Democracy Dies in Darkness

Fact Checker

Fact-checking Trump's rhetoric on crime and the 'American carnage'

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee

January 30, 2017 at 3:00 AM

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

"Right now, too many families don't feel secure. Just look at the 30 largest cities. In the last year alone, the murder rate has increased by an estimated 14 percent. Here in Philadelphia, the murder rate has been steady — I mean just terribly increasing. And then you look at Chicago, what's going on in Chicago? I said the other day, 'What the hell is going on?'"
— President Trump, remarks at Republican retreat, Jan. 26

"When President Obama was there [Chicago] two weeks ago making a speech, very nice speech. Two people were shot and killed during his speech."
— Trump, interview with ABC News, Jan. 25

"If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible 'carnage' going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!"
— Trump, in a tweet, Jan. 24

"Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities … and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."
— Trump, inauguration speech, Jan. 20

President Trump made it clear in his first week in office that he plans to crack down on crime and the "American carnage" plaguing "inner cities." In fact, this was a recurring topic throughout his campaign, and a major theme of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Trump often takes crime statistics out of context or gets them flat-out wrong. He did both in the above statements.

Let's take a look at the facts underlying his rhetoric on crime. (The White House did not respond to our inquiry.)

The Facts

"Inner cities" is not a category by which crime is measured. Trump seems to mean the largest and urban cities, based on his previous references to Democrat-led inner cities and the 30 largest cities.

Trump accurately cites a statistic from a report by the Brennan Center for Justice: that in the largest 30 cities, homicides increased by 14 percent from 2015 to 2016.

But one outlier city — Chicago — was responsible for 43.7 percent of the total increase in homicide rates in 2016. Law enforcement officials and researchers think that the shrinking detective force, gang violence and socioeconomic factors are contributing to this increase in killing.

There was a similar trend in 2015: Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore were three outlier cities that accounted for more than half of the increase in homicide rates in the 30 largest cities. Yet in 2016, homicide rates declined in Washington and Baltimore  by 18.6 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

A warning about percent changes in crime: They can exaggerate the magnitude of crimes in a city. For example, the homicide rate in Austin increased by 68 percent in 2016, even though the actual number of homicides increased to 40 from 23. That's a small fraction of the number of homicides in Chicago (from 478 in 2015 to 732 in 2016), yet Austin saw a bigger percentage increase than Chicago.

Overall, violent crime is on a decades-long decline, since the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s.

Crime trends can randomly fluctuate year to year. Many factors affect such rates, including the weather. This is why criminologists do not make generalizations about crime trends based on short-term comparisons of rates, such as annual or monthly changes. They consider the data over much longer periods of time — at least 10 to 15 years — to make conclusions about trends.

For example, in 2006 and 2007, the national violent crime trend increased for the first time in nine years. Democrats bemoaned the return of the crime wave, creating a political headache for the George W. Bush administration.

"After years of driving crime rates down, we're now in reverse gear," said then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "It's time to get back to crime-fighting basics — that means more cops on the streets, equipped with the tools and resources they need to keep our neighborhoods safe."

Then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales denied that the crime trend was reversing: "In general, it doesn't appear that the current data reveal nationwide trends. Rather, they show local increases in certain communities. Each community is facing different circumstances, and in many places violent crime continues to decrease."

Turns out Gonzales was right. The graphs below show the increase in 2006 and 2007 was a temporary blip — not a return of a national crime wave.

(Brennan Center for Justice)
(Brennan Center for Justice)

In his Jan. 24 tweet, Trump says "killings" are up 24 percent from 2016. The percentage is accurate, per Chicago police. But with only one month of data in 2017, it's too early to use that statistic to call it "carnage." Trump also said he would "send in the feds," although federal agencies already work with Chicago police.

Are crimes worse in "inner cities" led by Democrats? Crime, in general, tends to be higher in larger, urban cities with concentrated populations and greater socioeconomic divides. The cities with the greatest income inequality also are urban cities contained within a small geographic boundary, with bigger, yet more concentrated populations. And urban cities tend to be more Democratic; 25 of the 30 largest cities have Democratic mayors.

But that does not prove causation. Brennan Center researchers say the only connection they have found between city-level policies and crime statistics is the adoption of better crime-data tracking systems, which all the major 30 cities have.

Some of Trump's recent references to crime statistics were off the mark. In Philadelphia, he claimed the city's homicide rate is "terribly increasing." That's incorrect. Homicides have declined significantly in Philadelphia over the past decade, from 397 in 2007 to 277 in 2016. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, in 2016, "there were fewer violent crimes than in any other year since 1979, the fewest number of property crimes since 1971, and the fewest number of robberies since 1969."

Trump also claimed that two people were fatally shot during President Barack Obama's farewell speech on Jan. 10. No one was shot and killed in Chicago that day, according to the Chicago Police Department. Four shootings occurred that day, with a total of six people shot, but no one died.

The Pinocchio Test

Crime trends are susceptible to cherry-picking, because they fluctuate so much for many reasons. The consensus among criminologists is that two years' worth of data (i.e., upticks in crime in 2015 and 2016) are not enough evidence to prove a crime wave. So Trump's claims using data from "inner cities," or the 30 largest U.S. cities, to make sweeping statements about "American carnage" are misleading.

Some cities have experienced spikes in violent crime in the past two years. Outlier cities drove up the overall violent crime rate in the 30 largest cities, for reasons that aren't clear. A previous two-year increase in the rates, in 2006 and 2007, showed it was a temporary blip in the overall decades-long downward trend in violent crime. That is important context that is not represented in Trump's rhetoric on crime.

Trump's references to crime "terribly increasing" in Philadelphia and the shootings during Obama's speech in Chicago are factually inaccurate, and worthy of Four Pinocchios. His use of crime rates in the 30 largest cities (or "inner cities") to describe an "American carnage" earns Two Pinocchios. We'll split the difference and award him three.

Three Pinocchios

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Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a national political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post.

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