The Old Town in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, does not look like a den of thieves. On a summer afternoon, herds of elderly tourists—American, Japanese, British—wander between the gift shops and sip lagers at pavement cafés beneath the gothic town hall. In a park, teenagers chat and smoke cigarettes in the sun.
Valdo Pôder, a local police officer, remembers when it was quite different. In the mid-1990s curtains rose at the city’s theatres at six o’clock so that the audience could get home before sunset. Young men hung around selling bootleg vodka. The streetlights were always smashed. Pointing to one smart-looking bar Mr Pôder says he would have needed a team of at least ten officers to raid it.
“We’d have to put everyone inside on the floor,” he says. “Or else we might get shot at.”
Crime in Estonia has fallen precipitously
Since 1995, the country’s murder rate has dropped by 70%, and robbery and car theft have fallen almost as far. Even as the country entered a deep recession in 2009, which pushed unemployment up to 19%, the crime rate kept falling.
But though the magnitude of this trend sets post-Soviet Estonia apart, its direction does not. Across the developed world, the crime wave that began in the 1950s is in broad retreat (see chart ).
Both police records (which underestimate some types of crime) and surveys of victims (which should not, but are not as regularly available a source of data) show crime against the person and against property falling over the past ten years in most rich countries.
In America the fall began around 1991; in Britain it began around 1995, though the murder rate followed only in the mid-2000s. In France, property crime rose until 2001—but it has fallen by a third since. Some crimes are all but disappearing. In 1997, some 400,000 cars were reported stolen in England and Wales: in 2014, just 86,000.
There are still criminals, but there are ever fewer of them and they are getting older. When the global economy recovers, there will be fewer still.
In Tallinn, the police are having to come to terms with the implications of lower crime.
“Nowadays we have a new problem,” jokes Priit Pärkna, one of the local police chiefs. “If we want to arrest someone, we need much more evidence than we did.”
At the moment, he is worried about the pickpockets that the city’s new-found tourist trade attracts. As problems brought on by progress go, it is not the worst.
Source: The Economist print edition