On Monday, the New York Police Department made an announcement: The number of shootings in New York in the first half of the year had reached a historic low. Murders are down nearly 9 percent over 2015 citywide, and violent crime has dropped slightly. Compared to the first half of 1993, near the city's crime peak, Donald Trump's hometown has seen a 76.8 percent drop in violent crime and an 83 percent drop in murders. Murders are down slightly in Brooklyn over the first half of 2015 — and down substantially in Queens.
On Tuesday morning, though, Trump painted a picture of a very different situation.
This piggybacks on Trump's announcement Monday that he is the "law and order candidate," drawing a direct comparison between his campaign and that of Richard Nixon in 1968. Crime is spiking, Trump argues, and he is the guy to guide our national ship through this storm.
But crime isn't out of control — particularly when you compare the country to 1968. Violent crime rates are higher now than they were then, but in the late 1960s, the country was seeing a sudden and dramatic surge in violent crime and murder. Between 1964 and 1968, the violent crime rate jumped from 190.6 incidents per 100,000 Americans to 298.4, an increase of over 50 percent. Between 2010 and 2014, the most recent period for which we have FBI data, the rate sank from 404.5 to 375.7.
There has, however, been a recent uptick in high-profile violent incidents, like the murders of five police officers in Dallas (on which Trump's speech was piggybacking) and mass shooting incidents. In 2015, a number of big cities saw jumps in their murder rates, including Chicago, as Trump mentioned. Chicago has become shorthand for the argument that Trump is making: America is less safe; just look at the murders in Chicago. At a Trump event last week, a sheriff warming up the crowd asked the audience if they'd walk down a sidewalk in Chicago or Baltimore on the weekend. The crowd yelled, "No!"
It's possible that we're seeing the start of a new uptick in violent crime nationally; we won't have data for 2016 until well after the presidential election. But it's not universal, clearly, as New York — once and always the country's largest city — makes clear. The inner city of New York is substantially safer than it was even 15 years ago, as former mayor Rudy Giuliani will tell you if you ask (or if you don't).
So why is Trump making the claim that crime is an urgent crisis? A few reasons.
Trump mentions the "inner cities" — itself something of a throwback term from the bad old days of the American crime wave — as a way of trying to demonstrate concern about communities of color and the poor, for which the term is a broad euphemism. This is in part an apparent attempt to reach out to nonwhite voters, who are mostly Democrats. But it's also outreach to the white working-class voters Trump sees as critical to his base.
A recent PRRI/Brookings study identified the groups most worried about crime: Basically everyone but college-educated white Americans, which overlaps heavily with financial security.
Nearly three-quarters of white working-class Americans are worried about becoming victims of violent crime. Trump's mention of Chicago and the inner cities helps reinforce that by explaining why these white working-class voters mostly aren't seeing big spikes in crime in their own areas: It's happening in these other places.
Donald Trump's electoral strategy depends heavily on converting worry into votes. It drives his foreign policy. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released Monday found that terrorism was the No. 1 priority for Trump voters, over even the economy. The spate of recent high-profile violent incidents offers another chance to stoke concerns. Older Americans, like Trump, remember the descent of the country into horrible crime, and fear such a descent happening once again. Crime is far less of a problem than it was 30 years ago, but anecdotes are always more powerful than data. And Trump is happy to wield anecdotes over evidence as it suits his needs.
Anyone over 30 has lived through the worst period of crime in American history, and anyone under 45 has never lived in a safer America. People over 50 likely remember the halcyon days before the big crime spike and would like to make America very good again, as it was back then. Many worry that we're moving in the wrong direction. In that Suffolk/USA Today poll, 51 percent of Clinton supporters said America is headed in the right direction. Eighty-nine percent of Trump supporters said we're on the wrong track.
Crime is not out of control. But as long as there's political value in saying that it is, that will be said.