Joe Mabel / CC BY-SA

February 27, 2020; Washington Post

A recent Washington Post article debunks Michael Bloomberg’s claims that his stop-and-frisk policy was the reason for a dramatic drop in crime during his three terms as mayor of New York City between 2002 and 2013. Using extensive data and studies, authors Dan Keating and Harry Stevens show that there’s no correlation between the number of random stops and changes in criminal activities.

Keating and Stevens, however, offer no alternate explanation for the decline in crime that began under Mayor Ed Koch and continued after the end of the stop-and-frisk era. In fact, you might say that the authors punt to the usual suspects.

Criminologists say improved police work, rather than intensified stop and frisks, have helped lower crime nationwide. Overall, they say explanations for the trend are hard to pinpoint and could include a variety of things. Economic factors such as better pay and lower unemployment may have a role, but crime continued to decline during the Great Recession.

So, what if the fall in crime isn’t a policing issue at all? A recent study of gun violence in Milwaukee offers a different explanation. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article from October 2019, “UWM study finds over half of gun violence perpetrators and victims had elevated blood lead levels as children,” reports on a study by Dr. Lindsay R. Emer of the University of Wisconsin: “After reviewing the records of 89,129 people who were born in Milwaukee between June 1, 1986, and Dec. 31, 2003, and given blood lead tests before the age of six, Emer and other researchers found a correlation between elevated blood lead levels and the risk of being involved in gun violence.”

While this is striking news, the Milwaukee findings are part of a growing body of literature that supports the lead-crime hypothesis. Simply stated, the hypothesis says that in the 20 years following the elimination of lead from paint in 1978 and from gasoline in the 1980s, there was a dramatic drop in urban criminal activity. While the hypothesis doesn’t rule out other social factors which may have contributed to the 1990s’ drop in crime, there’s a growing body of studies that support the hypothesis. As NPQ has noted before, back In 2007, Rick Nevin of the National Center for Healthy Housing found a “very strong association between preschool blood lead and subsequent crime rate trends over several decades in the USA, Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Finland, Italy, West Germany, and New Zealand.”

The evidence has continued to mount. A 2017 Brookings Institute article by Jennifer Doleac, an economist now based at Texas A&M, summarizes three recent studies, each with a different methodology, that support the lead and crime hypothesis. More dramatically, Kevin Drum in Mother Jones magazine offers similar conclusions based on an even broader range of studies from around the world. “In my opinion, the lead-crime hypothesis is by now all but unassailable. The amount of direct research supporting it is massive, and there have even been a few studies done of lead in completely different contexts (lead paint, lead in water pipes) that support the hypothesis in different eras. What’s more, given what we know about how lead affects the brain, none of this should be surprising. What would be surprising is if a powerful neurotoxin like lead didn’t affect violent crime.”

So, why does the educated public insist that youth crime is a law enforcement issue? For starters, there’s a predilection to believe that non-white young males are a threat to civil society. Couple that racist legacy with the political power of law enforcement and you get policies like stop-and-frisk, or the newly announced “relentless pursuit.” The impact of these military-style policies only further stigmatizes communities of color which are already disproportionately affected by lead hazards from homes, soil, and water.

The real crime-stoppers, both in New York City and the US, are the social justice advocates who confront the racist superpredator mythology with data and reason. They can free a generation from despair.

We know now that simply reducing human exposure to environmental lead pays social dividends over a lifetime. Three immediate steps are needed: mandating lead-safe housing, ensuring we have lead-free water (as in Flint, but not just in Flint), and implementing comprehensive infant lead testing. Secondary interventions should include providing remedial health care and education to children already burdened by the neurological damage of lead poisoning. Finally, law enforcement and the criminal justice system need to adopt conscientious policing that restrains impulsive behavior, but doesn’t blame the victims for what is, all too often, a pattern of behavior arising from a neurological disability.—Spencer Wells