The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fact-checking PolitiFact’s fact-check of Trump’s ‘crime is rising’ claim

Donald Trump addresses supporters while flanked by his family in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. (European Pressphoto Agency)

On June 7, Donald Trump gave a speech in which he said (emphasis added):

Hard to imagine what’s happened to our country. America is being taken apart piece by piece . . . just rapidly auctioned off to the highest bidder. We’re broke. We’re broke. [Our debt is] $19 trillion, going quickly to $21 trillion. Our infrastructure is a disaster. Our schools are failing. Crime is rising. People are scared. The last thing we need is Hillary Clinton in the White House or an extension of the Obama disaster.

PolitiFact analyzed just the “crime is rising” claim; it went through some crime rate data and concluded:

If you look at overall violent and property crimes — the only categories that would seem inclusive enough to qualify as “crime,” as Trump put it — he is flat wrong. In fact, crime rates have been falling almost without fail for roughly a quarter-century. We rate his claim Pants on Fire.

But Sean Kennedy (American Enterprise Institute) pointed out on June 20 that the preliminary 2015 and early 2016 data suggest that violent crime is indeed rising. (I heard about this controversy while on a family trip, so I’m only getting to this now.)

The FBI’s preliminary 2015 data indicates that violent crime rose by 1.7 percent, with murder going up by 6.2 percent and rape going up by 1.1 percent or 9.6 percent, depending on the definition that is used. (Property crime continued to decline, falling in total by 4.2 percent.) And the increase appears to be continuing in early 2016. The Major Cities Chiefs Association reports — based on data from 63 reporting agencies — that violent crime in the first quarter of 2016 was up over the first quarter of 2015. In particular, homicide was up 9 percent in the reporting jurisdictions, and rape was up 4 percent. The AEI post has more. (Note that the yearly population growth in the United States is only about 0.7 percent, so not just the raw amount of violent crime but also the per-person violent crime rate is increasing.)

To be sure, this is limited to violent crime; the FBI data suggest that the aggregate crime rate continued to fall in 2015, because property crime fell, and there are many more property crimes than violent crimes. But, of course, people understandably worry more about violent crime than property crime, and complaints about rising crime may understandably be implicitly focusing on violent crimes.

I asked PolitiFact about this and got this answer:

We took a look at the trendline of crime over a period of years because Trump’s statement was quite broad, without qualifiers and part of comments that painted an overarching image of a nation in decline. . . .
The AEI analysis looks at preliminary data for 2015, which we did not look at because it is fact preliminary and subject to revision. Two experts we checked with before publication warned us that such data may not be indicative of a real trend. Also, more pertinently for our purposes, Trump didn’t say that crime was rising “recently” or “in recent months” or “over the past year.” We would have turned to that data if he had.
Finally, our fact-check acknowledged the point made in the AEI piece: that there are spikes in crime rates in some cities. However, that does not invalidate the overall trend of falling crime rates over the past 25 years.

An update to the PolitiFact post this morning says much the same, and ends with “We stand by our rating of Pants on Fire.”

I don’t find this a persuasive defense. If the original PolitiFact post had said something like, “The violent crime rate has plummeted in the past 25 years, and while it may have been increasing in the last year and a quarter, that could easily be an anomaly, and our data on that are just preliminary and may not be sound,” I would have thought it a sensible criticism of Trump’s assertion. We should indeed be cautious about data that are limited to one year, or (as with the 2016 first-quarter data) to a subset of jurisdictions. There is some degree of short-term variation within any long-term trend; data from a year and change aren’t really enough to tell whether 1) the long-term violent crime decline has been reversed, or 2) the year was just an anomaly and the decline will continue, or at worst, the violent crime rate will remain flat. For instance, the violent crime rate increased in 2005 and 2006, but those proved to be just small blips in an otherwise substantial decline.

But that’s not what the PolitiFact people said; they said “Pants on Fire.” They didn’t point to the data that suggests that Trump may have been literally accurate as to recent violent crime, even if one can plausibly argue that the 25-year trend is more important than the current 1.25-year possible upswing. Instead, they just categorically asserted that Trump outright lied on this point (unless there’s some nuance in “Pants on Fire” that I’m missing). They included a quote from an expert briefly nodding to there being “some spikes in homicide and shootings in certain cities,” but the quote was immediately followed by saying that “other cities continue to experience low rates.” And though a paraphrase from another expert briefly noted a “possible upward swing in the past year or so,” it said that any such upswing “wouldn’t show up in the data currently available.” There was nothing to acknowledge that some real, albeit preliminary, recent data does indeed suggest that violent crime is rising, though there may be reasons to discount that data.

This is not, I think, how fact-checkers should operate (and I say this as someone who is not a Trump supporter). And though today’s update at least mentions the “preliminary figures for 2015 that show crime rising,” it doesn’t acknowledge what strikes me as the quite misleading analysis in the original post. In any case, review the PolitiFact story and the data I link to above for yourselves and see what you think.