In his inaugural address President Trump offered a characteristically bleak vision of an America beset by “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” and he promised that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
The subject of crime has been a driving force of the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In a meeting with sheriffs at the White House earlier this month Trump declared, falsely, that “the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” A couple of days later new Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters that rising crime “is a dangerous and permanent trend.”
The problem with much of this tough talk on crime is that it's at odds with reality. The latest federal data on crime in the United States, recently collected by the Pew Research Center, shows that violent crime and property crime have fallen sharply over the past quarter century.
Looking at the official FBI counts of criminal incidents, violent crime (homicide, assault, armed robbery and rape) “fell 50% between 1993 and 2015, the most recent full year available,” according to Pew's analysis. A separate measure of crime victimization — a survey of crime victims undertaken by the Bureau of Justice Statistics — shows an even sharper drop of 77 percent over the same period.
The property crime (burglary, theft, arson) trends show similar movement. The FBI's numbers show a drop of 48 percent since 1993, while the BJS survey shows a 69 percent drop.
Now, there's an elephant in the room here — and that's the murder rate, which comes solely from the FBI (murder victims don't show up in the BJS numbers because deceased people can't respond to surveys). While the downward trend in property crimes continued in 2015, violent crimes have reversed course, according to FBI data — mainly due to an 11 percent increase in the murder rate.
Last year saw one of the largest year-over-year increases in the murder rate in decades, rising to 4.9 cases per 100,000 people, up from 4.5 per 100,000 in 2014.
On the surface a rising murder rate might appear to give some credence to claims of “American carnage” and the like. Trump and some of his supporters have discussed the 2015 murder numbers in near-apocalyptic terms. But it's important to keep the rise in context — a murder rate of 4.9 per 100,000 is a return to numbers not seen since ... 2009, in the early days of the Obama administration, when the rate was 5 per 100,000. Many experts who study crime trends aren't convinced that the year-over-year change is anything other than noise, or natural fluctuation in the data.
It's worth pointing out, too, that the FBI's preliminary numbers for the first half of 2016 suggest that incidents of violent crime, including murders, continued to rise last year. If the rate of increase in murders for the first half of 2016 held for the rest of the year, that would bring the national murder rate to around 5.2 cases per 100,000 people. That's right around where it stood at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
The rise in the number of murders in some jurisdictions in 2015 is concerning enough on its own terms. But whether that marks the beginning of a “permanent trend,” as the attorney general characterized it, is another question completely. “American carnage” is an inaccurate way to characterize a murder rate that remains at a low level not seen since the 1960s.
Pew's research shows that the sustained drop in overall crime is sharply at odds with Americans' perceptions. Crime has been falling for a quarter century, and for most of that time a majority of Americans have been convinced that it's actually rising.
The current administration's tough talk is likely to only make that gap, between perception of crime and the reality of it, grow wider.