Or, as he put it in 2018: “Before I took office less than two years ago, our nation was experiencing a historic surge in violent crime.”
Now that he’s been president for two years, Trump says violent crime is finally going down — for the “first time in a long while.”
Well, it’s easy to solve a problem when you completely misstate the facts. His campaign statements were false, just like his more recent claim about violent crime. Instead, there’s been barely a blip in long-term trends.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump seized on FBI data showing homicides were up 10.8 percent nationwide in 2015, which was the biggest percentage jump in a single year since 1971. But he repeatedly twisted it to say it was the “highest murder rate” in 45 years.
“Criminal justice experts warn against comparing crime trends from short periods of time, such as month over month or year over year,” we noted at the time. “An annual trend can show a trajectory of where the trend might be headed but still does not give a full picture. Many criminal justice experts say crime trends are determined over at least five years, preferably 10 or 20 years, of data.”
When Trump spoke to the joint conference of sheriffs and police chiefs, he used a few carefully parsed statistics that violate these basic rules.
“In the two years before my inauguration, violent crime increased by eight percent nationwide, and murders were up by more than 20 percent,” he said, adding: “Murders in America’s largest cities [in 2017] dropped by six percent compared to 2016.”
But zoom out a bit and you see that the president is claiming credit for long-term trends.
Violent crimes include murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
In 1991, the nation’s violent crime rate peaked at 758 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. Since that point, violent crime across the country has declined. In fact, in 2015, the violent crime rate was lower than it has been in almost 45 years, and lower than it has been for most of the 2000s save for 2013 and 2014. The violent crime rate increased in 2016, but it was still lower than any year between 1970 and 2013. And while Trump brags about the rate in 2017, the rate was not significantly different than 2016 — a decline of less than one percent.
In other words, this is exactly the statistical noise that researchers warned about in 2016. There may have been a one- or two-year increase, but so far the long-term trend appears to be continuing.
The Congressional Research Service, in a June 2018 report, noted the increase in crime rates in 2015 and 2016 and said: “Violent crime rates, even after accounting for the recent increases, remain near historical lows … While there were increases in violent crime (particularly homicides) in some cities, these increases are not indicative of a sweeping national crime wave.”
The report said that the recent spike reflected a pattern seen before: “Even though violent crime and homicide rates have generally declined since the early 1990s, there were years when either one or both increased, before resuming the long-term decline in subsequent years. For example, the national violent crime rate increased from 2004 to 2005 and again from 2005 to 2006 before declining nearly every year thereafter.”
The murder rate was Trump’s particular focus during the president campaign. Note that, when speaking to the conference, he touted a six percent decline in the rate “in America’s largest cities.” That parsing was necessary because the overall murder rate has barely changed under Trump, going from 5.4 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 5.3 in 2017, or a decline of 1.4 percent. Like the 2016 rate, the 2017 murder rate was the highest since 2008 — but it’s still better than any year between 1965 and 2009.
There’s another survey — an annual survey of more than 90,000 households conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics — which asks Americans whether they have been victims of crime. But that survey simply reaffirms the FBI data. “Using the FBI numbers, the violent crime rate fell 49 percent between 1993 and 2017,” said a Pew Research Study note. “Using the BJS data, the rate fell 74 percent during that span.”
In other words, the long-term trends appear to be holding, and, contrary to Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the United States was not in the middle of a crime wave before he took office. Since 1991, the murder rate has generally gone down, accounting for yearly fluctuations.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Trump tends to act as if everything started anew when he became president. The crime rate is something largely beyond a president’s control, at least in the short term, reflecting societal, economic and demographic factors. There’s been a small decline — as we suggested was probable in 2016 — but it’s simply false to claim it’s “the first time in a long while.”
The last time was as recently as 2014, when Trump was in his final season as the host of “The Apprentice.” He earns Four Pinocchios.
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