as sharp as in the 1990s, but criminologists think it's encouraging because it occurred during a recession, when some studies suggested some types of crimes would increase.
Yet some experts fear that the recession’s impact on city budgets could cause overall crime rates to stagnate again, and even rise.
Since the beginning of the recession, layoffs have claimed the jobs of roughly 12,000 officers and deputies across the country, while retirement and other losses through attrition contributed to a total of about 60,000 vacancies, according to an October 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. The decline represents the first national drop in law enforcement positions in nearly 25 years, the report found.
"I know of very few places that have not been hit by layoffs," says Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department's COPS Office, a federal program that provides hiring grants to needy police departments. "There's no question that some cities are being devastated."
The impact of layoffs is hardly clear-cut, with some cities seeing increases in offenses, and others staying flat or registering declines. But even cities that have fared well so far could experience a delayed reaction from the cuts years down the road, according to James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University.
“Time will tell whether these budget cuts have a lag effect,” Fox says. “The potential is there absolutely.”
Not all criminologists agree that fewer police naturally leads to higher crime. Some studies have found innovative policing strategies, coupled with community outreach and social services for potential offenders, can curb crime without a big increase in officers.
“If you’re committed to the wrong strategy, no number of cops will be good enough,” says David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and creator of a community-based anti-crime program used by more than 60 cities.
“There turn out to be ways to get on the right side of the dynamics of violent crime without having an awful lot of people,” Kennedy says.
Other research shows a strong connection between police power and crime. A November 2011 study by the Rand Corporation found that, on average, every 10 percent increase in the size of a city’s police force led to a decrease in the homicide rate by 9 percent, robbery by 6 percent and car theft by 4 percent.
Some cities are shedding officers they clearly cannot afford to lose.
Last January, Camden, a deeply impoverished New Jersey city of 80,000 located just outside Philadelphia, dismissed nearly half its police force -- despite its ranking as the second most dangerous city in the U.S. in 2009, according to CQ Press, a data analysis firm.
From 2010 to 2011, homicides rose by nearly 30 percent, and aggravated assaults with a firearm jumped by more than a third.
The effects of the layoffs became apparent in the summer and fall of 2011, as the city recorded a surge in drug-related violence, says Warren Faulk, the Camden County prosecutor.
"There was about a six-month delay. About June or July we started to see the effects of it," Faulk says. "It got really bad in October and November -- critically bad."