The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump, cops and crime

President Trump at Lafayette Square by the White House on Jan. 20. (John McDonnell /The Washington Post)

Within minutes of President Trump’s swearing in, his administration posted several policy positions on the White House website. The topic “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community” is striking.

A Trump Administration will empower our law enforcement officers to do their jobs and keep our streets free of crime and violence. The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration. President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.

These aren’t off-the-cuff remarks. It’s carefully chosen language that presumably went through a number of revisions. Note the wording. Trump will do more than end violence against law enforcement. He will end the “anti-police atmosphere in America.” You don’t end an “atmosphere” without some pretty drastic action. It sounds quite like a promise to crack down on speech and protest. Ominous as that sounds (and it’s pretty ominous), absent some wanton, unheard of abuse of power like federalizing the National Guard to subdue the next round of protests against police abuse, there isn’t a whole lot Trump can do directly, at least not in the short term.

But in the longer term? He could widen the spigot through which military gear flows to police departments, both from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. He has already promised this. He has already indicated that he’ll call off Justice Department watchdogging of police departments, which could encourage more aggressive responses. He could ramp up the spying and data collecting on protest groups that the federal government has already been doing for decades. He could halt the federal funding that currently promotes community-oriented policing and begin funding more aggressive, reactionary policing.

I’ll stop there. I’d hate to give him any ideas. But this is clearly a priority. It’s one of the six policies he posted immediately after taking office.

As Trump has done all campaign, to demonstrate why we need a “law-and-order” administration, the White House then cherry-picks a year of crime data to paint a portrait of, as Trump put it in his speech today, “American carnage.” Of course, while it’s true that violent crime has gone up over the past two years, the increase was mostly driven by sharp spikes in a handful of large cities. Even with that increase, the overall violent crime rate is about where it was in 2012, and remains near historic lows. (By the way, the violent crime rate in Canada also began a slight increase in 2015, also after a long decline.) One other interesting statistic: Even with the spike in some large cities, of the 11 states with the highest violent crime rates, eight are Republican-led (Alaska, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, Florida), most with the kind of pro-police, law-and-order policies Trump supports. (Two of the other three — Nevada and New Mexico — are toss-up states.)

Thanks no doubt in large part to Trump, there is a perception that crime is getting worse. Last year, a Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans worried about crime was at a 15-year high. But Gallup has been tracking opinions about crime in other ways that are instructive for comparing fear of crime with actual crime.

In the most straightforward question, Gallup asks if Americans think crime in the U.S. gotten better or worse than the previous year. Year after year, most Americans always think things have gotten worse. Even as the crime rate reached historic lows in the late 2000s and early 2010s, 60 percent or more still thought things were getting worse. In the most recent poll, taken last October, the figure was at 70 percent.

But there’s another question that better measures of how crime affects people day to day:

Is there any area near where you live — that is, within a mile — where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?

The percentage answering “yes” to this question is always much lower. It usually ranges from the low 30s to the mid-40s. This gap — how safe Americans feel themselves vs. how safe they presume everyone else to be — is a pretty good indicator of how successful politicians, the media, and pop culture have been at ginning up unnecessary fear of crime. The gap is typically around 20 points. Since October 2015 — about the time Trump began demagoguing crime and pulling away from the GOP field in primary polling — the gap has been 35 points. That’s the highest it’s been since October of 1993.

One final note: As Trump’s administration grinds on, he’ll face a growing incentive to begin to massage the numbers the other way. He’ll want to show that his policies are working, and that crime is in retreat. I give it nine months before he’s touting a drop in crime, regardless of what the numbers say.