Lincoln Steffens, who flourished around the turn of the last century, was possibly the greatest American investigative reporter who ever lived. His Autobiography is still relevant to understanding how American politics and government worked. In one chapter he told how he and his chief competitor, Jacob Riis, started a crime wave when Theodore Roosevelt was chairman of the New York City Police Commission.
It seems that Steffens was taking a nap in one summer afternoon in the basement of police headquarters, where the detectives like to play poker because it was cool. Because they thought he was asleep, they told a story about how a naive young policeman helped some men load up a wagon because their stuff was cluttering the street, and the men turned out to be burglars who had cleaned out the house of a Wall Street broker.
He wrote up the story for the New York Post. His main competitor, Jacob Riis of The Evening Sun, was reprimanded by his editors for being scooped, and he then came up with a crime story that Steffens’ didn’t have. Both redoubled their efforts, and soon the New York newspapers were full of crime stories. This was embarrassing to Roosevelt, because he was supposed to be a reformer.
Roosevelt called the two reporters into his office. Riis confessed that he had unauthorized access to police reports because they were pigeonholed in a certain desk. Steffens told about his naps. They called a truce, and the “crime wave” ceased.
Perception about crime is still different from reality. Many people think crime is on the increase in the United States, but it actually is declining. Many people think illegal immigration has created a serious crime problem in Arizona and the southwest border generally, but the crime rates in Arizona and in major southwest border cities also are declining. An analysis by Ron Unz in The American Conservative magazine indicates that Hispanics as a group are as law-abiding as non-Hispanic whites.
The United States is making good progress in reducing crime. We have a right to feel good about this accomplishment. We don’t need to scare ourselves with reports of an illegal Hispanic immigrant crime wave.