Fact check: Police, crime rates, statistics

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Joe Friday – Just the facts, ma’am

Is crime increasing? Are police under attack and being killed in large numbers? Despite three Executive Orders this week – which amount to a combination of fear-mongering and orders to conduct studies – crime is decreasing in the United States, and so is danger to police. The numbers come from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the FBI, neither of which is noted for any left-wing bias.

Danger to police

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund tracks police deaths in the line of duty. The report on 2016 shows 135 police deaths, including 64 by gunshot. The other 71 deaths include motor vehicle accidents, heart attacks, etc. This year’s report shows:

“The 135 officer fatalities in 2016 is a 10 percent increase over the 123 who died in the line of duty last year and is the highest total since 2011, when 177 officers made the ultimate sacrifice. … Firearms-related incidents were the number one cause of death in 2016, with 64 officers shot and killed across the country. This represents a significant spike—56 percent—over the 41 officers killed by gunfire in 2015.”

The 2015 number of 41 police killed by gunfire looks like an all-time low, which makes the contrast with 2016 even greater. Overall, police deaths in the line of duty and police deaths by gunfire have been dropping over the past six decades. Here’s the chart from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund:

Decreasing crime

The best source for national crime statistics is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics database. This database shows the violent crime rate steadily dropping from 2006 onward – from 479.3 per 100,000 in 2006 to 375.7 per 100,000 in 2014. The murder rate also dropped, from 5.8 per 100,000 in 2006 to 4.5 per 100,000 in 2014. Because FBI statistics have a significant time lag, the latest year reported is 2014.

So what happened since 2014? That gets more complicated, largely because of different data sources. The FBI itself says there was a 3.9 percent increase in violent crimes from 2014 to 2015, with 1,197,704 violent crimes reported in 2015. That would be a decrease from UCR data showing 1,197,987 violent crimes in 2014.

But the FBI has a different report that shows slightly different numbers, and is updated through 2015. In this report, there’s a slight (3.9 percent) increase in violent crimes in 2015 over 2014, though the murder rate continues to fall. The main reason that the 2015 violent crime index shows a slight increase is that the number of violent crimes in 2014 has been revised downward. Why? I have no idea, but this illustrates the difficulty of getting solid numbers. Even the FBI can’t keep it straight.

So does that mean that Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be right when he talks about an increase in crime that is a “dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk.”

No. That’s simply a lie.

Despite the annoying inconsistencies noted above, the FBI numbers consistently show that crime is decreasing, not increasing. In 1996, the rate of violent crimes per 100,000 people was 636.6. By 2015, that number had fallen to 372.6. That is a steady and significant decrease. Sessions and his boss are simply fear-mongering and making up scare stories that have no basis in fact.

Those Executive Orders

Last week Trump issued three executive orders that were supposed to add up to getting tough on crime.

These executive orders scared a lot of people. The Independent, for example, reported Donald Trump signs executive order giving police more powers. No. He didn’t. He can’t. Congress can pass laws to create new federal crimes and give federal law enforcement wider authority – within constitutional limits – but the president cannot do that by  executive order.

In the Sessions swearing-in ceremony, Trump said he is “directing the Department of Justice to implement a plan to stop crime.” Basically, that’s what the executive orders do: they tell the federal law enforcement agencies to do what they are already doing, along with setting up task forces to study crime and law enforcement.

If the crime rate continues to trend downward over the next four years, as it has over the past several decades, that will undoubtedly show that his executive orders succeeded.

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Filed under fact check, police and crime, Tracking Trump

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