At various times over the past 12 months, we heard dire predictions of a “nationwide crime wave,” complete with stats about soaring homicide rates. We’ve also heard incessant chatter this year about a “war on cops” and how it’s never been more dangerous to wear a police uniform. Inevitably, the same people making these claims have then cast blame on police critics, protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, viral videos of police abuse and efforts to hold bad cops accountable.
Well, we’re now at the end of the year. So how do all of those claims stack up? Not well.
Let’s start with the alleged war on cops. Here’s the latest chart from Mark Perry at the conservative American Enterprise Institute:
Based on annual law enforcement fatality data from the Officer Down Memorial Page back to 1870 and through today for 2015, and adjusting for the US population using data from Global Financial Data, this year (2015) is on track to be the second-safest year for US police officers in history (0.1112 gun-related police deaths per 1 million population), second only to a slightly safer year in 2013 (0.097 deaths per 1 million). Gun-related police deaths in the US per 1 million population were about 6 times higher in the 1970s (0.674 in 1971) and 14-17 times higher during America’s War on Alcohol (Prohibition), when it was as high as 1.55 per 1 million in 1921 (the first full year of the War on Beer).
Emphasis added. You’ll find similar results if you look at the deaths tracked by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, where firearms-related deaths of cops are down 20 percent this year from last year — and again, only 2013 was lower. Moreover, the 38 deaths this year include at least one suicide and two cases in which a cop was shot by another cop.
So what about the overall crime rate? Here’s an excerpt from a press release sent out yesterday from the group Law Enforcement Leaders:
Amid misleading reports on increasing crime, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration—a group of 150 of the country’s most prominent current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, district and state’s attorneys, U.S. Attorneys, attorneys general, and other law enforcement leaders—has issued the following statement. Members of the group include the leaders of the New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Houston police departments . . .
“Crime in the U.S. is at an all-time low across the country, and we expect it to stay that way,” said Ronal Serpas, Chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and the former New Orleans Police Superintendent. “Despite some misleading reports about a surge in crime rates, the data show just the opposite. In fact, as recent studies show, the overall crime rate will be lower this year than it was last year, and half of what it was in 1990. Some cities have seen a rise in murder, but these are isolated incidents—not a new crime wave—which local leaders are taking steps to address.
“At this moment of rare national consensus that incarceration levels in this country have reached a crisis point, we cannot let sensational headlines slow the momentum to reduce unnecessary incarceration. As public officials charged with keeping all Americans safe, we’re counting on real reform to help us focus our resources most effectively and continue to keep crime at its historic lows across the country.”
Here’s the most thorough of those studies, from the Brennan Center. Even the New York Times, which last summer helped drive fears about an alleged national crime wave with a (much criticized) front-page article about urban crime, is backing off. From an editorial last month:
As with so many debates about crime in America, it helps to examine the actual numbers.
It is true that in many cities, murders in 2015 are on pace to surpass 2014 totals. In a new analysis of murder and crime rates in the country’s 30 largest cities, the Brennan Center for Justice projected that the average murder rate will be 11 percent higher this year than last. New York City, which had 333 murders in 2014, is predicted to have 357 murders by the end of 2015.
While that is troubling, it is not evidence that America has fallen back into a lawless pit of chaos and death. A more meaningful way of looking at data is comparing it with unmistakable longer-term trends: The rate of violent crime, including murder, has been going down for a quarter-century, and is at its lowest in decades. On average, it is half of what it was in 1990, and in some places even lower.
In New York City, for example, the number of murders reached 2,245 in 1990. Even in 2010, the city logged 536 murders, or 50 percent more than this year’s projected total. This long-term decline has been well reported, but increasingly, it is getting overlooked in the rush to identify a new crime wave.
As the Brennan Center analysis shows, overall violent crime — which includes not just murder, but robbery, larceny, assault and burglary — is projected to be 1.5 percent lower in 2015 than 2014. For understandable reasons, murders get the most attention, but they accounted for only 1.2 percent of all violent crime in 2014.
It’s true that some cities like Baltimore, St. Louis and Detroit saw a significant and troubling rise in homicides this year. But those are isolated cases. In other cities, homicide were up, but only after long and historic drops.
Here in Nashville, for example, we saw 67 murders in 2015, up from 41 last year. (The figures are for all of Davidson County). At first blush, that seems like an alarming increase. And it has caused much consternation among politicians, the media and community leaders, with lots of calls for “action,” whatever that means.
But last year was a historic low for the city and represented the floor of an overall 10-year decline. This year’s total of 67 murders only takes the city back where it was in 2009, and is right at about the 10-year average of 66. For comparison, between 1971 and 1989, annual murders in Davidson County usually numbered in the 80 and 90s, and never dipped below 67 — and that was with 20 to 25 percent less population than the county has today.
And these are just raw numbers. The ten-year drop since there were more than 90 murders in 2005 has taken place in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. Raw crime figures can drop only so low, particularly in a city that’s growing by the day. And once they are at historic lows, even small increases look large when expressed as percentages.
Despite the likelihood that violent crime overall will be down slightly this year — continuing a general two-decade decline — a Gallup poll taken in October showed that 70 percent of Americans think crime is worse this year than last year. Just 18 percent thought crime has gone down. Crime in the United States has been dropping dramatically since about 1994. Yet with one exception, in every year since 1994 there has been at least a 20 percent gap between those two figures. The year 2012, for example, saw the lowest violent crime rate in the United States in 40 years. Yet by about a 50-point margin, Americans still told Gallup at the time they thought crime was getting worse.
Part of this is just due to the nature of news. Last night’s murder is news. A gradual, generation-long drop in murders may occasionally make headlines once we’re aware that it’s happening, but it won’t be in the news every day. Interestingly, Gallup also asks a question that tends to produce more accurate results — whether respondents feel unsafe walking alone at night in their own neighborhood. There, respondents today say by about a 2-1 margin that they feel safe where they live. That question also tracks more closely with the overall crime rate.
Unfortunately, public policy tends to be shaped by the less accurate question — how people believe things are trending outside of their immediate surroundings. Naturally, we rely on what we read and see on TV to form our opinions about what we haven’t experienced directly. And what we see on TV will naturally be the bad stuff that happened, not good news about the bad stuff that didn’t happen.
That’s why all this context is important: A murder will always be news. The people who didn’t get killed this year, but may have in a more violent era, obviously don’t make the news. People will always get a skewed reality that makes them feel less safe than they are, even in an era of unprecedented safety.
But when we do talk about statistics and trends, we could at least get them right. We can at least report the statistics not only accurately, but also with the background and explanation necessary to understand their significance. A report about, say, a 40 percent rise in homicides in a given city should always state if that increase comes off a record low, or a long decline. A report about the 39 police officers killed with guns this year might point out that it wasn’t long ago when four, five or six times that many were killed each year. And any reports about raw figures should always include rates.
We’re currently in the midst of a critical national discussion about criminal justice reform, police reform and mass incarceration. We’re finally reconsidering the rash policies that wrecked entire generations of some communities. The 1980s and early 1990s were an era of higher crime and a generally more dangerous society. But those debates were often based on myth, moral panic and political demagoguery. It’s one thing to give in to fear when crime really is on the rise. But it would be tragic if the opportunity we have today to reform laws was thwarted by same sort of fact-free fear.