Complicating the Simpleminded Story About Crime

Screaming about crime is a favorite past time of conservative politicians and headline writers. Like most things, facts about crime are more complicated than the fear-mongers want us to know. Here are a few of the complicated facts. 

Murders are up in 2020 and 2021, compared to 2019. That is true in many states and cities, but not all. Murders are up in some cities with Republican mayors and some cities with Democratic mayors, and down in others. They are up in cities that trimmed police budgets slightly (and no city made major cuts). They are up in cities that increased police budgets. Politics has nothing to do with it. 

The murder rate in 2020 was far lower than the murder rate 25 years ago. A study of crime in 34 U.S. cities during calendar year 2020 found a homicide rate of 11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents. In 1995, the rate in the same cities was 19.4 deaths per 100,000 residents. 

Overall, crime in the United States has fallen dramatically since the 1990s. The same study found increases in gun crimes and aggravated assault in 2020, but significant decreases in all categories of property crimes except motor vehicle theft. 

“Residential burglary decreased by 24%, nonresidential burglary by 7%, larceny by 16%, and drug offenses by 30%. Motor vehicle theft rose by 13%.” 

So why are we hearing so much about increasing crime? The screaming comes mostly from those with something to gain by scaring the American public—from Richard Nixon in 1968 to the Fraternal Order of Police and Senator Mitch McConnell today. The Guardian sums it up succinctly

“Anxiety about violent crime is often used to win elections. Police and politicians routinely share misleading, out-of-context crime statistics to advance their agendas. Fearmongering about rising crime has also been used for decades to undermine Black Americans’ protests for civil rights.”

Overall, that strategy works. The Pew Research Center observes that “Americans tend to believe crime is up, even when the data shows it is down.” In a careful analysis of data from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Pew Research Center found: 

“Using the FBI data, the violent crime rate fell 49% between 1993 and 2019, with large decreases in the rates of robbery (-68%), murder/non-negligent manslaughter (-47%) and aggravated assault (-43%). (It’s not possible to calculate the change in the rape rate during this period because the FBI revised its definition of the offense in 2013.) Meanwhile, the property crime rate fell 55%, with big declines in the rates of burglary (-69%), motor vehicle theft (-64%) and larceny/theft (-49%).

“Using the BJS statistics, the declines in the violent and property crime rates are even steeper than those reported by the FBI. Per BJS, the overall violent crime rate fell 74% between 1993 and 2019, while the property crime rate fell 71%.”

So why is murder increasing? COVID? Protests? Gun sales? And will murder rates continue to increase or will they once again begin dropping? 

Honest researchers say we just don’t know yet. 

Depending on your political persuasion, you can always find a person or a policy to blame, but simpleminded slogans come nowhere near the truth.  

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