Study: Most of Mayors' Talk of Lowering Crime is Symbolic

Mayors talk a lot about lowering crime, according to a new study, but their words often carry no weight for creating change.
by | July 1, 2013
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Mayors talk a lot about crime -- even more than governors or presidents -- but not in ways that might leave them on the hook later on. That’s a key finding in new study published in the academic journal, Criminal Justice Policy Review.

Political scientists Nancy Marion and Willard Oliver wanted to know how often mayors mention crime in their state-of-the-city addresses, and whether the language offered something tangible -- a pledge for which the public could hold them accountable -- or just generalities. What they found points to a fundamental problem for mayors: They may not be able to reduce local crime, but as the government leaders closest in proximity to voters, they feel pressured to at least pay lip service to the issue.

Marion and Oliver, building on their past work analyzing presidential and gubernatorial rhetoric, combed through 263 state-of-the-city addresses for the nation's 50 largest cities between 2005 and 2010. They found that mayors used about 419 words per speech on crime, on average -- about 17 percent of all the words in a given speech. That’s more than twice the proportion that governors set aside in their annual addresses, according to the authors.

But if mayors are more verbose about crime, they don't seem to be any more willing to risk political capital on the issue. About 74 percent of the crime statements were symbolic in nature, according to the study. Marion and Oliver describe symbolic statements as "those that give the appearance of change, when in reality, no serious or significant adjustments are ever made."

“Speaking in general terms is sometimes safer politically than being specific,” Marion said in an email. “An office holder cannot be blamed for supporting an ineffective policy if they didn’t support it. But by speaking in general terms, it appeases the public’s concerns.” Aside from the political math involved, Marion said, mayors may rely on generalities because of their own limitations. They can't act unilaterally on budget issues, such as increasing the size of the police force, because they need the city council's approval. Even if they could, they may not understand the nuances of different crime-control policies well enough to go beyond expressing a basic interest in eliminating crime.

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The study also dives into differences by political party. On average, Democrats set aside about 13 percent of their addresses to talk about crime, whereas for Republicans, it was about 4 percent. The authors noted that Democratic mayors not only talk more about crime, but those Democratic mayors outnumbered Republican mayors: In the six-year window, 74 percent of the mayors from the 50 largest cities were all Democrats.

Given big-city mayors' preference for skirting specifics, is there any evidence that they deliver results after talking about crime? Marion said the topic could be explored in the future. In recent years, some newspapers have tried to hold mayors accountable for promises they make about crime during election years. The Tampa Bay Times, for example, maintains a list of campaign pledges by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, including ones on public safety, and writes periodic updates about his progress.

Nancy Marion teaches in the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, in Ohio. Her co-author, Willard Oliver, teaches in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. You can read more about their work, respectively, here and here

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