--Vice President Biden, October 18, 2011
“In Flint, Michigan, they cut their force in half; murder rates have doubled in the last year…Police departments, as I said, in some cases literally cut in half, like Camden, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan. In many cities, the result has been -- and it's not unique -- murder rates are up, robberies are up, rapes are up…I said rape was up, three times in Flint. There are the numbers. Go look at the numbers.”
--Biden, October 19, 2011, on Capitol Hill
In the battle over the administration’s jobs bill, Vice President Biden this week has been making the startling case that more people will be murdered or raped if the legislation is not passed. His argument is that in cities such as Flint, Mich., the murder and rape rates have soared as the police force has been cut back for budgetary reasons.
When challenged by a reporter from a conservative publication about his charge (see video below), Biden stood his ground and said without more money, “murder will continue to rise, rape will continue to rise, all crimes will continue to rise.” As he put it, “Go look at the numbers.”
Okay, challenge taken. What do the numbers show?
Flint is certainly a violent city, ranked number one in many categories. The website of the Flint Police Department only gives data through 2008, but both the FBI and the Michigan State Police have more recent figures that are provided to them by the Flint police. The numbers are not precisely the same because of different reporting requirements, but they are roughly the same—and show a different picture than reported by Biden.
The Flint website for 2008 shows the same figures that Biden cited: 35 murders and 91 rapes.
Here’s what the FBI shows:
City of Flint: 32 murders, 103 rapes
Surrounding area: 37 murders, 239 rapes
RATE PER 100,000 INHABITANTS: murder, 8.6; rape 55.5
City of Flint: 36 murders, 91 rapes
Surrounding area: 44 murders, 235 rapes
RATE PER 100,000 INHABITANTS: murder, 10.3; rape, 55.1
City of Flint: 53 murders, 92 rapes
Surrounding area: 58 murders, 225 rapes
RATE PER 100,000 INHABITANTS: murder, 13.8; rape 53.7
More important than the raw figures is the rate per 100,000 individuals. Murder did go up—though the rate did not double from 2009 to 2010, as Biden claimed. But rape has gone down. Biden actually asserted it had tripled.
Biden’s office referred us to officials in Flint. After inquiries from The Fact Checker, Dawn Jones, a spokeswoman for Flint’s mayor, issued a statement from Public Safety Director Chief Alvern Lock saying: “The City of Flint stands behind the crime statistics provided to the Office of The Vice President….This information is the most accurate data and demonstrates the rise in crime associated with the economic crisis and the reduced staffing levels.”
The statement said the murder rate for 2010 was different than the FBI statistics because of a “clerical error” when the data was submitted to the FBI. (Someone in the police department forgot to add people to the murder rate if they died long after the assault.) But the revised number for the FBI will be 58 murders, not Biden’s figure of 65, because the FBI only counts willful homicides, not manslaughter and negligent homicide, Jones said.
The statement, however, was strangely silent on the massive discrepancy in the rape statistics. There have been a number of studies (see here and here) that document that the FBI statistics do not capture all forms of rape. The FBI stats include forcible intercourse but not oral sex or other forms of sexual assault.
But that issue does not explain why Biden’s rape statistics would be so much higher than what was reported in the local press over the years. The Flint Journal on May 24, in fact, reported the number of rapes had declined in the city from 2009 to 2010.
Jones, in an interview, said that the city had never released the broader rape figure to the public until the vice president’s office requested the data. “We have never shared that number,” she said, agreeing that it was strange that Flint’s official rape figure for 2008—91--was actually lower than the FBI figure for that year, even with the FBI’s more narrow definition of rape.
“I am thinking that maybe there is no policy on how we input those numbers,” Jones said. She could not provide an explanation Thursday night, but our working assumption is that these numbers are apples and oranges. The proper comparison with Flint’s 2008 figure appears to be the FBI’s figure for 2010--showing a decline in rapes. The higher figure for 2010 cited by Biden is simply a different data set.
Interestingly, Flint Police Chief Lock has repeatedly asserted that cuts in staffing had little effect on the crime rate.
As the Flint Journal reported in May: “Officials said the fact that 46 police officers were laid off last year had little to do with the escalating crime. Most of the crimes were between people that knew each other. ‘No matter how many officers we have, we can't stop disputes between two people in their own homes,’ Lock said.”
Lock made a similar assertion in September, 2010, when FBI statistics were released showing violent crime in Flint had decreased in 2009. The Flint Journal reported: “A smaller police force doesn't automatically mean more crime, said Flint police chief Alven Lock. ‘There's been years when we had 300 officers and we still had more homicides,’ he said, referring to 1986, when he was in the homicide division and homicides hit an all-time high of 61.”
As Jones put it, “we have a messaging problem.”
This brings us to the central point of Biden’s argument--that fewer police officers means more crime. More police officers might certainly mean more arrests and convictions, particularly for less noteworthy crimes, but researchers have strived to make a link between murders and officers on the street.
University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, who examined ten possible factors for why crime fell in the 1990s, made a noteworthy effort in 2004 to assess the importance of additional cops. He included the increase in police as one factor that could explain the decline in crime. But he also said that other key factors included a rising prison population, the receding crack epidemic and even the legalization of abortion (which resulted in fewer unwanted births).
In other words, even if you could make a link, it is likely one of many factors that affects the crime rate, not the single one, as Biden suggests. The FBI itself lists more than a dozen variables in what causes crime to increase in a community.
Others believe the connection is tenuous, at best. “There is limited or no correlation between the number of officers and the homicide rate,” said David Carter, a Michigan State University criminal justice professor who works with the Justice Department to track homicides. “To draw any kind of conclusion on simply the number of officers and the number of homicides is virtually meaningless. There are too many other variables that will influence the commission of homicides as well as clearances. In essence, the reporting of this simple data, whether using Biden's data or city data, does not describe changes in the incidents of homicides in Flint or any city.”
Andrew Kramer of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice also has closely studied the reasons for the decline of crime in New York City. “The NYPD has decreased in size by about 4,000 officers to 36,000 since 2000 and yet crime has continued to go down,” he said.
The Pinocchio Test
Biden, when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1994, was author of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in U.S. history. On the face of it, a threefold increase in rape in two years—when other violent crime statistics show relatively modest increases in the same city—should raise serious questions for anyone knowledgeable about crime or statistics. Clearly, the city of Flint supplied bad data, and either Biden or someone in Biden’s office should have caught it.
In any case, the vice president should know better than to spout off half-baked facts in service of a dubious argument. Even if one believes there is a link between crime and the number of police—which is debatable and subject to many caveats—there is no excuse to make the dramatic claim that more people will die or be raped without additional funds for police. When making such a breathtaking charge, you had better have your facts straight.