Providence Mayor David Cicilline has made Providence's falling crime rate one of the key selling points in his campaign in the 1st Congressional District. He repeated it during the July 13 debate with his three Democratic challengers, saying the city now has "the lowest crime rate in three decades."
In addition, the mayor's website says, "Under his leadership, Providence has seen crime drop to its lowest rate in 30 years."
We asked the campaign for numbers to support that assertion. They provided statistics collected by the Providence Police Department on various crimes going back to 1960.
Cicilline is basing the claim on the sum of all reports of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft, which the police call the "crime index."
Those numbers show that in 2009, there were 9,252 such crimes reported in the capital city. The last time the number was that low was in 1965, when 8,521 crimes were logged in those categories. That's a span of 44 years.
So by that measure, Cicilline's claim is understated. The annual number of reported crimes hasn't been this low in more than four decades, not three.
But is the mayor's leadership responsible for that decline?
When we invited Karen Watts, the mayor's director of communications, to address that issue, she responded in an email that, "I think I'll just let the facts speak for themselves."
We compared the rise and fall of crimes in Providence to the national pattern, using numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Justice. Over the years, the Providence trends have been very similar to the U.S. numbers. The number of crime reports rose steadily, except for some sporadic dips, throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
Around 1990, things began to change. Nationally, the numbers began a gradual decline. Chris Menton, a professor of criminal justice at Roger Williams University, said there are lot of theories for the trend, but one of the most solid holds that when there are more young people in a population, the crime rate is higher.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Baby Boomers were of an age where they were more likely to get into trouble and, in reaction, "our tolerance for deviant behavior went down." That upward trend changed after the early '90s because the population was older and a booming economy meant more jobs, which helps keep younger people out of trouble.
Locally, the numbers fell dramatically, beginning around the time then-Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. began his second administration. Then, during Cianci's final three years, before he went to prison on a federal corruption charge, crime made a sharp spike upward again, a trend that was far more muted on the national level.
It was after this 2001-2002 peak that Cicilline took over and - with the exception of a bump in 2008 when the number of incidents went up by 6 percent over the previous year - the number of reported crimes has fallen steadily.
So the decline in the number of crimes reported in Providence coincides with a similar, although much less steep, decline nationally. In other words, whatever effect Cicilline or his administration might have had on the crime rate, national forces were likely at work as well.
A few other issues complicate this analysis. For example, Cicilline is talking about the crime rate when the number his administration is using is the total number of crime reports, which is different. But when we looked closely, we found that those issues didn't actually affect the conclusion. For a discussion of those factors, CLICK HERE.
In the end, the number of incidents of crime in Providence has declined since Cicilline took office and the number of incidents reported in 2009 is the lowest in 44 years, which makes the mayor's claim seem modest.
Even though the ebb and flow of crime reports roughly mirrors what's been going on in the rest of the nation, and it's not clear how much he or his administration is directly responsible for a rate that began dropping during the second Cianci administration, we rate his statement as True.