The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s claim attributing the 20-year New York City crime decline to Giuliani’s policies

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's crime policies during his speech on policing on Aug. 16. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Good policing saves lives. My dear friend, Rudy Giuliani, knows a thing or two about this. The policies put into place by Rudy ultimately brought down crime by 76 percent and murder by 84 percent. Think of how many families were saved, how much heartache was prevented, when police were put into communities and criminals were removed.”

— Donald Trump, speech about America’s inner cities and black communities, Aug. 16, 2016 

Trump cited crime statistics that were unusually high, and raised our suspicion. He cited former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and attributed the decline in violent crime and homicide in the city to his policies.

But Trump exaggerates the figures by cherry-picking the time frame, and his campaign didn’t provide any proof about how Giuliani’s specific policies affected the crime rates. Below are the facts.

The Facts

Giuliani was New York City mayor from 1994 to 2002. In 1994, the violent crime rate in New York City was 1,860 per 100,000, and the homicide rate was 21.3 per 100,000, according to FBI data. In 2002, the violent crime rate fell to 927.5 per 100,000 (57.6 percent decline), and the homicide rate fell to 7.3 per 100,000 (65.7 percent decline).

The figures Trump used for the decline in violent crime and homicide rates were each about 18 percentage points more than the FBI figures. What gives?

According to a campaign representative, Trump was using figures from 1994 to 2014, because “Mayor Giuliani’s policies were carried out from the start of his tenure through [former Mayor Michael] Bloomberg’s tenure.” The official would not clarify exactly which policies Trump is referring to, or provide proof as to how the policies led to the decline in crime figures.

Using 1994 to 2014 as the time frame, FBI and New York Police Department figures are closer to the numbers that Trump used: about 74 percent decline in violent crime and about 82 percent decline in homicides.

This is problematic.

First, it’s a disputed assumption to make that Giuliani’s policies — Trump is most likely referring to stop-and-frisk — brought down the crime and homicide rates. Then the Trump campaign applies this to the 12-year period after Giuliani left office — making the bizarre assumption that whatever policy implications existed under Giuliani remained unchanged for 12 years after he left office and under a different administration. And it assumes that nothing else that happened between 1994 to 2014 contributed to the decline in crime and homicide rates.

Moreover, crime was already falling before Giuliani took office. FBI data show that the violent crime rate started falling in 1989 and continued to decline until Giuliani took office in 1994. The homicide rate also started its decline in 1990. So whatever policies Giuliani put in place were enacted in addition to a trend that began about four years before he became mayor.

New York was among many other major cities that saw the same decline in crime starting in the 1990s. There are many theories as to why crime started falling around this time.

Many criminal justice experts say that crime rarely has a single cause that drives it. A number of factors, including social and demographic changes, incarceration practices and even weather, could affect crime rates during a given time period. New York significantly changed between January 1994 and December 2013 in many ways, including population, economy and gentrification, according to Ames Grawert, Justice Program counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

“If you’re looking at a single policy that was enacted, or a single mayor, to explain the remarkable decline in crime, I think you’re going to fall short,” Grawert said.

Another telling element is that even after stop-and-frisk ended in 2013, crime continued to go down. If claims such as Trump’s are correct, one might expect crimes to go up at the end of stop-and-frisk.

Bloomberg appointed a new police commissioner in January 2002, and the number of stop-and-frisk stops varied under the new leadership. Stop-and-frisk rapidly increased in 2006, after Giuliani left office, and the number of stops peaked in 2011. Then the number of stops began falling, until current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ended the program once he took office in January 2014.

Our colleague Philip Bump compiled this chart that shows the number of stop-and-frisks was not related to the violent and property crime rates:

Bump explored the argument about stop-and-frisk in detail. The utility of the policy is not “disproven by the lack of correlation, just severely undermined,” he wrote.

Trump and others have cited the spike in violent crime and homicide rates in 2015, as an indication that crime is on the rise. But most criminal justice experts consider 2015 an outlier, as violent crime and homicide rates have been on a steady decline in many major cities over nearly three decades. In any case, you need more than one year of data to understand whether a real shift in crime and homicide rates has taken place.

Trump cited Milwaukee’s crime trends in the same speech on inner cities. In 2015, killings in Milwaukee increased by 69 percent and 634 people were victims of nonfatal shootings, Trump said. His campaign pointed to 2015 data from the Milwaukee Police Department.

Milwaukee has been an exception to the decline in crime in many U.S. cities. FBI crime data show the violent crime rate has fluctuated between 1,000 and 1,400 per 100,000 since 2005. Homicide rates increased in 2010, and saw some decline since then, but not in the same pattern as major cities such as New York. Grawert said cities like Milwaukee, which is one of the most segregated cities in America, also has experienced high unemployment and poverty, and declining population, all of which can be tied to crime rates.

So if you consider New York City crime decline a success story, Milwaukee is an example of a community that has struggled to stabilize over the years — and its fluctuating crime rates is one piece of overall volatility in the city.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump highlights the policies of Giuliani and directly ties the policies to the declining violent crime and homicide rates in New York City. First, Trump chooses a timeline that shows the best data possible: Between 1994, when Giuliani took office, and 2014, when stop-and-frisk ended. Giuliani left office in 2002, and a new police commissioner was appointed under Giuliani’s successor, Bloomberg.

But Trump credits 12 years of New York crime rates to city leadership that took office after Giuliani. Specifically under Giuliani, the homicide rate and violent crime rate each declined about 18 percentage points less than Trump said in his speech. This is quite ridiculous; it’s the equivalent of saying the tax cuts under President George W. Bush resulted in the job growth under President Obama.

It’s debatable whether the stop-and-frisk policies had such a direct impact on crime, as Trump suggests. Crime is affected by many factors, and New York’s decline in crime mirrored the decline in many other major cities at the time. Moreover, crime was declining for four years before Giuliani took office, and it continued to decline for 14 years after he left. So it’s quite debatable that Trump can definitively give credit as he did in his speech.

Without the fudging of numbers, this might have been in the realm of a Two Pinocchio rating. But stretching out Giuliani’s policies to the crime rates over 12 years after Giuliani left office tips it up to Three.

Three Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter