Were clogged printers to blame for Chicago’s high crime rate in the early 1990s?

Engineers at Xerox have made a bold claim for their skills at unclogging printer jams: Their expertise was responsible for a drop in Chicago’s crime rate during the mid-1990s.

The story of how they unclogged a city’s broken criminal justice system is told in the latest edition of the New Yorker, and a spokesman for the copier company said it was not just a throwaway line but that the engineers stood by their extraordinary claim.

It will be wearily familiar to anyone with a pressing deadline who has found themselves up to their elbows in toner, frantically trying to pull a scrunched-up piece of A4 from a pair of stubborn rollers.

John Viavattine, the head of Xerox’s Media Technology Centre, told the magazine: “I was asked to go to Chicago to visit the Chicago children’s court.

“This was the mid-nineties, and a sales rep had put our printers – I think they were 400 Series – over the court system.

“What was happening was, lawyers had to deliver certain court documents to the defence attorneys within a certain amount of time. Otherwise, the defendant was let go. And they were losing two out of three cases because of paper jams.”

View of the skyline of Chicago, Illinois

As he told the story he paused for emphasis.

“Two out of three defendants were gone – walking out the door – because of paper jams,” he went on.

Their investigations soon found the culprit. And it certainly wasn’t their 400 Series printers.

“And the problem was that they were using some off-brand, really down-in-the-dumps paper,” he said.

It no doubt proved to be a memorable professional victory. But the tale grows bolder.

Eric Ruiz, leader of the paper jam team, told the magazine: “Now you know why the crime rate in Chicago went down.”

Their intervention fits with the trend in Chicago crime. Murders peaked in 1992 at 943 as gang violence spiralled out of control before declining along with the overall rate of crime.

Criminologists have so far not linked the great printer unclogging to the reduction, instead suggesting smarter policing was one of the biggest factors.

The Chicago police department and the University of Chicago Crime Lab declined to comment on the claim.

One police officer reached by the Telegraph expressed some scepticism for the theory.

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“Printers in the early 1990s? We were still using carbon paper,” he said.

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