July 21, 2016 at 11:34 PM
When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president on Thursday night, his remarks — echoing comments made at the convention all week — painted an image of a nation in despair, teetering on the brink of utter lawlessness, violence and chaos.
Trump vowed that his administration would "liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities" and that "the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end." Such commentary has been common this week in Cleveland, as the Republican National Convention has leaned heavily on themes of law and order as a series of speakers delivered remarkably foreboding pronouncements about evil, danger, fear and destruction.
But these remarks and the picture they draw isn't one that fully matches up with what is happening across the country Trump hopes to lead, or what is known about recent and historic levels of violence. In his speech Thursday, which repeatedly returns to these themes of crime and danger, Trump does accurately cite some recent increases in homicides, but he also appears to cherry-pick data, draw broad conclusions from limited information and, at times, simply misstate things.
"Our president … has made America a more dangerous environment than frankly I have ever seen, and anybody in this room, has ever watched or seen," Trump said.
While it is true that violent crime has increased, in some fashion, in some places, in recent memory, crime rates show that it is simply untrue that the country is more dangerous than it has been at any time during Trump's seven decades. Crime remains far lower than it was just a few decades ago.
At the same time, there have been recent — and still unexplained — increases in violent crime. The FBI says violent crime and murders were up in the first half of 2015, the most recent period for which the FBI has made data available. (Their full data for 2015 will be released later this year.) And in the early months of this year, homicides had spiked in more than two dozen major U.S. cities, just as they did in some cities last year, prompting concerns from the FBI director as well as some police chiefs.
Experts and law enforcement leaders alike — from the FBI director on through police chiefs in cities across the country — differ on what has caused violence to spike recently, with some suggesting that it stems from gang violence, while others have argued that police may be stepping back due to heightened scrutiny.
These upticks in violent crime are not universal. The FBI said in its preliminary findings for the first half of 2015 that violent crime went up in the West and declined in the Northeast. The Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of law enforcement leaders that collects homicide numbers for the biggest U.S. cities, reported that in the first three months of this year, about half of the police departments they asked reported increases in homicides. The other half reported that killings remained even or below the same numbers seen last year.
There is a reason criminologists suggest caution and not drawing early conclusions from recent numbers, and there is a reason they point out that despite the recent increases in some places, crime rates continue to be lower and urban areas safer than they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Violent crime has been plummeting for two decades. So, even with the increases in killings in some cities last year, the Brennan Center, a law and policy institute in New York, noted that the country was still seeing "historically low levels of violence."
"Crime, like politics, is local," Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, told me earlier this year. "This stuff all occurs in neighborhoods on much more local levels. … It's not about a city as a whole; it's about neighborhoods."
(In an email after reviewing Trump's prepared remarks, Berk expressed bafflement at the figures Trump planned to include and said: "A good illustration of how to lie with statistics.")
Trump's statements about the recent increase in violence in some places — a worrisome development, but not one that necessarily portends widespread and irreversible danger — paint a country on the verge of returning to levels of crime unseen for decades. His comments were also, in some cases, simply unclear.
"Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration's rollback of criminal enforcement," he said. What "rollback of criminal enforcement" was he referencing? It went unstated, and on he went to a collection of data points picked up and scattered seemingly at random.
Instead, Trump pivoted to discussing homicide rates, mentioning the uptick in homicides in some large American cities last year. He pointed out that there were increases last year in Washington and in Baltimore. (Homicides are down in both places this year.)
In addition to Washington and Baltimore, Trump also invoked the killings in Chicago, something he does on occasion. Grouping these cities together may prove a point, although perhaps not the one Trump intended. In its analysis of homicides earlier this year, the Brennan Center noted that while numerous cities saw more killings last year, a majority of the increased in deaths occurred just in those three cities. It is hard to square this with the suggestion of a nationwide crime wave, when an increase in homicides largely occurs in a single handful of Zip codes.
"While this suggests cause for concern in some cities, murder rates vary widely from year to year, and there is little evidence of a national coming wave in violent crime," the Brennan Center report said. "These serious increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic, suggesting that community conditions remain the major factor."
Similarly, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, in a report released through the Justice Department last month, studied the homicide uptick in big cities last year and wrote that it "was real and nearly unprecedented." He added that it was "heavily concentrated in a few cities with large African-American populations" and said better explanations would await further research.
Trump also referenced the dangers faced by law enforcement, a frequent topic around these parts. He vowed to protect police officers and mentioned the recent deaths of officers in Baton Rouge, Dallas and other places. "The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50 percent compared to this point last year," he said. It is not clear where he got that statistic.
According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, the number of officers fatally shot in the line of duty this year has nearly doubled compared to this date last year; the number of officers killed in the line overall has increased by five deaths, a number that includes traffic accidents.
The recent surge of law enforcement deaths — 11 officers killed in a 12-day span, most recently an officer in Kansas City, Kan. — again sent fear through police officers, who have felt under siege in recent years amid protests against how officers use force. Statistically, even as it is safer for people around the country than it was decades ago, it is also safer for police officers over the same period. On average, about 50 police officers have been fatally shot each year over the past decade, a number that has fallen by more than half since the 1970s, according to the memorial fund.
Trump, with his proclamations of a seeming return to law and order, appears to be trying to appeal to the sizable majority of Americans who believe crime is going up, because a majority of Americans always think crime is going up, each and every year, even during years when crime has declined, even during long stretches where crime has declined.
Americans agree about a few things when it comes to crime, according to Gallup polls conducted over the years: Crime is going up, crime is a serious problem and they are not all that worried personally about being victimized by crime, even as they are worried generally about crime.
Year-to-year fluctuations, of the sort Trump has cited, can lead to stratospheric leaps. It sounds horrifying to hear that homicides had doubled in El Paso, Tex., in the first three months of this year. It sounds less frightening when you hear that this is because four people were killed in that period, compared with two people a year earlier.
Still, Trump does have company in being concerned about the recent upticks in deaths in some cities, even despite those numbers paling behind what this country saw two decades ago.
Similar fears were also mentioned earlier this year by FBI Director James B. Comey, who has become a punching bag for Trump and other Republicans since saying the bureau would not recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton over her use of private email servers. (Incidentally, Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, spoke to CNN on Thursday night, and when anchor Jake Tapper mentioned FBI data that showed the country was safer than it used to be, Manafort replied, with a hint of a smile: "The FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they just did with Hillary Clinton." It was not clear if he was seriously questioning the FBI's data, which is collected from local law enforcement agencies.)
Comey, discussing the homicide increases this year, also appeared concerned and said he was not necessarily reassured by long-term trends.
"Something people say to me, 'Well, the increases are off of historic lows,'" Comey told reporters during a discussion at the bureau's headquarters. "How does that make any of us feel any better? I mean, a whole lot more people are dying this year than last year, and last year than the year before, and I don't know why for sure."